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

Turbofolk and Nationalism

            Turbofolk has an extensive history throughout the Balkan region. It is a mixture of cultures representative of the region’s history with various empires and ethnic diversity. The sound of Turbofolk encompasses the trills of what is traditional ornamental music but also incorporates more folk and modern sounds. In this essay, I will be focusing my analysis of Turbofolk on how it was used as a tool to stoke the fire of and mirror nationalism in both Croatia and Serbia. I will do this by analyzing the lyrics, music videos, cinema, and Turbofolk stars. From my analysis, I gathered that Turbofolk’s relationship with nationalism changes over a rather short period of time. It was used as a unifier during the disintegration of Yugoslavia and then developed into nationalism for Serbia and Croatia. However, Turbofolk develop quite differently in these two countries due to the origins of the genre.
          Turbofolk became an agent of nationalism in order to unite Yugoslavia in the midst of fraught relations. However, its role changed over time and Turbofolk became largely attributed to Serbia and Serbian culture. To this day, “it remains the only shared culture in the region” (Gordy 1999), but even then, it is heavily skewed towards Serbia and it is not viewed universally in the same light. Because of the tensions within Yugoslavia, the individual countries tried their best to differentiate themselves from one another, leaving Turbofolk as the only shared culture in the region not entirely monopolized by one country or another. I would also like to add onto that existing literature by examining the Croatian reaction and perception of Turbofolk. This is worth considering because there seems to be a kind of nationalist hierarchy if you will, where Yugoslav nationalism existed for a short period, and simultaneously nationalism for the countries in former Yugoslavia. However, that nationalism continued to grow as tensions rose to a peak at the break-up of Yugoslavia. By examining Croatia alongside Serbia, looking at the Turbofolk singers that were famous from Croatia and the similarities and differences of their Turbofolk versus Serbia’s, we can have a better and deeper understanding of the cultures during this period and how nationalism is mirrored in Turbofolk.
          During the time period that Turbofolk was coming into the mainstream, (1960s through the 1990s) Turbofolk was and still is considered to be music for the working-class. Movies that contain Turbofolk display this stereotype heavily, with women singing to men in a sexual nature and men fighting each other in bars. This was portrayed in the Black Wave Cinema movement. Movies such as “I Even Met a Happy Gypsy” exemplify how Turbofolk is perceived by the general public. Its characters consist of a kafana singer (Lenče) and her former lover (Bora) who gets into a knife fight. Just from the description of these two characters alone, you get an image of the stereotype of the people who listened to and performed Turbofolk. However, this film and others belonging to the Black Wave Cinema movement are indicative of the strife going on in what is now former Yugoslavia. What is important to understand about Turbofolk is that the lyrics to songs aren’t always overtly nationalist, but they align with nationalist beliefs. For example, portraying strict gender roles where women are scantily clad and cater to the will of her man or the idea that she is lonely without one are tied to nationalist beliefs. The country is heavily romanticized, painting it and its people in a solely positive light.
          The origins of Turbofolk in Serbia are different than those in Croatia because it emerged largely from, “the conditions of the Solobodan Milošević regime, whether it is seen as imposed by the state-owned media’s official favour or as enabled by a sudden lack of state control over the entertainment market” (Baker 2007). However, it is still used as a tool to further Serbian nationalism. In Lepa Brena’s music video for “Jugoslovenka” it shows images of the Serbian countryside which overly romanticizes the countryside for the purposes of instilling Serbian nationalism into the viewer. The feeling that they are proud of and are a part of that countryside in the video paired with the Serbian flags waving in the background creates an image of Serbia that makes Serbians feel happy to be Serbian. As for the lyrics, the ones that are most striking are, “My eyes are the Adriatic Sea/my hair is Panonian/wheat wistful is my Slavic soul/I’m a Yugoslavian woman” (Lepa Brena 1989). The use of wheat as a description of her hair pulls in the working-class stereotype that is given to Turbofolk. The metaphor about the wheat being Lepa Brena’s hair embodies working class people who are out picking it in the countryside or see it in the countryside where they live. What is really striking is that she says she is Yugoslavian. She was a Yugoslav star and arguably the only one still not seen as ‘Serbian’ but as Yugoslav. This is important because of the time period. Had she grown in popularity post break-up of Yugoslavia, she may have been deemed a ‘Bosnian’ or ‘Serbian’ instead. The collective unification around Turbofolk and Yugoslavia can be seen here with both Severina in Croatia and with Lepa Brena in Serbia. Their lyrics say they support Yugoslavia, but their imagery in their music videos focus more on their country’s nationalism. So, Turbofolk was used for both Yugoslav nationalism and for each country’s own nationalism. It’s not about the music itself in terms of sound per say, but it is the connotation behind the word Turbofolk and the audience of the genre that makes it an extremely effective tool to foster nationalist tendencies in these countries.
