Monday, October 31, 2005

Wouldn't You Know It...

Yet another 'home video' from an ex-Yugoslav pop star has made it on to the net, this time turbofolk diva Seka Aleksić - she of Sviđa mi se tvoja devojka fame. Serbian tabloid Blic is telling us the show involves a tiger thong, and Croatian counterpart 24 sata is pointing the world directly to the product itself.

Seems that Croatia's number one online export Severina is setting the standard region-wide. Time to extend the izvorni hrvatski proizvod (Authentic Croatian Product) scheme?

Ferdinand, Put Your Boots On

Thanks to Mostar Sevdah Reunion plus the vocal talents of Ljiljana Buttler for playing at the Marquee Club on Wednesday night, keeping things going till well after midnight, and reminding a jaded Gazette that there is life beyond turbofolk.

Thanks to them too for opening a four-day season of Bosnian cinema at Riverside Studios, split into a series of double bills and mainly pairing a nineties or noughties film with a Sarajevan production from former Yugoslavia on the model of Riverside's mini-Croatian season last year. 2003s' tragicomedy Gori vatra, for instance, teamed up with Veljko Bulajić's 1975 blockbuster Sarajevski atentat, a Yugoslavian-Czechoslovakian co-production incongruously guest-starring none other than Christopher Plummer. (Or not so incongruously; Bulajić's Partisan-movie classic Bitka na Neretvi, aka The Battle of the Neretva, included Orson Welles, and Richard Burton was brought in to play Tito in 1973's Sutješka.)

Sarajevski atentat cuts back and forth between the Austro-Hungarian establishment and the group of Young Bosnia members led by Gavrilo Princip (briefly including a youthful guest appearance by who I'm sure - IMDB confusion notwithstanding - is the Branko Djurić from No Man's Land). The action's preceded by an opening sequence playing ominous piano chords over thirty years' worth of headlines about the annexation of Bosnia, Austrian police brutality and Bosnian students' attempts to assassinate Habsburg officials at any chance they got. Smrt fašizmu!

This dedicated, exuberant version of Princip the zealot, baby-faced Trifko Grabež, and a Nedjeljko Čabrinović whose attitude to poetry and women would come close to Captain Jack Sparrow's if it were laced with extra rum, hardly resembles the band Misha Glenny described in The Balkans as 'one of the most disorganized and inexperienced squadrons of assassins ever assembled'. For a London-based audience watching 36 years later, the youthful martyrs' journey to the capital has a jarring resonance; and even the hilltop cannon salutes which welcome the Archduke's party to Sarajevo are more jolting than Bulajić would ever have expected them to be.

On the Schwarzgelbe side, meanwhile, Plummer quite simply is Franz Ferdinand. No, not a Glasgow art-rocker (although the Gazette digresses for just long enough to hope that Eleanor, Put Your Boots On from their new CD will make it out as a Christmas single), but the detached yet ultimately well-meaning Archduke whose hunting lodge is adorned with 5,001 (count 'em) stags' heads on plaques. No mention of how some South Slav politicians at the time saw Ferdinand as their ally against the nationalising Hungarian tendency from Budapest, or the pivoting power structure of the Dual Monarchy: in fact, Budapest figures only as one more name-check on Ferdinand's rail trip.

Otomar Korbelár's Emperor Franz Josef is suitably doddering, and chief of staff Baron Conrad with his (accurate) obsession with an invasion of Serbia and Montenegro comes across as the Edwardians' answer to the Project for a New American Century. If there's a flipside to Plummer's presence, it's that one continually expects to catch sight of Julie Andrews, some holier-than-thou kids, or at least a few brown paper packages tied up with string. Florinda Bolkan rises to the challenge instead as Archduchess Sophie, the Viennese court's answer to Camilla Parker-Bowles, decked out in a suitably Andrews-in-Princess-Diaries dress/tiara combination.

To be fair, an administration in the hands of people like Baron Cheney Conrad was hardly doing anyone - except the Škoda works - any favours. And yet.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Slovenia Is The New Croatia

Welcome to anyone who came here via The Glory of Carniola with the promise of some 'occasional hot Slovenia action'. Topically, that's exactly what the Gazette had had planned for today in any case.

The buxom career of Slovenian turbo-polka singer Natalija Verboten has turned into sovereign Carniolan territory. However, no such diplomatic niceties apply to Natalija's fellow Slovenian schlager-starlet Rebeka Dremelj, whose new album Pojdi z menoj hit Slovenian record stores late this month.

Rebeka's a former Miss Slovenia (2001, if anyone's counting), who eased herself into music by way of Slovenia's annual Eurovision pre-selection contest, EMA, debuting in 2004 with Ne boš se igral, and following up this year with the camp-as-Christmas Pojdi z menoj. In preparation for her CD release, she's been a busy ex-beauty-queen all summer, and appeared at the Sunčane Skale festival in Herceg Novi, Montenegro, with a three-minute Latino-schlager number called Daj mi, daj.

The Gazette would have loved to hear an opinion on this from none other than the great Severina, who showed up in the Croatian version of EMA five years ago (Dora, since you ask) with a three-minute Latino-schlager number also called Daj mi, daj.

