Thursday, May 24, 2007

May We Have Your Votes Please

The Gazette is one of the nominees for A Fistful of Euros' Best Weblog About Southeastern Europe award, and so are several other blogs it likes to read.

So, 'come on and vote, vote,' etc...


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Eurovision 2007: Croatia And The Eastern League

As for the ongoing resonance of this year's Eurovision result in 'the region': East Ethnia reports that at least two political parties in Serbia are trying to claim some of Šerifović's reflected glory: the Roma Union of Serbia (to which her mother and uncle are affiliated, and for whom she campaigned herself), and the Serbian Radical Party (who claim her grandfather's membership).

Heading slightly north-west, the Croatian view of the bloc-voting controversy is oddly distanced from time to time: talking, like one Jutarnji list columnist, about the eastern alliance' and 'the hurricane from the east' begins to suggest that Croatia doesn't quite belong to it. And then there's Milan Jajčinović in Večernji list:

'Politics also used this year's Eurovision for some messages of its own. Just as in last year's voting by the ex-Yugoslav states - when they mutually handed out points to each other - the European nomenklatura emphasised the signs of normalisation in the states [which had] been warring until yesterday, so does the EU see not only the victory of a good singer in the Serbian song's triumph this year but the victory of a new politics!'

If the bloc situation is one theme of Croatian post-Eurovision coverage, the other is the Beautiful Homeland's failure to qualify for the Eurovision final. T-Portal writes that 'despite the winner's sexual orientation, this year's Eurovision result marks a return to normal after last year's freak show', before turning to the collapse of Croatia's own Eurovision effort:

'Sending an ageing rocker and a buxom blonde who can't sing into the company of transvestives, lesbians, monsters and DJ Bobo, with a song that sounds like a reject from the YURM [rock festival] in 1974, didn't prove to be a winning combination. Last year we could at least hope a good result would come as a reward for Severina's acting abilities.

What was going through the head of [head of entertainment] Aleksandar Kostadinov and the HRT team responsible for Eurovision when they put their money on Dado and Dragonfly isn't clear to us. As it is, we came 30th out of 42 countries, far behind the Serbs, Bosnians, Slovenes and Macedonians. Is there anything worse?

T-Portal's not the only one to ask. Even Kostadinov's deputy Mario Sedmak, a former head of entertainment itself, argued in Jutarnji list's post-semi-final post-mortem that organisers of the national selection in the future should make it clear to songwriters 'what sort of songs do well in Eurovision, and which ones don't. This year's song didn't make an impression and we didn't have any staging.' (Should Kostadinov have to carry the can for non-qualification, Sedmak could well get to put this into practice next year.)

Pop composer Tonči Huljić, who's frequently steered Croatia into the Eurovision top ten, was guarded on that occasion, recommending only that the song selection should be left to 'professionals' rather than the public and/or a HTV jury; last night's Otvoreno talk show (on HTV), however, saw him more critical of Kostadinov. One of the song's performers, Dado Topić, has criticised HTV's organisation of the song (one 27-minute recording session and no promotional video), and Rock and Democracy suggests that he only reluctantly became involved with the performance in the first place.

And what to do about those pesky blocs? Marija Nemčić, head of HTV and Croatia's most important representative at the European Broadcasting Union, has promised that 'we're already beginning to work on a recommendation for a new format which would avoid the problem of neighbouring states' - and which, if it came from Croatia, might at least be sensitive to the problem of defining permanent Easties and Westies. Although, if the EBU ended up enshrining western and eastern leagues which happened to place Croatia on the western side of things, would that necessarily be a disaster from the Croatian state broadcaster's point of view?

Lastly: Radio B92 celebrates its 18th birthday today, but there's less happy cultural news from Zagreb, where the alternative club Močvara may be forced to close after a town hall decision limiting its bar opening hours to midnight.

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Eurovision 2007: Join The Bloc Party

You can't keep a good Eurovision story down at this time of year, and far less one based on elementary number-crunching and symbolic-geographical stereotypes. BBC News Online rounds up some of the recent calls for Something To Be Done about the contest's east-west division, including Liberal Democrat MP Richard Younger-Ross's parliamentary early day motion to ask the BBC to insist on voting reform, Maltese protest voting and German tabloid sabre-rattling.

