Rockin’ Sarajevo

This essay first appeared in audio form in the Slovak original on the program “Odinakiaľ” (From Elsewhere) of Rádio Devín, on April 19, 2023. The text translation courtesy of Peter Korchnak, reprinted by permission, first appeared at Remembering Yugoslavia.


When the season’s first snow falls in Sarajevo, locals of a certain age recall the Olympics in 1984, when after a dry winter they worried whether the Games would even take place—until on the night of the opening day it snowed so much some events had to be postponed.

Their small town had even the heavens on their side then; they organized flawless Olympic Games although no one believed in them; and the entire country enjoyed the zenith of glory along with them.*

Skenderija Centar in Sarajevo in winter time

Under the white canopy, the city in the valley takes on the form of a sketch. The same is true of Skenderija, which was built in the 1960s as a sports, cultural, and commercial center and to which an ice rink was added for the Olympics. Modernist lines lead my photographic steps across the central plateau to a raised platform where no one walked on the snow before me. Soon I find out why: the maintenance workers who are starting up a small plow tractor in the distance are waving me down so I don’t fall through—to where I still don’t know.

I humbly head to the Youth Hall, where the Ex-YU Rock Center is launching in the former space of the cult club Kaktus. Beginning next year, the music of Yugoslav legends will be presented here to celebrate their heritage. Two temporary exhibitions provide a preview until the end of April.**

A small section commemorates the 40th anniversary of the debut of the Belgrade band Idoli.

The majority of the exhibit is a retrospective of the Sarajevo rock scene in the decade before the break-up. I read columns of information; I listen to snippets of songs from which I’ve been learning the language; I admire artifacts like musical instruments, clothes, posters, cards, records, photographs, magazine clippings—and I think of my childhood.

Growing up in Czechoslovakia, I had no idea about bands like Bijelo Dugme, Divlje Jagode, or Vatreni Poljubac, about the New Primitives movement, or about dozens of other underground performers. As information fills my head and music my ears, melancholy envelops my heart, of a beggar faced with unfamiliar prosperity: is it really possible that just in this city, smaller than Bratislava, several times more excellent rock music was created than in entire Slovakia?

The Slovenian author Aleš Debeljak wasn’t exaggerating when he stated that “yugo rock” brings him “close to people who can understand joy and sorrow without unnecessary words,” because it is “the password that secures entry to the haven of eternal youth in the soul where we will always be at home.”

Ex-YU Rock Center

For certain former Yugoslavs, rock means something elementary. It was the soundtrack of life, multicultural civic character, and memories of youth. Through its understanding, as well as connections to theater, film, and literature, one can understand Yugoslavia as such.

Watching the video clip for “Suada,” by Plavi Orkestar, a friend from North Macedonia asks another visitor if she is local and if she knows where in the city the clip was filmed. They end up reminiscing about where they were at that time and what the hit meant to them.

Across the former Yugoslavia, songs known to Slovenians and Serbs and to Croats and Montenegrins alike evoke memories of first kisses, discotheques, seaside vacations, as well as youth work actions and mandatory military service made bearable with smuggled cassette tapes.

Like the Olympics, the Ex-YU Rock Center presents a reminder that there was something special here even before the siege. If the touted joint candidacy of Barcelona and Sarajevo to host future Games brought hope for the return of sports to the city, the Center’s opening is a promise of reconciliation and renewal.

The brain behind the Center, Will Richard, an expat from Maine, told me that one of the goals “is to bring people together around a common love for this music.”

Ex-YU Rock Center Promo

In the snow-white city, cars and pedestrians slide down the steep side streets, the aroma of burek wafts from bakeries, and Crvena Jabuka sing to me: “I remember the snow and your tears, every word is an oath… wait for me at our old place, where love begins.”

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