Milan Mladenović’s street: does a Belgrade alternative rocker belong to Zagreb’s cultural heritage?

This post originally appeared at the UCL SSEES Research Blog.

In 1990, Milan Mladenović and the rock band he fronted, Ekaterina Velika, was part of a vibrant cultural scene – the Yugoslav ‘new wave’ – that connected large cities throughout former Yugoslavia. Bands and their fans regularly visited the major metropolitan centres of Yugoslavia’s six republics as routinely, taking their mobility for granted.

In 1992, when the route between Zagreb and Belgrade had become a notional line crossing an international border, a front line and a UN protected area, Mladenović was among eight musicians from Belgrade alternative rock bands (EKV, Električni Orgazam and Partibrejkers) who formed a supergroup called Rimtutituki in support of the Serbian movement to resist conscription. Their one recorded song, Slušaj vamo (Listen here), is probably the most significant protest song of the Yugoslav conflict:

Two and a half years later, in 1994, Mladenović was dead at the age of 36. He would be remembered as a musician who had refused to be co-opted by nationalist politics, and as part of a music scene that had to be re-situated within new wartime and post-war forms of cultural memory.

Since the break-up of Yugoslavia, the music of Mladenović and his counterparts in the Yugoslav new wave – novi val in Croatian, novi talas in Serbian – has formed part of a complex of everyday cultural references turned identity markers. The new-wave scene was irreducible to any republic, future nation-state, or ethno-national culture. Even as it played on and fixed images of particular cities and their urban ‘asphalt’, mobility around the country gave it meaning. Novi val and novi talas, with that mobility and that country gone, would come to stand for a moment and a milieu where the difference between those who said ‘novi val’ and those who said ‘novi talas’ was of no significance.

The new wave shouldn’t be mythologised too much. It appealed to precisely the people who would have most ability to make their cultural memories visible – urban writers, musicians, film-makers. Maybe it’s difficult to say that it ‘pervaded’ Yugoslavia, as such; rather, it reflected a particular social stratum. If the USA proverbially has its ‘flyover’ states, disregarded by a metropolitan elite, Yugoslavia similarly had its ‘drive-past’ city peripheries, small towns and villages. The history of musical cultures during after Yugoslavia is more complex than this facet.

From the point of view of Croatian presidential nationalism in the 1990s, however, this facet was damaging enough. The 1990s Croatian state and Franjo Tudjman’s political party the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) strove to deepen and make permanent the cultural separation between Croatia and three political opposites to whom nationalists believed that Croatia had been subjugated: Communism, Serbdom, and Yugoslavia. Notions of Croatia as a modern European nation-state and Yugoslavia as an artificial, despotic invention of the Serbs connected the rejection of all three.

In music policy, implemented through the state broadcaster, the aim of separation was pursued by silencing the most obviously alien music – the music of Serbs and often even Bosniaks – and by a number of faltering efforts to re-label the unfortunate eastern tendencies in Croatian music that had resulted from the territory’s complex cultural history. The self-consciously urban music of Mladenović and other new-wave musicians from Serbia, on the other hand, was unsuitable in the state-driven public culture of 1990s Croatia not because of how it sounded but because of who its creators were: bands and songs from Belgrade, and their inconvenient prominence in the personal memories of many people in Croatia, were a reminder that the republics could not have been as culturally separate as all that.

The Croatian Musicians’ Union (HGU) under its mid-1990s leadership enforced a nationalist protectionism that mirrored, even exceeded, the exclusion of Serbian music from the public airwaves. Most Serbian and Croatian alternative rock musicians were committed to continuing their cultural connections despite the military and diplomatic hostility of their states; indeed, the very idea of the ‘alternativa’ in post-Yugoslavia incorporates a resistance to ethno-nationalism as well as a positive identification with cosmopolitan and subcultural tastes. Usually, therefore, it was rockers who bore the brunt of HGU disapproval for actions that the head of the organisation considered collaboration with the enemy. One Croatian band, Veliki Bijeli Slon, was suspended from HGU for three years. Their offence was to have performed songs by Ekaterina Velika at the launch of a rock encyclopedia – songs of a band whose frontman had been among the most visible faces of the Serbian movement to evade conscription and resist the war.