Notwithstanding snide columns or the prospect of a Eurovision comedy by the Borat scriptwriter (an almost inevitable combination after the advent of Verka Serdyuchka?), some of the Eurovision blogosphere is having a bash at countering what's quickly become the prevailing myth about the 2007 contest. Even counting only the votes of the less disputably western European countries, or even the remaining participants from 1990, the top of the scoreboard still remains eastern-dominated, although a western-only vote in the semi-final (see comments here) would have sent Portugal and Iceland through qualification at the expense of Moldova and Macedonia.

A possible conclusion: maybe it's currently more profitable to appeal to 'eastern' tastes, since by doing so there's a good chance of appealing to the 'west' at the same time. That might be to do with the various eastern European pop-folk industries' accommodation of contemporary pop/hip-hop production (quite a contrast to the music-for-entertainment-television schlager which tends to represent most of the western entrants), or to do with the glamourised easternness (Turkish, Bollywood, or abstract) occasionally articulated in North American music video.

If the future is pop-folk, at least there's an opportunity for the United Kingdom: British bhangra, a flourishing subculture rarely supported by the mainstream media in the UK (with the exception of the BBC's Asian Network and 1Xtra on digital radio). Angling for the 'eastern' vote, hitting BBC diversity targets and probably scoring higher than the French: it must be worth a go.

If nothing else, it's more ambitious than an air hostess routine...

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Monday, May 14, 2007

A European Vote For European Serbia?

Following the line of Olli Rehn, the EU's enlargement commissioner who hailed Serbia's Eurovision victory as 'a European vote for European Serbia', the symbolic connection between the removal of Serbian Radical Tomislav Nikolić as parliamentary speaker and Serbia's 'acceptance' by the rest of Europe has not been lost on post-Eurovision reporters: The Guardian, for instance, headlines its whole-page article 'From pariah state to kitsch victory: how a Balkan ballad showed Europe a new Serbia'.

Jutarnji list likewise emphasises 'how symbolic that victory was in the week where Serbia on account of Nikolić had again become a country dreaded by Europe', and quotes the Vojvodinan parliamentary deputy Nenad Čanak's statement that (Nikolić having called for closer ties between Serbia and Russia) 'Croatia gave us twelve points, so did Montenegro and Macedonia, and Russia [gave us] five. So Tomislav Nikolić has to be dismissed.'

The Guardian's Ian Traynor also interprets the victory as a blow against the 'ear-splitting melange of Balkan rhythms, electronic pounding, and stridently nationalist lyrics' of turbofolk, although Rock and Democracy is less optimistic regarding the longer-term consequences for popular music in Serbia when Eurovision is hosted there next year:

'A mainly eastern bloc led by Ukraine will push into Serbia and then strengthen a growing domestic fruit, and of course you all know that that fruit is called Turbo-folk.'

There's not so much about cultural politics in Serbian tabloid Kurir, which treats Marija Šerifović's win as a victory for the whole nation, celebrated as publicly as the return of sporting gold medallists. (Though Reluctant Dragon, on Belgrade's Trg Republike after Eurovision, couldn't help thinking that some crowd members who were 'chanting nationalistic slogans were nonetheless 'the same people who would probably beat her up in the street if they suspected she was a Gypsy or if it turned out she actually was gay.')

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Vote, Vote, Vote, Vote, Vote For The Winners

Congratulations to Marija Šerifović for winning Eurovision 2007, as predicted and celebrated by the Serbian blogosphere. Šerifović said after the show that she 'hopes that next year in Belgrade it will be a music contest again' although - given the rock-chick and chain-mail aesthetic that dominated Eurovision this year after Lordi's victory in 2006 - don't be surprised if it takes on its own sideshow of a contest in fine tailoring and pseudo-lesbian dance.

Outside 'the region' itself, the prevailing frame for remembering this year's Eurovision is likely to be the east/west problem. The geographical spread of points is made particularly graphic at Diamond Geezer, but it's worth remembering it takes 42 countries to make a board-sweeping on such a scale. True, the Saturday top 10 of Serbia, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Belarus, Greece, Armenia, Hungary and Moldova is another all-eastern, all-the-time extravaganza (assuming one is happy to amalgamate such an expanse of overlapping cultural markets and musical influences into one 'east').