The case for the prosecution would like to add here that Daj mi, daj Sr is chiefly memorable for Seve's green dress and her vaguely Mexican male dancers in black satin. How did Rebeka stage Ne boš se igral? Not, by any chance, in a green dress and circled by vaguely Mexican dancers in black satin? Wow. Wasn't that a lucky guess?

Six months' Dremelj-watching has proved that just when you think she couldn't go any further over the top, she turns up the kitsch crescendo even higher: and so to her latest single, Slovenski superboy (to be found via her website, should anyone care to indulge). Its blend of synthesised strings, accelerating folk-style rhythms, and words which are primarily there to rhyme with each other ('Ti si moj moj moj / slovenski superboy / ti si moj heroj...') is driving Slovenians to distraction as the Gazette writes. It's also been driving Croatians to distraction for at least the last ten years.

Whether in the early 90s, as music critics in Croatia like to claim, or before that too (qv. tracks like Magazin's mid-80s Istambul), Croatian pop started to pick up elements of Bosnian and Serbian newly-composed folk music, and when Croatian pop picks something up, it finds it hard to let go. Songs like Slovenski superboy were two-a-kuna from '95 to '98 or so, not least in the Tonči Huljić-launched repertoire of Minea, whose first two CDs sound as if they're Slovenski superboy's older, blonder cousin who gets to stay out late. Track down her songs Good boy or Mornaru moj for further illustration: it's sheer luck that Huljić and Minea never felt like a Hrvatski superboy, especially since it would have rhymed with most of her songs back then.

Severina commonly gets said to be a Croatian variant of Lepa Brena, while there's endless Ceca-comparison potential in the siliconetastic Ivana Banfić. In fact, Serbian pop seems to consist entirely of Brena and Ceca as far as most Croatian papers are concerned, with the corollary that some seem to think Croatian showbiz is composed entirely of Brena-and-Ceca-wannabes.

Even if that were the case, Croatia isn't doing too badly at exporting them back. Dremeljica's assault on the Croatian market, on the same principle, can be only a matter of time...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Stop Bird Flu Like The Croatian Special Police!

Bird flu is the new binge drinking is the new hoodies. If the BBC's political sitcom of the season The Thick Of It is anything to go by, special advisers' BlackBerries up and down the land will have ben bleeping with tabloid-preempting worst-case scenarios for a fortnight. (What, no dead parrot jokes yet?)

Croatia's going in for premature panic too, after this weekend's discovery at a fish pond near Našice (Slavonia) of a handful of dead swans infected with the H5N1 strain. Slobodna Dalmacija are worried about 'a new migration of thousands of swans' into 50 habitation grounds, many of them close to urban areas, and Rijeka's daily Novi list reports that the few packs of Tamiflu which made it to the city's pharmacies have been instantly snapped up.

But the most innovative response by far came from the online edition of tabloid 24 sata, which alongside its extensive dossier on bird flu includes a stress-relieving shoot-em-up entitled Stop Bird Flu Like The Croatian Special Police!. The lack of any chequerboard-based insignia suggests to the Gazette that the game might not have started life in 24 sata's Beautiful Homeland. The backdrop of decorated fir trees and the propensity of ostensibly infected prey to turn into roast turkeys when shot suggests that it never used to have that much to do with bird flu.

Unless hrvatski specijalci are trained at Hogwarts now?

Please Leave The Big Brother House

Two Croatian Big Brother housemates, Matko and Ivan, are on a 'yellow card' and may face eviction following a 3am drunken chorus of a notorious Second World War-era song, Jasenovac i Gradiška Stara, referring to Ustaša concentration camps. To make matters even worse, Roma housemate Hamdija overheard the whole thing, which was shown live on national television to however many nosey insomniacs were actually watching the broadcast then.

Draxblog, true to form, seems to have had the story first. The press are lagging behind, but a trawl of online mag Index (that noted purveyor of Severina videos and the first source to break last year's JGS scandal) reveals that Matko has previous, non-broadcast form in this respect: ten days ago he took advantage of a daily task to send a message of support to fugitive general Ante Gotovina. (Explanation from the TV channel responsible, RTL: they chose not to broadcast the Gotovina incident because it didn't take place during a live transmission.)

JGS was given added infamy last year when a recording of Marko Perković Thompson performing it leaked out on to the net and provoked a month-long showbiz/political scandal. Thompson trades on political sentiment - of the same kind which took his colleague Miroslav Škoro to victory at this year's Hrvatski Radijski Festival with yet another song about betrayed heroes - but also on notoriety, one of the most reliable fuels of the Croatian music biz. As bishop-troubling Marilyn Manson, who this summer played a controversial concert in the Pula Arena, would undoubtedly tell Thompson, if Mr Perković could be persuaded to share a few drinks with him.

The root of the problem, as noted and level-headed Croatian columnist Jelena Lovrić wrote, probably lies with an education system which hasn't prepared young people to critically question sentiments like those. (Indeed, some would say it's done quite the reverse.) The vortex of scandal that surrounded JGS last year seems to have given it a life of its own.

In the same vein, whenever the proud father's next CD shows up, the prurient media can be guaranteed to treat it as if it were an album-of-the-year crossed with a party conference...

Monday, October 24, 2005

More Glad (Virtual) Tidings

Illyrian Gazette is proud to announce it has a cousin: Hej, Pane Diskžokej, compiled by the often aforementioned Ed.

