Once upon a time there was a country called Yugoslavia. It was created in the aftermath of World War I, an unlikely combination of a number of different ethnic groups into a identity that none of them previously shared. After a few decades of threatening to unravel of its own accord Yugoslavia was invaded by the Germans and Italians in 1941, capitulating after two weeks of combat. But not everyone waved the white flag and the country developed arguably the strongest and most tenacious partisan rebellion in Europe under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito. And when the war came to an end, It was Tito (♠) who took over the reins of government, leading Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death in 1980. While the country remained in the Soviet sphere of influence and Tito’s politics were certainly Communist, he managed to retain an enviable amount of freedom from Russian influence, which no doubt in part contributed to his general popularity among his countrymen. His death resulted in decades of stifled tensions rising to the surface, the result of which was a horrific civil war, genocide, and dissolution of Yugoslavia as it broke apart into a number of ultimately independent states.
What does this history lesson have to do with Azra’s live triple album Ravno Do Dna? Well, as Miljenko Jergovic described in his brilliant New York Times article last year, Azra was part of the early Yugoslav punk scene that surprisingly was allowed to exist in the country, something that would have been unheard of elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain. Why? Well, the Communist Party there recognized that banning things made them de facto subversive and to some extent appealing, so the punk bands were not only tolerated, but also allowed to record and have their albums sold in the state-run record stores. The artists were even allowed to offer political commentary and criticism, though with the notable unspoken caveat that Tito himself was off limits. And Azra, formed in 1977, were part of that first wave of punk and new wave, and a popular one at that – three of the band’s albums made the Top 10 in the 1998 book YU 100: Najbolji Albumi Jugoslovenske Rok i Pop Muzike (♣).
I didn’t know any of this prior to stumbling across this record in Portland a few weeks back. But the story was so compelling and the price so right that I had to pick it up. And speaking of Tito… I also found a surprise waiting for me when I got this thing home and pulled the records out. Well four surprises technically, as stashed inside were four vintage postcards of Tito’s estate, unused but all of them with Yugoslavian stamps on the backs. I have to assume that someone bought the record and postcards on a visit to country. Did they perhaps go there to see the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo? I don’t know, but it was kind of a cool treat to see these.
So what about Ravno Do Dna? You know… it’s pretty damn good. The recording quality is solid and it feels like the records themselves are thicker than what we were seeing in the US and elsewhere during that time – best guess is they’re roughly 150 gram and they held up quite well. Stylistically I’d describe the sound as between rock and new wave. Not the synth-heavy version of new wave we all encountered on MTV, but more early new wave, something more along the lines of Talking Heads, basically pop songs with a brisk-paced rock aesthetic. My understanding is that there’s an underlying punkness to the lyrics on some of these songs, but alas I don’t speak Serbo-Croatian so I don’t know. (♥) A few songs feel familiar enough to be covers of contemporary Western tracks, but nothing that’s so obvious that I can be sure.
Ravno Do Dna is probably more a novelty of sorts, but it’s also an important part of punk’s history, a piece of the overall puzzle about how the musical-political movement migrated and evolved as it expanded outward from its original stomping grounds. I appreciate it if for no other reason than that it led me to the story about of the early Yugoslavian scene… but the music is pretty good too, which is a big plus.
(♠) Tito was generally referred to using just this one name, which is Advanced.
(♣) Basically the Top 100 Yugoslavian rock and pop albums.
(♥) I can, however, read and understand the title of the third song on Side A – “Iggy Pop”.