photo: Laslovarga/Wikimedia

Dancing Under Socialism: Ex-Yu Electronica

In the last couple of years, various collections of electronic music from former Yugoslavia popped up, ranging from numerous downloadable CDR mixtapes to official compilation albums. The Croatian film critic and media connoisseur Željko Luketić presents his favorite songs and clips.

The trend of officially published compilations of Yugoslav electronic music started arguably in 2010 when Subkulturni Azil from Maribor, Slovenia, released the Ex Yu Electronica Vol I: Hometaping in Self-Management vinyl on its Monofonika label, followed by the Vol II: Industrial Electro Bypasses in the North – In Memoriam Mario Marzidovšek, dedicated solely to Slovenian scene. Here are some of the artist featured on these two vinyls, whose creativity and innovation, as well as sheer volume of music production and distribution effort remain unmatched to this day.

Electric Fish – Stvar V (Slovenia 1985)

Andrei Grammatik – Poslanica Duholovcima (Macedonia/Serbia 1988)

Mario Marzidovšek aka Merzdow Shek – Suicide In America (Slovenia 1987)

The Ex Yu Electronica Vol III contains the art duo Imitacija Života’s hard-to-come-across videos, followed by a rarefied industrial electro breakbeat cover of Bob Dylan’s classic from Jozo Oko Gospe:

Imitacija Života – Instrumentator (Croatia 1989)

Video not available anymore.

Jozo Oko Gospe – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Croatia 1984)

Yugo-Synth in America / Diskoteka in Croatia

Max & Intro – Ostavi sve (1985)

Next comes a track to kick off the party – a ruby from one of Rijeka’s finest yet relatively hidden synth-pop/disco icons, who by most criteria, should find her place in Diskoteka:

Milka Lenac – Željo luda (Croatia 1980)

While indulging my curiosity by throwing out some remarkably teasing audio crumbs, Luketić also rightfully feels saddened by the fact that «plenty of this material doesn’t enjoy the status of protected cultural artefacts.» Early electronic music production should be acknowledged as important cultural heritage, protected and looked after with the care it deserves.

Origins of Yugoslav Electronica

So where does the story of Yugoslav electronica actually begin? If for lack of space one focuses on popular music genres and puts aside 1960s and 1970s electroacoustic and avantgarde music composers (Branimir Sakač, Vladan Radovanović, Dragoslav Ortakov etc), the origins of Yugoslav electronic music can be detected in the late 1970s pop music, jazz, prog rock, film soundtracks, as well as radio jingles and TV themes. Here’s a good example of the latter – the legendary 1978 theme for TV Belgrade’s Daily News 2 programme authored by one of the most remarkable film soundtrack composers in Yugoslavia, Zoran Simjanović:

Zoran Simjanović – Dnevnik 2 RTB (Serbia 1978)

Discussing Serbian electronic music in 1978, one cannot but at least mention the famous soul/synth-pop artist Oliver Mandić’s track Šuma, the B-side of his debut single. This remains to this day Mandić’s sole daring take on electronica and you can give it a go by listening to Bturn podcast #002 by DJ Brka.

Podcast not available anymore.

We speed on to Croatia’s Igor Savin. Although this composer and jazz musician released a proper electronic album Childhood in 1982, and went on to establish the Electronic Studio at Zagreb’s Vatroslav Lisinki Hall, he had been dealing with electronic music way earlier. Most remarkably on this track produced for a jazz/rock singer Zdenka Kovačiček:

Zdenka Kovačiček – Elektra (Croatia 1978)

Speaking of composers meddling with electronica, here’s an interesting teaser from Luketić: Kosovo’s Gjon Gjevlekaj. Creating tracks for television and film, Gjevlekaj has produced a number of remarkable pieces, for instance, Gjevlekaj’s 1988 soundtrack for Fog Guardians, a fascinating and rather horrorish avantgarde film directed by Isa Qosja, which at the time was actually banned due to its portrayal of secret police’s violent methods:

Isa Qosja – Rojet e mjegulles (‘Fog Guardians’); Soundtrack: Gjon Gjevlekaj (Kosovo 1988)

Video not available anymore.