HPD looks as if it works along much the same lines as the Gazette, with additional plunging headfirst into the waters of Francophone, Germanophone and, errr, Beneluxophone (?)showbusiness, which the Gazette is very happy to leave to someone else.

Oh, and we think the title means Hey, Mr DJ in Polish. We'll get told if it doesn't, we're sure.

And Thanks To Eric Too

Having thanked Draxblog for publicising the Gazette a little, it's time I did the same for East Ethnia, one of the best-written ex-Yugo-related blogs I know about. (On second thoughts, no geographical qualification required.)

Sod's Law therefore states that Eric is pulling out of matters Ethnian next month, so for heaven's sake check out the incisive socio-political analysis and the recipes while there's still more on the way. (Now, where's one meant to get beans from Tetovo near Gazette Towers...?)

Comeback Of The Week: Alex Parks

No contest, really, but Alex Parks releases her second album Honesty today in the next episode of her search for a musical niche. Not Lavigne-y enough for the tweenagers, and not Dido enough for the Bridget Jones market, Alex is at least in a capacity to position herself as an English Melissa Etheridge, and even a few Americans seem to think so. That's assuming her record label Polydor think that England needs one, or would know what to do with one if England did.

Unfortunately, one could gather the extent of Polydor's confidence when the release of what was supposed to be Alex's comeback single, Looking For Water, was pushed back to download-only at the last moment after early reviews of the track proved less than lukewarm. Not even hand-hot.

Vocally, Alex's emotional sincerity can be startling (although the Gazette should again invoke its target-audience disclaimer), but musically, she's a long away from making the breakthrough that, say, Robbie Williams landed with his last-chance-saloon release of Angels. Allegedly, last year she was offered and turned down a certain Shiver, with which Natalie Imbruglia has been ever-present on the radio ever since.

Vanishing and resurfacing after the first series of Fame Academy eventually took Lemar to a handful of Mobos plus a Brit Award or two; career-wise, the best that can be said for Alex is that she's the last contestant standing from the second. (Especially in Norway, where she's attracted an unexpected - OK, much-to-be-expected - following.)

Until she finds her own Guy Chambers or Linda Perry, her best showcase is going to remain the covers which made up a full half of her 2003 album Introduction. They include a heartfelt Beautiful (what was the Gazette saying about Linda Perry?), an unreleaseable-thanks-to-Gary-Jules Mad World, and a version of the Eurythmics' Here Comes The Rain Again which Annie Lennox thought was almost better than her own.

Of course, you wait ages for a cute and credible talent-show singer and then they all come along at once, so here are Aneta Langerová from Czech Idol, who won it, and Briana Ramírez-Rial from American Idol 3, who didn't.

Glad Tidings

The showbiz stork brings glad tidings this week for a certain monochrome-dressed Croatian singer who doesn't need to be given any more publicity than he already has, but who might end up attracting more with his second son sharing a first name with his homeland's most wanted personality.

Glad tidings, too, for UK R-and-B diva Jamelia, whose newborn daughter enters the world with the previously-an-Italian-surname moniker Tiani. Which has less to do with Ms Dapčević than when I heard it on BBC Three and thought they said Tiana, although it makes the Gazette wonder if our Tijana - or for that matter Severina - ever saw that See It In A Boy's Eyes video of Jamelia's that was all over the place last summer.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Sequinned Afterlife Of Gia

The Gazette reports with some sadness that Romanian gymnast Catalina Ponor has ditched her floor music based on Greek singer Despina Vandi's mega-hit from 2001, Gia, in favour of a nondescript instrumental in a bombastic Pirates of the Caribbean sort of vein.

However, Ponor still has the virtue of not performing her floor routine as if it was a cheerleading tryout, and the even greater virtue of not being called Courtney Kupets, Shavahn Church, or London (yes, London) Phillips.

You'll know Ponor's floor music as Gia if you're not Serbian or Romanian. If you're Romanian, maybe you know Gia as Ponor's floor music. And if you're Serbian, you might know them both as Samo za tvoje oči (For your eyes only), recorded by the unsubtle and extremely blonde turbofolk star Jelena Karleuša. Where Gia is concerned, JK and Vandi have a complicated relationship, which at some point really ought to have included an exchange along the lines of Yeah but, no but... : Karleuša was under the impression that Gia had been meant for her as the breakout hit to kickstart her international pop career, and . Karleuša had, in fact, signed with Greek record company Heaven Music and linked up with Vandi's composer Phoebus, and seemed to be in the frame for Gia at one point when Heaven and Universal got the jitters about Despina's plans to become a footballer's wife.

Despina released Gia anyway, sent it to the top of the Billboard dance charts in America, and left Heaven with a big blonde silicone problem. JK's self-titled CD in question, released in 2002, also contains a cover of Vandi's biggest hit which isn't called Gia, the five-minute Faithless-style Ipofero, renamed with startling originality Još te volim (I still love you).

This would be more remarkable were it not that a fair few turbofolk songs started their life as Greek or even Turkish hits - and in fact, cynics might say that it was quicker to ask how many didn't. The Gazette would get further into this, but doesn't still want to be at the keyboard in three hours' time. It happens far less on the Croatian scene, although Alka Vuica seems more than ready to compensate for all her colleagues in the Balkan-covers respect.