If East had really outdone West by sheer weight of bloc-led numbers alone, there might be aerious cause for concern, but it's more than a case of one bloc being structurally empowered to always outvote the other. Of the seven western European finalists, none finished higher than the Finnish hosts at 17th, and few even received significant support from their neighbours: no Belgian votes for France, no Andorran votes for Spain, and outside the transnational schlager union of Scandinavia the majority of western countries voted for a predominantly eastern slate.

What can't be accounted for under any nationally-based voting system is the effect of increased migration from eastern to western Europe: organised diasporic voting campaigns are one possibility, but so is the prospect that Poles, Serbs, Armenians and so forth in (say) the United Kingdom might be more likely to watch the show than the host population. (Or even than their compatriots back home?) Again, though, east/west isn't the only axis where this factor operates (those regular Spanish points to Germany mostly come from somewhere).

Nonetheless, it's perceptions that make policy, and the broadcasters who feel as if they have the most to lose are those from the former western European powerhouses of 1970s and 1980s Eurovision who don't have the Spanish/French/German/British advantage (or disadvantage?) of automatic qualification to rely on. Countries such as the Netherlands, Norway, or Sweden, the home country of Eurovision's current scrutineer Svante Stockselius, whose task before Belgrade 2008 is to balance the demands and sensibilities of the 'Big Four', the not-so-big half a dozen, the enthusiastic newcomers and a band of countries who would be horrified to find themselves on the eastern side of any permanent geographical division.

Given which, one can only wish him the best of Swedish luck...

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Pre-Eurovision Blog Roundup

Now that Serbia's Marija Šerifović has negotiated the Eurovision semi-final and seems among the favourites to win full stop, the local blogs have a direct interest in tonight's final: Reluctant Dragon is encouraged by the semi-final performance, and Belgrade Blog fancies its chances of being on the spot of a Serbian-hosted Eurovision next year.

Elsewhere, Dirrty Pop is noticing the east/west issue, Czech Out is in Helsinki, and World of Chig isn't.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

The Morning After The Semi-Final Before

Among the eight 'eastern European' participants not to benefit from the apparent eastwards slant of the Eurovision semi-final was Croatia: in the same week as the death of the composer responsible for Croatia's first Eurovision entry as an independent state in 1993, Croatia missed out on an appearance in the final for the first time since then.

While Serbia's Marija Šerifović enters the final as joint favourite with a ballad not so unlike Croatia's own entries from the mid-1990s, Dragonfly and Dado Topić didn't stand out from other straightforward rock entries (Iceland and the Czech Republic), none of which made it through.

Several readers' comments on the relevant Jutarnji list article seem to have it in for HTV head of entertainment Aleksandar Kostadinov, who strongly associated himself with the uncharacteristic Dora winner from the outset. Eurovision's importance to HTV - dating from the days when taking part offered a symbolic confirmation of Croatian statehood - is such that not qualifying for the final is the entertainment equivalent of the Croatian (or the English) football team not making it into an international tournament: should anyone be held responsible, the chances are it would be Kostadinov himself.

HTV's head of contact (interactive) programming Mario Sedmak might be among the favourites to replace his current line manager Kostadinov, now that the Strictly Come Dancing and Just The Two Of Us imports have given him two successful music shows to his department's credit. Web portal Index's solution is simpler: bring back Tonči Huljić, the populist pop producer responsible for three (or maybe four) of Croatia's six top ten finishes (and whose pan-pipe-inflected song for Jelena Rozga was widely supposed to be the Dora favourite this time).

Yet despite Eurovision's current affinity for folk-pop, when it comes to Croatia it seems you're still damned if you do and even if you don't: glancing over the ten qualifiers, there are at least two which Croatia could have matched while keeping its cultural values reasonably intact. If Bulgaria's ethno-techno percussion is qualification material, so too might be Mojmir Novaković's work with Legen and Kries, and if Georgia can incorporate sword dancing into a Eurovision performance, could anything be done with Korčula's renowned Moreška? Ultimately, however, it depends on national folk-music establishments: Bulgarian percussionist Stoyan Yankoulov might be happy to co-operate, but Novaković, for instance, has been much more sceptical about folk music compromising with showbusiness.

Croatia is nonetheless tangentially represented in Saturday's final: Alenka Gotar's Slovenian entry Cvet z juga (Flower from the south) has been written by Croatian songwriter Andrej Babić...

