Old Beats, New Verses: 21 Newly Composed Essays on Turbofolk

Popular Music as a Popular Way to Assert a Unique Croatian Identity

For quite some time Croatia has been attempting to place itself in the West and avoid being associated with its Eastern neighbors, especially Serbia. A great example of how Croatia has attempted to do this can be seen in the music produced and popularized there, as recent popular music in Croatia is meant to be distinct from Serbian music, and uses certain strategies to distinguish itself. To gauge the success that Croatian music has had in distancing itself from Serbian music, a few themes should be analyzed. An examination of some of the popular musical genres in Croatia is informative, as it allows one to see different methods that have been utilized to distinguish Croatian music from music produced further east. An analysis of the controversy surrounding the song performed by Severina at the 2006 Eurovision competition is also helpful, as it highlights that not all popular music in Croatia is able to differentiate itself from Serbian music, and that perception of popular music in Serbia and Croatia can be quite similar. Finally, a comparison of current music by the Serbian turbofolk star Lepa Brena and the aforementioned Croatian star Severina further highlights similarities between popular music produced in each country, which indicates that efforts to present Croatian music as unique have not been completely successful.

One of the types of popular music in Croatia that strove to distance itself from eastern influences is cro-dance. It was most popular from 1993-1998 and has been described as “a localisation of electronic pop music from northwest Europe which, unusually for Croatia, used English and Croatian lyrics” (Baker, “Language, Cultural Space” 313-315). The typical song includes both sung vocals and rap, and while the singing is usually done in Croatian, the rap sections are commonly performed in English (Baker, “Language, Cultural Space” 316). Based on this description of cro-dance, one can surmise that it was very similar to popular music in the West at the time, as it contained hip-hop elements and used the English language. This indicates that cro-dance was meant to convey that Croatia and its culture were in close alignment with the West. Another form of popular music, which some refer to as zabavna, is supposedly based on Serbian or Bosnian newly composed folk music that has been repackaged in a form that is acceptable to Croatian audiences (Baker, “When Seve Met Bregović” 742). Both types of music are supposed to align with Croatian identity, but while cro-dance is more heavily influenced by western music and lacks noticeable eastern influences, zabavna music emphasizes the influence of folk elements that are supposedly unique to Croatia. Both genres also strive to distinguish themselves through avoidance of elements commonly associated with eastern music.

The different ways these two genres attempt to distinguish themselves from eastern music can be seen in their music videos. To see an example of cro-dance, one can watch the music video for the song “Tek Je 12 Sati” by ET (Electro Team), which includes the typical format of sung vocals in Croatian that are accompanied by a rap line in English. The music video instills the viewer with the image of Croatia as a westernized country, as the clothing worn by the performers in the video includes fashionable suits and dresses. Furthermore, the clothing worn by the rappers is very similar to clothing worn by Western hip-hop artists. Thus, cro-dance is able to distance itself from the East by highlighting how similar it is to western music. With regards to zabavna, the music video for the song “Hrvatica” by Severina, who is one of the most well-known Croatian stars, is a good example. Like “Tek Je 12 Sati”, this song includes singing and rapping, but both parts are performed in Croatian. Also, “Hrvatica” has much more of a “folky” feel to it with what sounds like accordion and other more traditional instruments woven into the background. Perhaps the biggest contrast is that while the visuals in the ET song align it with the international community, “Hrvatica” is nationalistic (and controversial), as it contains military-style choreography and some claim that there are embedded references to the Ustaša (Baker, “When Seve Met Bregović” 742). In contrast to cro-dance, zabavna seems to focus more on traditional instrumentation and visuals in order to emphasize Croatia’s unique history. Thus, instead of relying on western symbolism, it focuses on uniquely Croatian elements to distance itself from music produced further east.

Croatian popular music in general has also highlighted linguistic differences and differences in traditional clothing worn during performances to distinguish itself. The ijekavica/ekavica contrast is one of the ways that the Serbian and Croatian language are differentiated, and since ijekavica is the Croatian variant, they avoid ekavica in their music (Baker, “When Seve Met Bregović” 747). This likely signifies that they want to emphasize both the uniqueness of their language and their musical productions. Clothing style worn by performers has also been used to highlight that Croatian traditions, and by extension its music, are distinct from anything found in Serbia. In 2004, the Serbian singer Jokismović placed second at the annual Eurovision competition with his “ethno” folk song and likely influenced the Croatian singer Novković’s 2005 Eurovision performance (Baker, “When Seve Met Bregović” 745). Notably, while Jokismović’s outfit was more pastoral,Novković’s was more urban, which could be seen as an effort to highlight the fact that Croatia and Serbia have distinct pasts (Baker, “When Seve Met Bregović” 746). If one examines the images below, they will clearly see the difference in the style of clothing each performer wore. Their music may have sounded similar since both contained folk elements, but the Croatian contestant made sure to emphasize through his clothing choice that Croatian and Serbian history are not one and the same, which could be intended to encourage the viewer to also differentiate the styles of music performed even if they do sound similar.
An example of a very famous Croatian star whose music has been perceived as sounding Serbian, with specific comparisons to turbofolk, is the aforementioned Severina. Severina emerged in the 1990s with her hit “Dalmatian Girl”, and since then she and the occasional controversies surrounding her have become very well known throughout the Balkans (Beronja). In fact, the Croatian newspaper Nacional named her one of the 100 most influential Croatians in 2006 (Nacionalova redakcija), and an article in Croatia Week published in 2017 noted that one of the players for Manchester United in England often listened to her song “Uno Momento” before matches (“Manchester United Stars”), which indicates that she has some international notoriety as well. Before ever gracing the playlist of this professional football player though, Severina had received negative publicity due to the circulation of a sex tape with her in it, and due to her 2006 participation in Eurovision (Baker, “When Seve Met Bregović” 741-742).