Ponor notwithstanding, things aren't all so gloomy for south-east European pop and its transnational, sequinned afterlife, as the world champion figure skater Irina Slutskaya is still haring around the ice rink to the tinkly sound of Maksim Mrvica's Croatian Rhapsody. Silver-highlighted Maksim comes from Split, and his original pieces are composed by Tonči Huljić, keyboardist, manager, and all-round impresario of the two-decades-old Croatian band Magazin. They've outlasted their rivals by periodically trading in one blonde lead singer for another (current incumbent Jelena Rozga's nine years have set the record by some way) and by snapping up new sources of exoticism wherever they can find them.

Since attending Eurovision in 1998 and encountering British crossover-classical promoter Mel Bush (the man responsible for Vanessa Mae), Huljić has kept up a profitable sideline of composing instrumentals for Mrvica, Anglo-Aussie string quartet/girlband Bond, and Anglo-Serbian string quintet/girlband Wild. Oddly enough, a fair few of these started their life as songs by Magazin: Briga me became Dalalai, Ko me zove became Gypsy rhapsody, and Magazin's big 2004 hit, Ne tiče me se, had already been Bond's Explosive. Croatian Rhapsody is no exception, and as Hrvatska rapsodija, came within four places of sending Magazin to represent Croatia at Eurovision 2000.

A saga which leaves the Gazette with little to do but look at its watch and wonder when the next round of Who's Going To Be The Next Magazin Lead Singer, And When? is going to get under way...

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Happy Anniversary, Mrs Vrdoljak

Croatian singer Vanna has justt celebrated fifteen years in the business with a concert in the Lisinski hall, Zagreb. Once best known as the early-90s lead singer of ET (Electro Team), providing the female vocal on iconic tracks such as Tek je 12 sati, she's made perhaps the most successful transition to a solo career of any Croatian pop star, in the process avoiding any flirtation with turbofolk whatsoever.

Language apart, Vanna could have stepped out of any country's charts, anywhere. After going solo, she's followed the same dance-to-ballads trajectory as her colleague Nina Badrić (among the guests at the Lisinski concert, since you ask), with two deviations. First: Nina never went through an extended disco phase that prompted Ed from Popjustice to dub her Vannastacia. Second: Nina never prudently married into one of the Croatian media families, headed up by the eminent Croatian film director Antun Vrdoljak.

Mr Vanna is better known as pop-video director Andrija Vrdoljak, and as Antun's son. Vrdoljak senior's most famous film was the Partisan war movie U gori raste zelen bor (1971), while his last project was the Second-World-War-and-aftermath saga Duga mračna noć - extended into a mini-series for Croatian television - following Goran 'most famous non-sporting Croatian' Višnjić's Ivan Kolar as a war hero who fights with the Partisans on the opposite side from his best friend, is mistreated by the post-war socialist regime, and finally sent to the notorious prison camp of Goli otok. It's an ideological flip-flop and a half.

Besides his artistic commitments, Vrdoljak Sr acts as honorary president of the Croatian Olympic Committee. More significantly, from 1991 to 1995 he was the head of Hrvatska Televizija, an organisation he described as the 'cathedral of the Croatian soul'. He began his tenure there in September 1991 by overseeing the easing of several hundred Serbs and politically 'unacceptable' Croats from their television jobs. The track record led some, like Croatian Helsinki Committee chair Žarko Puhovski, to doubt whether Vrdoljak should be primarily remembered for his cinematic achievements.

None of this, of course, reflects on Vanna, who adds yet another field of cultural expertise to the media empire of an already renowned and experienced family. Isn't he a lucky man, that Andrija?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Buffy And Angel Islington

Today's lunchtime time-waste, via Going Underground, is how to rig the Tube's time-of-the-alleged-next-train pages to do this.

Basically, you pick a station, hit the address bar in your browser, and replace the station name with whatever mildly amusing comment on the state of London transport takes your fancy.

None of which answers the question of why anyone would need a webpage replicating the alleged-next-train indicators unless they were actually on a platform waiting for the alleged next train, when they wouldn't be online to look it up in the first place. Doh.

Oh, and: the real Angel Islington.

(Edit: Transport for London have now fixed this. Drat!)

Hvala Ti, Dragane!

Velika hvala to Dragan at Draxblog for hopefully pointing a few more readers Gazette-wards.

If that's not how you got here today, Draxblog's based in Split and covers Croatian politics, culture and reality TV, even-handedly and readably.

Draxblog and the Gazette are presumably agreeing to disagree about Severina, although when it comes to That Video (No, Not That One), it seems like we couldn't agree more...

(Edit: I'm heading off to check out his wide-ranging film reviews too. I had no idea that they'd filmed José Saramago's The Stone Raft...)

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Comeback Of The Week: Adam Rickitt

Anyone remember Adam Rickitt?

He's the blond teen idol from late-90s Coronation Street who some bright record-industry spark attempted to relaunch as a UK version of Nick 'Backstreet Boys' Carter, before he came back to Corrie for the sole purpose of That Kiss. He still has an official site, but the Gazette can't bear to look.

Adam's an early candidate for Comeback of the Week because he'd rather like to be a candidate for something marginally more significant: the Conservative Party. BBC Online are reporting that he's on the list of wannabe candidates (also known, as of five seconds ago, as David, Pick Me!) who have made themselves available for constituency selection. Between Adam and Big Brother 6's resident Tory Derek Laud (want Derek to be the next PM? Well, someone does), the Conservatives are threatening to resemble a lineup for the next embarrass-a-minor-celeb reality show.