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Showbusiness Ethnopolitics: Eurovision Voting Redux

From Riga on the Baltic to Piran on the Adriatic,* there's one thing the ten qualifiers from last night's Eurovision Song Contest semi-final have in common: Belarus, Macedonia, Slovenia, Hungary, Georgia, Latvia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Moldova can all be found to the eastern side of them. At least in the non-qualifying Dutch camp, there are hints of a feeling that the current structure of the contest is over-representing central/south-east European countries and new entrants from the former Soviet Union.

Booing from the arena audience as the final qualifier was announced hasn't helped matters, although the word on the Helsinki street is that the reaction had less to do with an east-west axis, more to do with the Eurovision press and fan corps having massively taken to Andorra's skate-pop boy band Anonymous during rehearsal week.

Complaints of political/neighbourly voting aren't quite the root of the problem: the ex-socialist and eastern-Mediterranean participant countries tend to be smaller, often recently fragmented, and (decisively) more committed to a high-priority eye-catching presentation. For the moment, at least, ethno-pop and folk-dance choreography (culminating this year in a Georgian sword dance) come across as more original than drag acts and tired soul music, although that might not be the case after several more years of the Eurovision Banging Drums And Shouting 'Hey' While Wearing Leather/Fur/Chain Mail Contest. Moreover, take a large multi-national state with a common music market, split it into six or more nation-states with a shared musical past, and any entry which resonates with the populations' musical tastes ends up six times more profitable on the scoreboard than it might have been.

Tempers may be assuaged by 2009, when the Eurovision Broadcasting Union plans to hold two semi-finals to replace the current system that relegates most finalists and all non-qualifiers into next year's semi-final. In the meantime, it would ease political strains a little if some of the four annual qualifiers - France, Germany, Spain and the UK (the four biggest financial contributors to Eurovision) - could contrive to place in the top ten and free up an extra finalist's position or two.

* Poland didn't make it, and Italy have stayed away from Eurovision since 1997, hence the mangled quotation...

UPDATE:: More from the Helsinki street (with bonus commentary from the Icelandic representative).

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Top Of The Piramida

Željka Ogresta's interactive talk show Piramida might have caused enough trouble in Croatia to stall the career of TV executive Tanja Šimić and equate the Homeland War with the Oprah show (at least according to one HDZ grandee), but internationally the format can currently do no wrong: it's just picked up a Rose d'Or at the annual entertainment television festival in Lucerne.

The flagship of domestic entertainment production in Croatia, the Piramida concept - invite three controversial guests a week on to the show, viewers vote to send one into the next round and a house band makes up off-the-cuff songs about them - is just as much a cornerstone of HTV prime time as its foreign buy-ins, such as the Strictly Come Dancing and Just The Two Of Us imports (Ples sa zvijezdama and Zvijezde pjevaju) which have almost overtaken the Eurovision selection Dora as the channel's central musical projects.

Piramida currently airs in Slovenia, Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria and (its latest incarnation) Montenegro, but recognition in Lucerne might well enable the format to travel beyond south-east Europe. It's a wonder that more national broadcasters with inconvenient public service obligations and an eye for new sources of interactive revenue haven't had the idea already...

The Gazette gives it a year before Pyramid turns up on either BBC3 or Channel 4. Probably with Davina McCall and Four Poofs and a Piano.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Thompson In Sarajevo: Off After All

Despite numerous assurances earlier in the year that Marko Perković Thompson's concert in Sarajevo tomorrow would go ahead, the event has now been cancelled with less than 48 hours' notice - Ivica Bikić from the organising committee blaming insufficient security provision for the controversial concert in the face of unspecified threats and an advertising boycott.

Bikić hopes to reschedule the concert for September, although it would then lose its rationale as a celebration of the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's visit to Sarajevo - which, in the eyes of the various Franciscan officials reported by Jutarnji list as having reservations about such a commemoration, might be all to the good.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Assorted Blogosphere Pessimism

Anti Turbo Folk is naturally unhappy at the announcement by Osijek security entrepreneur Alen Borbaš, organiser of the annual Folk Hit of the Year ceremony and regular turbofolk defender on Croatian talk shows, that he will shortly launch a record label in Croatia to release music by pop-folk singers such as Siniša Vuco and Vesna Pezo and distribute CDs from the largest folk label in Serbia, Grand Productions.