The 2006 Eurovision controversy allows for comparison of how zabavna and turbofolk have been vilified for similar reasons in their respective countries, and thus deserves more attention. Overall, Severina’s performance of the song “Moja Štikla” at the 2006 Eurovision competition was controversial in Croatia for a couple of reasons. First of all, Goran Bregović, who was previously in the Yugoslav band Bijelo Dugme (Baker, “When Seve Met Bregović” 746), arranged the piece, and this was controversial because although he is from Sarajevo, the Croatian media often characterizes him as Serbian (741). This clearly highlights the fact that popular culture in Croatia was not supposed to have any influences that could be perceived as Serbian. Interestingly, turbofolk has been criticized in Serbia for sounding too Balkan and for its Eastern, i.e. Turkish, elements (Gordy 152-153). There is more than a little irony in the fact that popular music in Croatia is criticized for sounding too eastern and too much like turbofolk, which itself has been criticized for eastern influences. This indicates that both countries share a common goal, which is to distance themselves from the East. To do this they utilize the same strategy, which involves capitalizing on how different music is in countries just to the east. Severina’s music and turbofolk have both also been called inauthentic by critics. In the case of Severina and “Moja Štikla”, many “authentic” folk performers in Croatia refused to acknowledge that the song was authentic, with some even calling it turbofolk (Baker, “When Seve Met Bregović” 748). Turbofolk has also received criticism from those who perceive it as impure and as competition to more traditional Serbian folk (Gordy 151-152). Again, Croatian popular music is being called inauthentic for sounding too much like Serbian music, which itself it criticized for not being truly Serbian. This indicates that national attitudes, and not the music itself is really the problem. In other words, people are so caught up in the ideas of the purity and/or superiority of their nation that they cannot stand anything that could contain elements from outside of it, especially if those elements come from the East.


Focusing again on the controversy surrounding “Moja Štikla”, it is clear that it stemmed from the fact that the song was perceived as sounding too similar to Serbian turbofolk. Severina herself has been compared to the turbofolk star Lepa Brena (Baker, “When Seve Met Bregović” 743), which indicates that her music in general is perceived as similar to turbofolk. If one compares recent works by these artists, such as Lepa Brena’s 2018 hit “Sve Smo Mi Krive” and Severina’s 2019 song “Mrtav Bez Mene”, they will find that both sound more like modern western music than Croatian or Serbian folk. Both songs, but Brena’s in particular, rely heavily upon electronic mixing and sound like music that would be popular in clubs. Interestingly, both songs seem to contain references to infidelity, with Severina’s focused on revenge and Brena’s having more of a resigned tone. It should be noted that Brena and Severina have also produced songs that do not sound anything alike, and that their more “folky” songs definitely contain distinctive elements. However, the similarities present in some of their works, along with the fact that in 2006 Severina described one of her songs as similar to turbofolk (Baker, “When Seve Met Bregović” 754), indicates that the musical boundaries Croatia has tried to put in place are porous. Moreover, it makes it difficult to argue that pop music in Croatia and Serbia are completely distinct. Not only do they sound similar to each other, but they also sound very similar to western music.

As can be seen, Croatia has attempted to produce music that does not fall into the same category as music produced in Serbia, which is likely part of a larger effort to distance the whole country from its Eastern neighbor. While music producers have used different methods to distinguish their works, such as incorporating western elements or focusing on uniquely Croatian ones, not all Croatian music is perceived as different from certain types of Serbian popular music, as exemplified in the controversy surrounding Severina’s 2006 Eurovision song choice. Further commonalities between the music produced in each country can be seen through a comparison of popular music produced in each one. In fact, as time goes on it seems that there are fewer differences between the music produced in each country, which may symbolize an easing of tensions between Serbia and Croatia.

                                                                                   Works Cited
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“Manchester United Stars Reveal Favourite Songs – One Croatian Hit on List.” Croatia Week, 5 Feb. 2017, www.croatiaweek.com/manchester-united-stars-reveal-favourite-songs-one-croatian-hit-on-list/.

Nacionalova redakcija. “100 Najutjecajnijih Hrvata.” Nacional, 15 May 2006, arhiva.nacional.hr/clanak/25186/100-najutjecajnijih-hrvata.

“SEVERINA - HRVATICA (OFFICIAL VIDEO) (SEVERGREEN 2004.).” YouTube, Severina, 17 Jan. 2017, youtu.be/0PWImqyIcQw.

“Severina - Moja Šštikla (Croatia) 2006 Final.” Performance by Severina, YouTube, Eurovision Song Contest, 17 Apr. 2013, youtu.be/hGp3YfEj_GY.

Vorel, Martin. “Croatian Flag.” Libreshot, Martin Vorel, 1 Nov. 2017, libreshot.com/croatian-flag/.


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