Hopefully, whoever gets through Big Brother's weekly task, sorry, the party leadership contest will knock some sense into this lot...

Thanks Glyn!

Falling Dominoes

Domino, as one of Kevin Smith's Clerks might have put it, wasn't even supposed to be here today. Keira Knightley's model-turned-bounty-hunter thriller was supposedly placed on indefinite hold after its real-life subject Domino Harvey died of an overdose (much as the Hugo Weaving-Natalie Portman V For Vendetta has been pushed back till March 2006 because its storyline needs Weaving to blow up Big Ben) but then showed up on time after all, possibly to capitalise on Keira's Pride and Prejudice still knocking around. The Gazette went along at the weekend purely because it was developing the beginnings of the flu (and trusts it's the non-avian variety), but a head cold did wonders for Matrix Revolutions, after all.

Come to think of it, one of the screengrabs from's review of Matrix Revolutions shows two of the women from its Aliens-knockoff siege sequence with the caption: Hey, who's this Vasquez everyone talks about? Flak jacket and (gold-plated) dog tag notwithstanding, nobody's going to say this any time soon about Knightley, whose career so far has taken in a swashbuckling sidekick, a midfield general, and a Buffy/Ruslana-ised Guinevere. I'm conveniently forgetting about her Lizzie Bennet or her queen-bee public schoolgirl in The Hole, but what even those have in common is a cut-glass English accent and a regular obligation to pout.

For various reasons, the Gazette might well be a target audience for this sort of thing, especially when its head is too full of Beechams Flu Plus to wonder how an English model with a Beverley Hills 90210 complex got taken on as a bounty hunter in the first place, let alone just how implausible it is that anyone, even Keira-Domino-Guinevere, could keep their Immensely Symbolic Goldfish in an open bowl on a Winnebago window sill. Besides, when it comes to Domino's native Chelsea-tractor land, the Gazette is ready to believe anything.

Unfortunately, Domino has the jump-cutty, bright-coloured visual feel of an extended Bacardi ad, and the narrative confusion of a script re-assembled at random after a paper jam, with the exception of an irrelevant four-minute sequence taking the rise out of mixed-race identity politics and Jerry Springer (from 'Blacktino' to 'Chinegro' - Google can't find a single site which mentions these in any non-Domino context whatsoever) which goes for cheaply caricatured laughs at the cost of a lingering bad taste in the mouth.

Tony Scott's last big feature was morally dubious kidnap thriller Man on Fire, and Domino owes much to the morally even more dubious territory of Quentin Tarantino, or Robert Rodríguez's Sin City (Edgar Ramírez vs. Benicio del Toro; Keira Knightley vs. Rosario Dawson; Mickey Rourke vs. Mickey Rourke). The supporting cast is even propped up by Tarantino alumni such as Christopher Walken and Lucy Liu, whose FBI agent provides the only moments of proper electricity across a hundred-odd (or should that be a hundred odd?) minutes.

And in case you don't dare ask the question, the number of excruciating 'domino' puns is: 1. Well, they had to find room somewhere for the goldfish symbolism...

PS: strangely enough, the cinema seems to be Night Watch-less this week...

Friday, October 14, 2005

Comeback Of The Week: Annamaria

Vanished mid-nineties Cro-dance starlet Annamaria is planning a comeback, according to, and with an English-language album, no less. All You Ever Say, her first single since 1998, will introduce her CD No Side Effect, featuring a South African choir plus a rapper or two. Seems Turkish pop - stand up, Ivana Kindl and Straštvena žena - just isn't exotic enough any more.

This would be the point to reminisce about some classic Annamaria hit or other, but the Gazette would need to find one first. Little springs to mind except her 100% from 1997, which ended up on the soundtrack of the Croatian release of GI Jane accompanied by a video resembling Severina's Hrvatica on a fraction of the budget.

Meanwhile, Annamaria's record label MenArt have joined up with gossip mag Extra! to re-release Luka Nižetić's album under the new title of Extra! Premijera, with the promise of it featuring 20 intriguing art photographs of Luka wearing even less than usual.

Isn't it nice when a star knows his target audience so well?

English Fantasists Roundup

Typical: you wait... errr, a week... for an opportunity to namecheck cultural commentator/art historian/fairytales guru Marina Warner, and then two come along at once.

Here she is in today's Guardian on The Corpse Bride, The Brothers Grimm, and how Gothic horror stopped being so horrific.

Continuing the English Fantasists Roundup, here's a joint interview with Neil Gaiman (American Gods) and Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) from US online magazine Salon - the SitePass link takes you through to the full article.

Tijana's Cunning Plan, Mk 2: The Croatian Connection

Macedonian Tijana Dapčević and her Yugo-kitsch victory at July's Budva Festival were transnational enough as things were, but a self-respecting Croatian online magazine like Index isn't the sort of place to let a tenuous Croatian connection slip away.

Which is how, only days after Tijana hung up her air hostess outfit Partisan uniform, Index was reporting the inspired rumour from the ropey Belgrade tabloid Kurir that the first lady of Croatian pop, otherwise known as Severina, was going to be featured alongside Ms Dapčević in a (still) as yet entirely hypothetical video for Sve je isto samo Njega nema. (Incidentally, don't ask what Seve's meant to be doing with that flag in the Index photo.)