           In Croatia, Turbofolk is heavily othered as a way to purify the Croatian culture and music style. This is a result of the tensions between Croatia and Serbia; they wanted to create or popularize a type of music to be a strictly Croatian aspect of culture, regardless of its roots. According to Catherine Baker, “a Croatian definition of Turbofolk is difficult to come by, yet the term received increasing media usage as an adjectival description of music performed by Serbian singers, music made in Croatia, or music played in bars/clubs…” (Baker 2007). Croatian nationalists used Turbofolk to assert Croatian superiority and independence. An example of this is Severina’s song and music video “Croatian Woman”. The music video is heavily focused on romanticizing Croatia. The Croatian flag is flown in the background and the dancers, including Severina, are dressed in military uniforms. This implies that it is cool and sexy to be fighting for Croatia. The use of military as a source of pride is a traditionally nationalist move. As for the lyrical content, Severina is blatantly praising the Croatian government, “I am transparent like government primes I rule my territory sovereignly independent, I hold everything in my ‘hand’ I don’t fall in front of the collective euphoria” (Severina 2004). In this quote you can see she isn’t ashamed to support the government. Special attention should be focused on the last phrase ‘I don’t fall in front of the collective eurphoria’. One can infer the collective euphoria is referring to Yugoslavia. These lyrics further emphasize the growing Croatian nationalism at the time that is spread through the use of Turbofolk. Her role as a Croatian Turbofolk star shows the way nationalism is promulgated through Turbofolk in Croatia.
          Once Yugoslavia disintegrates in the 1990s, Turbofolk’s relationship with nationalism changes and becomes quite murky. The connotations and the cultural memory of Turbofolk may be the same, but the way nationalism operates and manifests itself in Turbofolk is less political than it was before. A great example of this shift to an apolitical style would be Ceca. Ceca is a Serbian Turbofolk star who has had sustained popularity since her rise to fame in the late 1980s. Her lyrics have much more to do with love and lust than with explicit forms of nationalism. In her song “Babaroga” she sings about love and desire, “I want true love’s wonders/I want forever lasting dreams and to wake up in someone’s arms” (Ceca 1991). This shows the shift in tone and content of Turbofolk after the breakup of Yugoslavia. While it is true this emphasis on gender constructs existed since the beginnings of Turbofolk, it was previously existent alongside both subtle and direct appeals to nationalist sentiments, rather than on its own. The change apolitical in nature helps demonstrate how Turbofolk as an agent of nationalism has changed over time.
          In Croatia, Turbofolk didn’t follow the same path as Serbia. As mentioned earlier in this essay, Croatia tried to separate itself from the implications of Turbofolk. So, in the 1990s they have a reaction to what is going on politically with the Homeland War. This reaction is shown with the Hrvatski or the Croatian Band Aid. This was a group of Croatia’s leading artists who produced the song “Moja domovina” (“My Homeland”). They wrote this song, “with the purpose of mobilizing Croatians behind the war effort to promote the Croatian cause abroad” (Vuletic 2011). Croatia was fighting still on their homeland and they needed to bring in patriotic themes in order for the people to get behind the war, and by using popular music, the general public would be exposed to those themes. Patriotism can serve as nationalism in some contexts, but in this instance, it doesn’t appear to have a nationalist intent. Instead, it is more of a unification behind a cause. Additionally, we see the rise of Cro-Dance as a reaction to Turbofolk’s success in Serbia. Cro-Dance was used to give the Croatians a distinct musical identity, “The new standards aimed to distinguish Croatian from other variants of Yugoslavia’s official polycentric language (Serbo-Croatian) and thereby to confirm Croatia as a fully developed nation” (Baker 2013). This gave Croatians their own music that wasn’t tied to Serbia and was uniquely their own. Cro-Dance helped foster Croatian nationalism because it proved their development as a nation.
           Turbofolk and its relationship with nationalism, whether it be Yugoslav, Serbian or Croatian nationalism, changed over the course of a few decades. It was used to unite Yugoslavia and promote Yugoslav nationalism, but once that failed, it developed into nationalism for Serbia and Croatia specifically. Turbofolk began with neo folk and Black Wave Cinema and turned into an apolitical pop-folk genre that we see Ceca embrace today. Croatians fought to protect their national identity and pull away as much as possible from the Turbofolk sounds that are typically associated with Serbia. Serbians were reminded through Turbofolk to love and support their country with images of a romanticized Serbian countryside which instilled nationalism in a tumultuous time. Croatians sang Turbofolk songs but tried to make them their own and focused more on the nationalist values such as the role of women and how they should be objects that cater to men’s affections. Turbofolk’s journey is still on going, and although the collective memory of Yugoslav nationalism is still connected to Turbofolk, Turbofolk has largely become apolitical in nature post break-up of Yugoslavia.

Baker, Catherine, et al. The Concept of Turbofolk in Croatia: Inclusion/Exclusion in the Construction of National Musical identity1.
Baker, Catherine. “Language, Cultural Space and Meaning in the Phenomenon of ‘Cro-Dance?” Ethnologie Française, vol. 43, no. 2, 2013, p. 313., doi:10.3917/ethn.132.0313.
Brena, Lepa. YouTube, YouTube, 6 Mar. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsKn5KX6XnU.
Cvoro, Uros. “Remember the Nineties?: Turbo-Folk as the Vanishing Mediator of Nationalism.” Cultural Politics, Duke University Press, 17 Apr. 2012, muse.jhu.edu/article/472211/pdf.
Hrvatski Band Aid. YouTube, YouTube, 15 Oct. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3cBgIAzvXw.
Petrovic, Aleksandar, director. I Even Met a Happy Gypsy. 1967.
Severina. YouTube, YouTube, 17 Jan. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PWImqyIcQw.
Vuletic, Dean. “The Silent Republic: Popular Music and Nationalism in Socialist Croatia.” European University Institute, Max Weber Programme, 2011.


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