Under a government that had renamed Croatian streets on taking office in order to erase Serbian historical and cultural figures from the public landscape, would it have been imaginable that a street in the Zagreb of 2012, two decades after the Croatian state had gained international recognition, could have been named after Milan Mladenović?

The initiative to name a street after Mladenović has been in place since 2011, when his name was added to a pool kept by the Zagreb Committee for Naming Neighbourhoods, Streets and Squares. One street in the Jakuševec neighbourhood (a peripheral area of Novi Zagreb, the Yugoslav-era expansion of the city) is now to be named after Mladenović, alongside others with the names of famous Croatian musicians from past decades, such as the jazz composer Boško Petrović or the rock’n’roll singer Karlo Metikoš.

Mladenović is deservedly an icon in the former Yugoslav, post-Yugoslav cultural area. The impact of his personal activism, and some retrospective meanings of the new wave today, are summed up in this personal memory from the Bosnian writer Faruk Šehić:

 I bought my first EKV tape in Bihać, the Ljubav album. I listened to it until the colours on the video ran out. 1989 was the first and last time I saw them live, at the basketball arena on Gripe, in Split, as a sailor in the Yugoslav Navy, when they were promoting their album Samo par godina za nas. During the war, we were delighted by the fact that Milan Mladenović had refused to visit Banja Luka, because he did not want to perform in a city where they were destroying mosques. That gave us faith that there were still normal people in the world, that we were not alone and isolated.

And if the HDZ representatives on the Zagreb city assembly are trying to dispute the popularity of Mladenović as a reason why he should not be commemorated with a street, there’s clearly at least some contestation of public memory taking place.

Yet at the same time, proving that Mladenović deserves a place in Croatian cultural memory feels a little like yesterday’s battle. Since the mid-2000s, alternative rock from other Yugoslav republics, including Serbia, has gradually been normalised as part of the cultural heritage of urban Croatia. In 1997, it would have been impossible to conceive of Partibrejkers headlining a rock festival in Zagreb; ten years later, there Partibrejkers were, without the Croatian media constructing any kind of moral panic. It’s evidence that the cultural policy of Tudjman’s Croatia wasn’t able to override the inherent ambiguity of origins that characterises almost any musical movement in south-east Europe. Mladenović’s street is part of this evidence, even though Jakuševec– also the site of the Hrelić flea market and the municipal landfill – is spatially and conceptually far from the city centre.

Today, the marginalisation of Serbian music in Croatia is based on genre more than on sheer nationality. Alternative rock bands, and the singer-songwriter Djordje Balašević, now perform in Croatia without controversy, but the same can’t be said for Serbian-produced pop-folk (known to most Croatians who don’t listen to it by a term from 1990s Serbia, ‘turbo folk’). Lepa Brena, the iconic pop-folk star of 1980s Yugoslavia, broke the mould in 2009 by performing at the Zagreb Arena, but this is still a long way outside the norm.

There are many reasons for various social groups in Croatia to treat pop-folk as an unwelcome Other (and the reasons can even intersect). Sometimes it’s to do with a symbolic geopolitics that reads pop-folk as the chief symbol of a Balkan sphere from which Croatia ‘ought’ to be distanced. But sometimes it’s because pop-folk has also been constructed as the antithesis of alternativa: as intellect-free music for the masses, set against the artistry and poetry of rock and hip-hop culture.  To conceive of naming a Zagreb street after a pop-folk equivalent of Mladenović – Brena, let’s say – would seem like a laughable category error; but so would giving the same honour to any equivalent of Brena from Croatia.

Celebrating Mladenović this way shows that Croatian cultural identity is more complex than the 1990s state-driven vision allowed for. In this sense, it’s welcome. But, as initiatives within a city council’s power go, is it what would most reflect the spirit of Mladenović’s own life? The naming of public space is certainly culturally important, but so are the ways that public space is used, funded and made available. Ensuring the financial stability of clubs and rehearsal spaces for less commercial musicians – a problem that Zagreb has struggled with since the privatisation of spaces owned by the socialist state – would arguably do more to keep a practical legacy of the Yugoslav new wave alive.

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