It's so-not-true-but-should-be, and not just because Severina, whose day job is singing the Croatian style of semi-turbofolk, increasingly does for Croatia what the French would be horrified to think that Marianne did for them. Everyone in ex-Yugoslavia knows who Seve is, but mainly for the same reason that everyone's heard of Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton, and Abi Titmuss. Internet traffic across the south-east European region apparently slowed to a standstill the day that Severina's tape was, errr, leaked out, and Draxblog - like millions of his neighbours - was keeping a watchful eye on things at the time.

After an island-hopping summer out of the limelight, Severina clocked back on with the confusingly-titled Bojate bane buski (not even she knows what the title means, so let's hope it doesn't translate as We Rushed This Out In August Before The Chorus Was Done), followed by her biggest hit from her '04 CD, Hrvatica - Croatian woman, with a striking video shot in an old Ljubljana factory. One might ask - as author Boris Dežulović did in no uncertain terms - exactly who thought it would be a good idea to dress Seve up as Lara Croft, surround her with uniformed dancers waving Croatian flags, and even give her an Evita-on-the-balcony moment a little later on. Well, Zagreb stylist Robert Sever (no relation) and Slovenian choreographer Mojca Horvat, that's who. Not to worry; none of this stopped it topping the charts in Serbia-Montenegro.

I still haven't seen it properly (look: you try searching for severina video and see what you get), but it's verging far enough into Tijana territory, or vice versa, that they might need umpires if they ever met each other.

Unfortunately for Index, Tijana's video itself seems to have remained entirely hypothetical, knocking the prospect of any Macedonian-Croatian military-chic exchange visits on its head. Instead, Seve's spending her autumn irritating culture vultures by starring in Gospoda Glembajevi at the Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka, three years after her stage debut there in a rock opera playing a local folk heroine renowned for going on board ship to 'persuade' a British admiral not to open fire on French-owned Rijeka during the Napoleonic wars.

Which makes a change from the talk shows that every other female singer in Croatia sometimes seems to have got...

Czhance Would Be A Fine Thing

Instant SMS on Wednesday afternoon from Prague where Ed hasn't been off the plane two hours, steps into a shopping centre for something to eat, and walks slap bang into an impromptu concert by Czech covers diva Helena Vondračková, one of umpteen events celebrating her 40th anniversary in the business. It's hard to convey the oh-my-so-God extent of this coincidence unless you've been hearing from him about La Vondračková on a weekly basis ever since mid-May.

Some readers might be vaguely familiar with Croatia's Tereza Kesovija, who's spent an extensive career covering light-entertainment standards such as The Winner Takes It All, I Have A Dream, and Time To Say Goodbye. Helena's spent a just as extensive one covering Time To Say Goodbye, I Have A Dream, and The Winner... well, you know what the winner does by now. Unlike Tereza, her repertoire also includes a version of Shaddap You Face that isn't half as bad as it should be.

But don't listen to her, cos she's gone all Do you believe in life after love?...

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Karma Chameleons

A close friend is off to Prague for a week, which prompts me to find a Croatian-Czech connection for today's showbiz snippet. There's only one choice: Karma.

Karma (est. 2001) are a Croatian two-guys-and-a-girl dance band on the successful model of Colonia (est. 1997). Everywhere's got one, whether they let on or not: Lloret del Mar style Eurodisco with a hint of turbofolk, or whatever it was that jet-skied into their synthesiser at top speed. On their last album, they even took the DJ Sammy route and included a dance cover of Bon Jovi's Livin' On A Prayer. Last year, long-legged lead singer Tara was ever-present in the Croatian gossip weeklies to show off her new nose.

They're arguably also one of Croatian entertainment's most successful exports, and knock up number 1s in the Czech Republic and Slovakia with inexplicable frequency. (Not to mention Slovenia, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro, ie. the places any self-respecting Croatian star/let needs to have gone.)

Inexplicable, that is, until you visit the Adriatic at any point in summertime and find it full to the brim with Czech tourists. Reportedly, up to a million holidaying Czechs now flit south to Croatia every year. They hear Malo pomalo or Zemljotres endlessly at the beach bar, go home, send the album gold, buy the DVDs, flock to their Czech concerts, and generally make the Croatian balance of payments look that little bit more optimistic.

Yes: they're the Czech Vengaboys. And they're proud of it, too.

The Gazette realises, too late, that it has just brought a Karma cover version of Karma Chameleon on the world...

Freedom Towers

Tristram Hunt writes in yesterday's Guardian about the withdrawal of plans to build a so-called International Freedom Center at the site of Ground Zero in NYC. For Freedom, here, read some of the most simplistic children's-schoolbook narration you would have had the misfortune to encounter, dedicated to presenting the course of modern history as an American fight for liberty and giving US foreign policy coherent by binding it to the memory of 9/11.

The idea came from New York State's Republican governor in the first place, which hardly looks like a coincidence; American governmental politics has been heading down the legitimising-war-through-ropey-historical-narratives route for some time. There's an American Ugrešić or two out there, for sure; time to hear more from them.

