Interview 27 May 16

Old Partisan Songs Have ‘New Revolutionary Potential’

Ana Hofman, a specialist in the music of former Yugoslavia, says wartime Partisan songs can be seen as subversive in today’s context of a global capitalist crisis.

Sasa Dragojlo BIRN Belgrade
Ethnomusicologist Ana Hofman, lecturer in the humanities faculty at Nova Gorica, in Slovenia. Photo: Facebook

In all the former Yugoslav countries, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and of communism in 1989 and the start of the bloody war in Yugoslavia, memories of the former Socialist state have been suppressed, as has the legacy of the Communist World War II fighters, known as the Partisans.

The old leftist ideology has been exiled to the social margins as the successor states to Yugoslavia march together towards an all-encompassing future based on neo-Liberal capitalist economics.

Anti-communist slogans have become a dominant strategy for the legitimization of the new political elites in all the countries of former Yugoslavia, who more or less openly advocate ethnically pure states and follow a nationalist agenda.

It has created a narrative in which there is nothing positive to say about the 45 years of Communist Yugoslavia, or the Partisan movement, which many historians call the largest resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Europe.

A new book “The New Life of Partisan Songs,” by Ana Hofman, from the Institute of cultural and memory studies of the Research center of Slovenian academy of Sciences and Arts, deals with the heritage of Partisan songs and their subversive potential in the context of post-socialist Yugoslav societies and the global crisis of neo-Liberalism.

The book focuses on the phenomenon of the “re-actualization” of Partisan songs in a new era and on new ways of understanding them in context of post-Yugoslav societies.

“Since the breakup of Yugoslavia and the rise of militant nationalism, and the later introduction of radical neo-Liberal policies, the National Liberation War has been ‘labeled’ as a problematic Socialist past and has become the subject of denial and revisionism,” Hofman says.

As Communist movements across Europe during World War II used now legendary songs, like the Italian “Ciao Bella”, to motivate fighters, Partisans in Yugoslavia had their own motivating battle songs.

The most popular were “Oj Kozaro”, describing one the most famous battles at Kozara mountain in Bosnia and “Padaj, silo i nepravdo” meaning “fall, violence and injustice”, from the another important wartime battle at the Neretva.

Long after the war ended, these songs remained popular at celebrations or workers’ events. They were only sidelined in the 1990s, as the country broke up and as nationalism revived.

“Partisan songs were sidelined to the margins of public space, as an ‘ideologically contaminated’ musical genre – a construct of the Communist regime without ‘real’ social significance and potential,” Hofman says.

“Performing and listening to these songs was pushed into the private sphere as controversial, if not prohibited, activities,” Hoffman adds.

Hofman sees her new book as a kind of response to the denial of this heritage and as a reaction to the "unfinished” transition of ex-Yugoslav countries to capitalism.

Partisan songs as a ‘sound for the future’

From the musically inspired revolution against apartheid in South Africa, to the female rappers in Iran, the music of the Kurdish National Guard Unit, or the current musical occupation of state institutions and schools in Brazil – sound continues to play an essential, if often unnoticed, role in mobilizing individuals and corporate bodies to combat oppression.

Hofman argues that Partisan revolutionary songs not only recall the historic importance of the National Liberation Struggle in World War II but are relevant to current political struggles, and could be an important factor in creating “new policies of the future”.

“In a broader sense, the book deals with the potential of political mobilization and participation through music and sound, and the question of whether and how critical reflections on the music of the past can be a source of emancipation,” Hofman says.

She emphasizes the current role of Balkan choirs such as Le Zbor and Zbor Praksa in Croatia, Raspeani Skopjani in Macedonia, Kombinat and Z’borke in Slovenia, Prroba, UHO, Horkestar, Svetonazori in Serbia and Hor November 29 from Vienna – as a powerful means of social criticism and as calls for solidarity in the post-Yugoslav space.

All these songs have echoes or motifs drawn from the old Partisan songs, she notes.

“In reviving Partisan songs, they confirm that choral singing is not a conservative and outdated musical form but an important form of aesthetic experience for collective mobilization in political struggle,” Hofman maintains.

Although aware of the nostalgic aspect of the revival of Partisan songs, she disagrees that it is purely sentimental and implies passivity.

“I vouch for a different view of the politics of sentimentality, especially when it comes to the music and the sound,” she says.

“The collective experience of playing or listening to music… allow us the creation of a new political subjectivity,” she adds.

“I’m thinking about the political potential of revolutionary songs today, especially in the context of creating a new social formation, new forms of social networking… [and] as a resistance to passive, consumerist and professionalized forms of cultural activities,” she concludes.

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