It’s quite hard to draw a clear line between former Yugoslav republics, however, since in those days excellent Belgrade bands would record for Zagreb labels and vice versa. Nonetheless, it’s clear that Croatia and Serbia were producing more tracks than other regions, although Serbian production was rather stronger in terms of quality than Croatian. Slovenia, on the other hand, held the forefront position, which is understandable as some of the bands there were signed by international labels, for instance Borghesia by PIAS and Laibach by Mute.»

Slovenian Electric Dreams

Considering the early 1980s electronica in Slovenia, one has to acknowledge not only the underground heroes but also Miha Kralj’s pioneering role in bringing the synthesized tunes to the masses. Kralj’s instrumental full-lengths, Andromeda (1980), Odyssey (1982) and Electric Dreams (1985), heavily influenced by the likes of Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre, sold in tens of thousands. In the mean time he also made sure, through this recognizable theme, that millions of viewers of 1980s TV broadcasts of Planica ski jumping competitions got used to its electronically sounding trademark tune. Moreover, he produced tracks for Cice Mace, an early 1980s teenage disco-pop girl group from Serbia, including their attempt at singing to his track Embrio from Andromeda:

Cice Mace – Foto Model (Serbia 1981)

Video not available anymore.

While Borghesia, Laibach, Marzidovšek and the rest are justly considered more innovative in their musical (and visual) approach than Kralj, he remains a giant of Slovenian/Yugoslav mainstream ambient space electronica. Check out the man himself in this multilayered theatre-in-the-snow music video he put out in mid-eighties:

Miha Kralj – Electric Dreams (Slovenia 1985)

Video not available anymore.

Electronica Proper

It was obvious by the early 1980s that some people in Yugoslavia didn’t think electronic music was just a flash in the pan. Željko Luketić maintains that the first group in Yugoslavia which actually decided to start producing only electronic music, in today’s sense of the word, was Belgrade’s Kozmetika. Although their first and last album appeared in stores as late as 1983 due to unfortunate circumstances, they had been working on that material already since the late 1970s.

First, the track «T.V.» from 1981 single of Beograd, a band which holds the title of the first officially released electronic music artist in Yugoslavia:

Beograd – T.V. (Serbia 1981)

Second, some of their amazing unreleased tracks have surfaced online, including the 1985 ‘Soldier Boy’. From the unreleased stuff though, the following early career treasure might be recommended:

Data – Video Heroj (Serbia 1981)

Third, two cassette-only tracks from Master Scratch Band. You can listen to one of those here and then turn your full attention to one of their rare music videos:

The Master Scratch Band – Computer Break (Serbia 1984)

Fourth, a must-have bizarre early 80s aerobic exercise cassette produced by a famous Croatian composer Alfi Kabiljo and adorned by voice, as well as breathing, of a dancer and choreographer Vesna Mimica. Get off your ass and stretch for this one!

Vesna Mimica and Alfi Kabiljo – YU Aerobic br. 1 (Croatia 1983)

Fifth, «Dee Dee Mellow’s song ‘Crni Djeda Mraz’. I opt here for the English-language version and funky music video of this not strictly electronic yet dancy Talking Headish tune:

Dee Dee Mellow – Black Santa Claus (Croatia 1990)

Primitive Dance and Women Producers

Luketić is co-authoring the documentary on Yugo electronic music, Primitivni ples (Primitive Dance), which deals with the avantgarde scene as well. Incidentally, the documentary was named after Du Du A’s 1983 electro pop song/album:

Du Du A – Primitivni ples

How about some women producers? There seem to be almost none in Yugoslav electronica. «As far as women are concerned, they are represented on Diskoteka and Synth Yugoslavia compilations; mostly as performers/vocalists though, much less as composers,» says Luketić. «In avantgarde music there were even fewer, however,» he adds when I mention Serbian composer Ludmila Frajt. Let her electroacoustic rarity therefore serve as an important reminder of women’s position in electronic music production.

Ludmila Frajt – Nokturno (Serbia 1976)

All in all, rare Yugoslav electronic music is definitely returning from its early grave. Not least in terms of its market value, since, lately, the prices of original records have started skyrocketing in online shops. Hopefully, this brief and very incomplete history will serve to some of you as a reminder of the wicked times you had back then, while to others as an introductory course to weird gems folks were dancing to under socialist self-management.

This article was first published at the blog BTurn Music, Culture and Style of the New Balkans.

Published on April 15, 2014

Last updated on January 16, 2020

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