Interview 20 Oct 17

‘Louder than Guns’: Croatia’s Patriotic Wartime Singers

A new documentary about huge number of Croatian patriotic songs recorded during the 1990s conflict shows how musicians volunteered their talents to support the ‘Homeland War’ for independence.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
'Louder than Guns' feature famous Croatian wartime music videos. Photo courtesy of Miroslav Sikavica.

“Look, in the midst of the political changes in the late 1980s and early 1990s and during the Homeland War, hundreds of new patriotic songs, maybe a thousand, were released… from tamburica [Balkan traditional lute] players through to popular music to dance, rock and punk,” Miroslav Sikavica, the director of the new documentary ‘Louder than Guns’, told BIRN in an interview.

The film, which goes on nationwide release in cinemas in Croatia on Friday, documents some 60 of these patriotic songs in a variety of different styles.

“It only demonstrates how the defensive war united various musicians as well as up to now mutually irreconcilable genres of popular music in the same goal of national homogenisation, raising the morale of [Croatian] soldiers on the battlefield and civilians in the [bomb] shelters and seeking a response from the international community,” Sikavica explained.

Musicians composed patriotic songs, like ‘Boze Cuvaj Hrvatsku’ (‘God Watch Over Croatia’) or ‘Hrvatine’ (‘Great Croats’), as well as anti-war songs meant for an international audience – ‘Stop the War in Croatia’ was sung in English, pleading with the international community to stop the fighting.

Sikavica’s film shows how the public broadcaster, Croatian Radio-Television, HRT, was the main producer in the genre, strongly supporting and financing the production of patriotic music.

HRT set up Croatian Band Aid, a supergroup which included the country’s biggest stars singing ‘Moja Domovina’ (‘My Homeland’), which was released in 1991 to boost the war effort.

Sikavica, who lived through all this as a teenager, explained how music was a powerful medium that had “hidden effects” during Croatia’s 1990s war.

“So, for example, it encouraged the spiritual mobilisation of Croats in the struggle against Communism, Yugoslavia and the aggressor, and played a very important political and communication role as the state fought for independence, international recognition, but also in building a new national identity,” he said.

Sikavica explained that the film is divided into two main parts - one about the cause that the musicians were fighting for, and the other about what they gained from it all.

He said that some musicians composed the songs “as an act of patriotic duty”, but others felt that if they wanted media coverage, they would have to compose a patriotic song.

‘The chosen people’

Sikavica, 42, is the director of almost 40 documentary and feature films, including the short feature ‘Zvir’, about a bulldozer operator and his son, which got special recognition from the jury at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.

‘Louder than Guns’ was made by Factum, a production company run by well-known film director and producer Nenad Puhovski, who is interested in socially- and politically-engaged films.

Miroslav Sikavica. Photo: HAVC.

Sikavica explained how, as well as highlighting Croatian national symbols, the music of the war years also emphasised the Catholic faith.

“Along with the nation… other absolutes emerged - God. At the time of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, state atheism was part of official state policy. But after 1990, with the dethroning of the Communist ideology, Catholicism not only defined Croats as the ‘chosen people’, but marked us out differently from Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks,” he said.

He described how the film revealed some intriguing stories about the destinies of the patriotic singers of the war years.

One of them, Sandra Kulier, who did more than 100 morale-boosting charity concerts on various battlefronts in Croatia, has since sunk into obscurity.

“Of all the musicians I’ve met, she has the largest number of recognition awards and praise from various military units for her work, but still she lives away from the media’s attention, with no benefits and on the edge of existence. But it doesn’t even cross her mind to complain or seek material compensation for her selfless engagement in the war,” Sikavica said.

Croatian Band Aid performing 'Moja Domovina' ('My Homeland').

Others remain popular in Croatia today, like the nationalist singer Marko Perkovic Thompson, who wrote the famous wartime song ‘Bojna Cavoglave’ (‘The Cavoglave Battalion’).

‘Bojna Cavoglave’, recorded in 1991 at the beginning of the war, remains his most recognisable song. Besides using strong language against Serbs, it is also highly controversial because it starts with the salute “Za dom spremni” (“Ready for the Home(land)”), a Croatian WWII fascist slogan which some military units also used during the 1990s war.

Because this, police have fined Thompson several times for singing ‘Bojna Cavoglave’, while his concerts, which sometimes have an anti-Serb atmosphere, have been banned across Europe.

Thompson did not wish to talk on the camera for Sikavica’s film, but the director said that ‘Bojna Cavoglave’ shows how songs can be a medium for ideas.

“A medium that can be used positively but also negatively, but also interpreted [positively or negatively]. And that depends on who is judging it. Things are rarely just black or white. But it is also a fact that people pass extreme judgements, when it comes to our recent past, by allowing their emotions to blind them,” he said.

These days, Thompson is still singing his nationalist anthem to adoring crowds, even though the war ended over two decades ago, Croatia gained its independence and is now a member of the European Union - a sign of how some of the music of the war years still has political resonance today.

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