Borbaš is already the Croatian representative for the transnational pop-folk channel Balkanika Music Television, so a record label would be a logical next step towards a cross-media platform - a prospect at which ATF is pessimistic, fearing that 'this primitive kitsch aesthetic' will begin to develop an institutional base of media support.

Elsewhere, a no more optimistic East Ethnia has its own suggestions for the new Serbian cabinet of Tomislav Nikolić.

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Djordje Novković: 1943-2007

Pop composer Djordje Novković has died at the age of 64.

2007 marked the prolific songwriter's 40th year in showbusiness, and a double CD containing his greatest hits was released only a few weeks ago as part of a series of celebratory events: a special edition of Zuhra light show in his honour was to be followed by an ensemble concert in Zagreb's Vatroslav Lisinski concert hall at the end of the year.

Born in the Serbian town of Šabac (according to the Croatian Composers' Society) or in Sarajevo (according to many of his newspaper obituaries today), Novković studied piano and conducting at the Sarajevo musical academy and began his career as a member of the Sarajevo band Indexi before founding his own group Pro Arte. He moved to Zagreb in 1970 to compose for Croatia's largest record label Jugoton (later Croatia Records), with whom he remained throughout his career.

A pioneer of the Croatian style of pop/folk crossover, Novković already anticipated the characteristic trend of 1990s Croatian pop production in the mid-1980s in his work for the then Sarajevo-based Neda Ukraden, whose hit Zora je (It's dawn) became one of his greatest successes (behind only Stari Pjer by Ivica Percl, which would be re-recorded by Nana Mouskouri as Dans le soleil, dans le vent). After experimenting with singers such as Duško Lokin and Dolores (with whom he tried to revive many of Ukraden's songs in 1993), he achieved some of his biggest hits of the Croatian era on Severina's 1999 and 2001 albums.

Novković's work in the early 1990s included Croatia's first Eurovision entry as an independent state in 1993, Don't ever cry (initiating a still unbroken sequence of Croatian appearances in the Eurovision final), as well as a number of patriotic songs in support of the Croatian war effort (among them Sanja Trumbić's Danke Deutschland and Moj je dragi u narodnoj gardi (My boyfriend's in the national guard)). At least one of his earlier patriotic compositions from the Yugoslav era may stand the test of time for longer: Zdravko Čolić's anthemic Druže Tito, mi ti se kunemo (Comrade Tito, we swear to you).

Novković's son Boris is himself a successful musician, mainly a pop-rock singer-songwriter who ventured into folk/pop territory in 2005-06 on the occasion of two Croatian Eurovision entries, as performer in 2005 and composer of Severina's entry in 2006.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Balkan Concerts In London

Remarkably like the proverbial buses, you wait ages for Balkan concerts in London and then four turn up at once. So far Ivo Papasov with Stoyan Yankoulov and Elitsa Todorova are at the Carling Academy Islington on 5 May; Neda Ukraden and Preslava at Agenda on 12 May; Tijana Dapčević at the Mean Fiddler on 23 May; and Bajaga at the Mean Fiddler on 10 June.

Any more we ought to know about?

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Operation Bljesak Anniversary

Today Croatia marks the twelfth anniversary of Operation Bljesak (Flash), with which Croatian forces liberated western Slavonia in 1995. President Mesić, PM Ivo Sanader and parliamentary speaker Vladimir Šeks have laid wreaths and lit candles in Okučani, while a Zagreb HDZ delegation led by veterans' minister Jadranka Kosor held their own ceremony in Mirogoj ceremony at the Defenders' Cross (a memorial to Homeland War soldiers) and the grave of their party's founder Franjo Tuđman.

The Bljesak anniversary was presumably the occasion for Marko Perković Thompson's concert this evening in Sisak as part of an event organised by the local HSP. (HSP Sisak already introduces its website with a midi of Thompson's first hit on the theme of veterans, Prijatelji (Friends). It remains to be seen whether any Sišćani will use the occasion to express the kinds of sentiments about the late Ivica Račan that one wouldn't write in a condolence book.

Talking of anniversaries, it's also the 300th of the United Kingdom. Any takers for a bet on reaching 350?

UPDATE: courtesy of Neretva River, a proper lowdown on anniversary politics in Sisak.

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