Dubravka Ugrešić: Honey And Pepper

Dubravka Ugrešić visited our university yesterday. Try to describe her any further than that and you run into trouble, which is precisely the sort of dilemma she writes about. Our internal email took the here-and-now approach: 'writer, Amsterdam'. 99% of the reviews you'll see of her new novel The Ministry of Pain are likely to call her a 'Croatian author'. Neither option tells even half the story.

My précis can't do justice to the main thrust of her lecture, so I won't try. Suffice it to say it had to do with the infinite adaptability of post-Communist intellectuals first to the nationalist political climates of the 1990s, then to whatever's necessary to satisfy the EU's idea of what national cultures are. (If you write in Lusatian Sorb, apparently, you've got it made.) According to Ugrešić, east European writers are only marketable as long as they're producing something exotic. I have a sideline academic interest in what I officially call essentialised national heritage and have started unofficially calling Ruslanafication if no-one's listening, so when it comes to this bit, I can only agree.

Ugrešić's essays The Culture of Lies were the first thing I read in the mid-90s that made me think nationalism wasn't always a Good Thing. Get deeper into her arguments and I start to have more issues, but one thing I do admire with Ugrešić is her eye for the telling detail, reminiscent of Marina Warner when she hits the spot. This time, she had her sights on the paprenjak biscuits Croatia Airlines sometimes give out, which have an explanatory text by Zvonimir Milčec crammed on to the wrapper to the effect that the biscuits are like Croatian history: they're a mix of honey and pepper, 'central Europe and the Mediterranean in ideal proportions', foreign invaders have always reached for the honey leaving only the pepper, and now Croats are on their own they can enjoy both. (Question: how big have those biscuits got to be?) Don't anyone show her the cookies Kraš make with a Croatian šahovnica pattern baked into them.

Oh, and I wasn't the person who asked her why young Croatians like to listen to Serbian turbofolk...

Bad Omens For Night Watch

Russian horror blockbuster Night Watch, released last week, came preceded by an aggressive poster and trailer campaign which hardly let on that the film hadn't flown in direct from Hollywood Central. Reportedly the most expensive production in Russian cinema history, Timur Bekmambetov's episode-one-of-three features the forces of light and their Night Watch breaking their thousand-year truce with the army of darkness and its Day Watch, all on the Moscow metro. Don't mention Underworld's werewolves-vs.-vampires high concept, but feel free to think of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's similarly-themed collaboration Good Omens, a 1990 comic novel of which the Gazette owns a battered and well-loved copy.

What a shame, then, that Gazette Towers' local cinema has obviously received so many customer complaints about the programme not being in English that there's now a sign stuck all over the door:

Night Watch has subtitles and some English narration.

And this is Guardian-reading Lib Dem-voting Richmond. Heaven help Kingston.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Turbofolk Masterclass

Dear Gazette,

Yes? I've got a Greek travel writing bibliography to mail off.

What's this turbofolk you're always going on about?

Do you mind! It hasn't come up once so far. I did call Natalija Verboten 'turbo-schlager'. But that's the lot.

Well, it so will.

Fair point.

As far as ex-Yugoslavia goes, turbofolk's usually said to come from Serbia, although it's got all sorts of equivalents from Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Israel, and further afield, mixing traditional and faux-traditional rhythms and vocal qualities with modern electronic orchestration and production values. I listen to far too much of it. So do lots of people across ex-Yugoslavia, and beyond. They don't always admit to it, and neither, in fact, do I.

Turbofolk isn't just a musical style, it's an aesthetic too: think bling. For various reasons that I go into at far more length elsewhere, Croatian singers have picked it up very enthusiastically as well, and it gives an awful lot of people an excuse to go off on one about Ceca Ražnatović (widow-of-the-murdered-war-criminal-Arkan, etc. etc.), who's generally taken as the worst of the lot.

It's also worth its weight in column inches: from western journalists looking for exoticism, via Croatian why-oh-why columnists, to academic research like this. The authority on Serbian turbofolk is Eric Gordy, who you can also find over at East Ethnia.

If you've found the Gazette already, you've probably got a fair idea what turbofolk is, and I probably bear most of the responsibility for that. So all this is really by way of introducing a turbofolk masterclass in the shape of the diva from Bijeljina, Seka Aleksić, and her latest hit Sviđa mi se tvoja devojka - aka. I really like your girlfriend - which you should be able to hear from her homepage if you're that way inclined. High on the turbo and high on the folk, if this song started playing when you looked up turbofolk in the dictionary (if there was even a dictionary to find turbofolk in), it would make my life that much easier.

That said, your average turbofolk singer tends not to go

I madar slutim da zbog toga nisam normalna
Baš mi se sviđa tvoja devojka


And even though I hear that I'm not normal because of it
I really like your girlfriend

Serbian pop being Serbian pop, it's probably going to turn out that half the songs on Seka's album originally belonged to Despina Vandi, Anna Vissi and Keti Garbi, the leading triad of Modern Laika, errr, Greek turbofolk. (Remind me to tell you the Despina Vandi-Jelena Karleuša story sometime.) Part of me isn't at all convinced that the three of them aren't some mega-conglomerate the way that British Rail isn't Network Rail isn't Railtrack.

In the meantime, Karleuša-going-Ruslana-going-a-bit-Tatu is a pretty good recipe for putting together my song of 2005.

Of the second half, anyway.

