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A Web Magazine of Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Closing Time in Sarajevo

Similarly to the decade prior to the October Revolution in Russia, the last ten years before the breakout of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia (1991-1995) was the time of a unique cultural and artistic boom. Most critics would agree that the leading art form in that Balkan "swan song" belonged to rock-and-roll. Quite a few bands from the two most prominent cultural centers, Zagreb (Azra, Film, Prljavo kazalište) and Belgrade (Električni orgazam, Riblja čorba, Idoli) reached enviable popularity across the entire nation during the 1980s, but the central position, ideologically as well as geographically, belonged to Sarajevo, that melting pot of South Slavic nations and religions, and the epitome of Tito's communist, non-aligned project. Imported from the West, Yugoslav rock mostly echoed the sounds of U2, the Rolling Stones, Duran Duran, the Velvet Underground. The Sarajevo music scene, nevertheless, beget perhaps the only authentic movement in the region: New Primitivism.

The idea behind New Primitivism was mainly created by the manager of the band Elvis J. Kurtović and His Meteors and later Blue Orchestra (Plavi Orkestar), Malcolm Muharem (Goran Marić), but it was most visibly carried out by the band Zabranjeno Pušenje and the comedy troupe Nadrealisti (Surrealists). All were part of the same wide group of friends born in the early 1960s, most of whom grew up in Koševo, an ethnically mixed high-rise residential project on the sloping outskirts of the Bosnian capital. Nadrealisti won over the local radio, then the nation-wide TV audiences with their humor based on irreverence and absurdity. They parodied the backwardness of the multi-ethnic central Yugoslav republic, the characteristic urban Sarajevo accent with a discernible Turkish lexical legacy, their love for football, and the political bickering between the republics after Tito's death. Zabranjeno Pušenje achieved greatest success with songs about poor workers, pensioners, petty delinquents and other people from the margins of the society. In this respect, their orientation corresponds with the poetics of Emir Kusturica, the latter bassist of the group, who celebrated gypsies and other anti-heroes in his award-winning films. The person who headed both the comedy troupe (together with Branko Djurić-Djuro) and the band, as its singer and song co-writer, was Dr. Nele Karajlić (born as Nenad Janković), who memorably ignited the concert stages with his famous exhibitionism and maniacal antics.

Considering the legendary status of his persona and the aura still surrounding the context that brought him to the fore, it is no wonder Karajlić's turn to literature drew such an interest. His autobiography, or a tale about the city and the epoch that made him into a star adequately dubbed Closing Time in Sarajevo (Fajront u Sarajevu) sold 20.000 copies in the first week after its appearance, an unprecedented feat in such a small market like Serbia. Replete with political commentary and expressive in its worldview, this tale of growing up in bliss before a catastrophe is bound to satisfy the rock star's former and present fans.

In his book Shake, Rattle and Roll: Yugoslav Rock Music and the Poetics of Social Critique, Dalibor Mišina argues that the driving force behind the music of commitment was, although critical, a fundamentally constructive disposition towards the progressive ideal of socialist Yugoslavia (2013, 17). "Brotherhood and Unity", vehemently  promoted by the president of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980) during his entire reign, represented for Karajlić and his cohorts a cradle of security and carelessness. Most Sarajevans did not suspect that the propaganda used to cover up WWII crimes and promote new nations in the country represented a folding screen placed in front of a powder keg bound to blow up after Marshall Tito's death and the loosening of the screws in the system based on tight media and secrete police control. Even though Karajlić's relationship with Tito is remembered through an infamous affair, law suit and denigration in the media, the singer/comedian-turned-writer recognizes the importance of the Tito cult in his life, and dedicates a considerable space in the book to this phenomenon. After a 1984 concert in Rijeka at which he declared to the audience, "Marshall croaked... I mean the amplifier", Zabranjeno Pušenje was immediately taken off radio charts and rock magazine covers. The statement uttered in full consciousness proved to be more of an act of defiance and rebelliousness than disdain for the deceased leader; he even openly declares his love for Tito. After describing the idyllic scene of his acceptance to the communist youth organization that coincided with the first snow, which he adored, Karajlić declares: "So, how can then a man not love Tito?" (228). In the present context, this sentence probably deliberately smacks of irony, but the author tries his best to persuade us of the sincerity of his feelings.

Top lista Nadrealista (Surrealist Hit Parade) started out as a radio show in Sarajevo in 1981, but turned into an extremely popular TV show (1st series - 1984, 2nd series - 1989, 3rd series - 1991). Karajlić describes the birth of the concept, the chemistry and routine among the members, the invitation to continue the show on TV, and the ensuing reaction to the great popularity. The rapturous reception of a sketch about a silly, made-up game, called Hrkljuš, and the character of a dressed-up woman, Minka, was most surprising (316-17, 321-22). The unexpectedness of this success stimulated Karajlić to ruminate about the fleeting and seemingly arbitrary nature of a master piece. In retrospect, the astonishing approval of the series probably lies in the total spontaneity of its protagonists and the nonchalant irony of the kids brought up in an atmosphere of comfort and ease now facing inevitable instability and fratricide. The last series, broadcast at the beginning of the civil conflict in Croatia, featured a few sketches about the war, like the one about a wall dividing Sarajevo, which gave the troupe a lasting reputation of being prophetic.

Suddenly becoming a Serb in a place increasingly oriented toward Islam caught Karajlić, a Yugoslav-oriented young man, by surprise. The band and the troupe had to painfully and reluctantly discover each others' nationality, and those turned out to be diverse. Bosnians of mixed national origin had to choose sides. The ethnic mixture that was once an asset now became not only a frailty, but also a fatal danger. The majority dispersed in various directions; Karajlić fled to Belgrade with his wife and infant daughter only three days before the start of violence. In an attempt to explain the origins of the conflict, he spends quite a few pages contrasting socialism and capitalism, revealing his leftist tendencies, showing how ethnicity and faith have not reached the list of his top priorities to this date. In a typical Marxist fashion, he looks at the world in terms of haves and have nots, yet equates freedom and democracy as a utopian goal and admits the inevitability of globalization with all its materialistic decadence. He is a deeply disappointed man, but, after a heart attack he experienced in 2011 which he uses as a fantastic backdrop for the story, he is grateful for the new life he was awarded and enthusiastic about the new medium for artistic expression.

Sarajevo before the civil war still lingers in the imagination of the citizens of the former Yugoslavia as a site of urban legends, the myth of careless detachment and unique merriment. Dr. Nele Karajlić is perhaps the central figure in that enduring fable. In his newfound endeavor, he found an effective way to remind us of the bliss and tragedy, and to deepen the nostalgia for a time and place that once was, no matter how utopian and artificial it may now seem.

Svetozar Postic


Works Cited

Karajlić, Dr. Nele.  Fajront u Sarajevu.  Beograd: Laguna/Večernje Novosti, 2014.

Mišina, Dalibor. Shake, Rattle and Roll: Yugoslav Rock Music and the Poetics of Social Critique.  London: Ashgate, 2013.

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