The Italian Job Heads West, Up, And Away

I'm running low on superlatives to describe Joss Whedon's new movie Serenity, object of an opening-night family excursion at the weekend. Whedon wearing his Buffy- and Angel-creating hats has put in most of the snappiest dialogue on TV in the last few years... i.e., anything that didn't come from ex-West Wing Aaron Sorkin or the Green Wing team. First-among-equals captain Malcolm Reynolds (take a bow, Nathan Fillion) is getting compared to Han Solo pretty much everywhere, and there's no question that his crew of freebooters would flatten the Millennium Falcon lot on the off-chance they went all Feltham High Street round the back of the cantina.

Serenity's equal parts sf, heist caper and western, and only made it to the screen because its prequel TV show Firefly got pulled, and Joss Whedon doesn't appreciate being interrupted. (Apparently the movie heads where Firefly would have gone by the finale of season 2.) The Big Idea with Firefly was to make an honest-to-goodness cowboys-sheriffs-and-saloons western, which just so happens to take place in the 26th century long after we've evacuated this solar system. We're talking way out West. And believe it or not from a guy whose TV heritage is squarely Monsters Inc, there's not a bloodsucker, flying saucer or little grey in sight: for once with Whedon, the human capacity for evil is more than enough.

Western TV's been a growth industry recently (qv. the potty-mouthed Deadwood, unhelpfully showing on Sky One here), so Firefly should have landed on its feet. Still, TV's loss was cinema's gain, and at least no-one's had to wait a year and a half to find out why the planetary Alliance (funny how there's always an Alliance) couldn't let psychic ex-agent River and her doctor brother get away. The western-sf fusion was an idea waiting to happen, now that it's a film-studies commonplace that all the spacefaring science fiction is just the next episode of Americans vs. The Big Bad Frontier.

I enjoy not-particularly-intelligent, blowing-up-very-big-things-and-getting-away-with-it sf movies as much as the next woman (and sometimes more, if I've got a good reason). Serenity, on the other hand, is in a different class, unless you're trying to fill up a Movie Cliché Bingo scorecard (I'll excuse Whedon his Spiderman-style action-scene one-liners, since most of them were his in the first place); in fact the longest foray into cliché-land is its ostentatiously setting up the sequel. Do I hear the word trilogy...?

Surrogate Eurovision Countdown Underway

Ed from Popjustice can't wait for the Eurovision gossip season to start, which is fair enough, because neither can I. He's keeping himself busy by predicting what each country will send before they send it, which means that right up until the final song selection deadline, he's going to know far more about the Turkish, Russian and Portuguese songs than anyone actually in Turkey, Russia or Portugal.

I'll be keeping track of these to see how many come true, because Ed has previous form with this sort of thing, including mentally putting a certain Katie Price down for the UK pre-selection Making Your Mind Up eighteen months before the silicone one squeaked her way to non-Javine-conquering ignominy.

I'm keeping schtum on what he's got planned for Geri Halliwell, until he leaks it...

Monday, October 10, 2005

Ljubljana Report: Tijana's Cunning Plan

Mopping up the discographic fallout from last month's trip to Slovenia, where at least the guy in the record shop trying to shift a reissued 80s Doris Dragovic CD was pleased to see me. The taxi driver whose wing mirror I inadvertently knocked off with my Enormous Handbag and a box of Bajadera wasn't.

I meant to kick off with a good word for Magnifico's Hir i kam, hir ai go, the Slovenian cousin of the Renault Mégane Shakin' That Ass ad. (Watch Magnifico shake his, if you like.) But a quick Google tells me that BBC London world music guru Charlie Gillett has got there before me. Apropos of nothing: Gillett's talent-spotting record includes Portuguese electro-fado group Madredeus, bottle-blonde Portuguese fado star Mariza, and countless other non-Portuguese non-fado musicians whose names don't even all begin with M.

Gratuitously mentioning turbo-schlager starlet Natalija Verboten is meant to be a ratings winner, and if it works for Slovenian tabloids, it might just help Illyrian Gazette. The Gazette loves her Rdeč ferari, although when it comes to last year's Eurovision pre-selection, Myfanwy and the Only Gays In Styria weren't any match for a certain Monika Pučelj: Warrior Princess. And Natalija's main up-front assets aren't anything the Gazette hasn't seen before in seven years of keeping up with Croatian showbiz.

Fatally for my chances of getting out on time in the morning, the TV in my hotel room was picking up both German Viva and Serbian TV Pink, an MTV Balkan in all but name. Discovery of the week was Macedonian Brigitte-Nielsen lookalike Tijana Dapčević, whose cunning plan to win Budva Festival in Montenegro was to dress up as a Partisan (of course, miniskirts were so practical for yomping through the forests of Bosnia in the 1940s), shove a little kid in a Pioneers outfit on stage with her, and sing a topical little number called Sve je isto samo Njega nema - a cliché which translates as Everything's the same, but He's not here. I'm particularly impressed by the ambulance-chasing line about legendary rock band Bijelo Dugme's reunion, which makes her almost as quick off the mark than I had to be to squeeze them into a paper on transnationalism in pop music back in June, and I trust Croatia's Alka Vuica, queen of intelligently Balkan Yugo-pop, is getting ready to sue.

Oh, there were also Tokio Hotel, but the Gazette doesn't talk about them...