Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Once Upon A Time In Maksimir

The first leg of Marko Perković Thompson's concert tour to promote his Bilo jednom u Hrvatskoj (Once upon a time in Croatia) concluded at the weekend, in front of anything between 35,000 and 50,000 people at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb. Not that one can be sure of the exact attendance: with the concert delayed for 24 hours after a thunderstorm, many attendees from outside Zagreb or Croatia were thought to have gone home, so the gates were thrown open to ensure a full house for the event extensively billed as 'the concert of Thompson's career'.

Thompson's most famous concert to date, at Split's Poljud stadium in 2002, was always going to be a tough act to follow. Poljud came at the height of protests against the indictments of Generals Ante Gotovina and Mirko Norac for war crimes (not to mention the Hague Tribunal's demand that Croatia extradite its former chief of staff Janko Bobetko, made only a few weeks before the concert), and during a thriving movement of Homeland War veterans opposed to the centre-left government of the late Ivica Račan's SDP - a situation which may or may not have been ripe for political manipulation, depending on which magazines you read.

What really elevated Thompson to the status of a social problem was the behaviour of young audiences at Poljud and elsewhere on the 2002 tour, wearing clothing with the Ustaša logo or pictures of Ante Pavelić (the leader of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) during the Second World War) and performing raised-fist salutes. A scandal in 2004 when Thompson himself was accused of performing a Pavelić-era song in the diaspora didn't help matters, so over and above presenting a new album, the Bilo jednom u Hrvatskoj project has an ulterior motive: to show that Thompson represents all patriotic Croats, rather than a political faction.

To this end, concert organiser Miljenko Ćurić announced before Maksimir that Ustaša insignia were banned by law, although enough U-logo caps slipped through for press photographers to come back with the expected pictures - and in a crowd of howevermanythousand people there's not much one can do about spontaneous chants of the best-known Ustaša song Evo zore, evo dana, evo Jure i Bobana ('Here comes the dawn, here comes day, here come [Crna Legija commanders] Jure and Boban') without causing a more serious incident. (How honoured the said Jure and Boban would actually have been is another question. The average Evo zore-quoting teenager seems to know enough about it to understand that it seriously winds up adults, but struggles with the lyrics as soon as s/he gets into the second couplet.)

Part of the problem is defining what should and shouldn't be thought of as 'an Ustaša symbol'. Evo zore, evo dana, referring to the NDH's elite Black Legion, is pretty unambiguous, but Pavelić's recourse to Croatian history in developing the iconography of his state makes some of the classifications problematic. For the Jewish community in Zagreb, which put up the most resistance to the Maksimir concert, the slogan 'Za Dom spremni' ('Ready for the Home') is unequivocally Ustaša thanks to its adoption by the leader of the Independent State of Croatia, Ante Pavelić. For Thompson, the slogan has legitimate historical precedents in the battle cries of earlier leaders, and it opens his breakthrough hit from 1992: Bojna Čavoglave (The Čavoglave platoon), with which he described his front-line experience with his fellow villagers at the start of the Homeland War.

Thompson's stardom since has been inseparable from his persona as a veteran (an authenticity which surely helped him capture the moment during 2002), and his appeals to respect the memory of fallen soldiers are still prominent throughout Bilo jednom u Hrvatskoj.

Nonetheless, between Poljud and Maksimir the singer has experienced another masculine archetype, fatherhood, and family relationships are a stronger theme on the current album than on any of his previous ones, which were more concerned with relations between grown men (not least comrades in arms). This time around, commemorations of the dead are balanced with songs in honour of Thompson's grandfather, his sons, and his daughter (this last a song in praise of 'Diva Grabovčeva', a Herzegovinan princess remembered for dying in a state of grace when murdered by the Turks) - completing Thompson's triad of values, 'God, the family and the Homeland'.

For the first time in Thompson's career since his 1998 comeback with Prijatelji (one of the first Croatian songs to articulate veterans' resentment), the memory of the war isn't the only aspect of his image, although it remains essential. The concert's organisation itself seemed to point to a subtle reorientation, breaking the tradition of opening the set with Bojna Čavoglave (which was still the plan as late as Thompson's cancelled Sarajevo concert in May) and replacing it with the first track from the new album, the appropriately-titled Početak (Beginning), a song which deals with peace and God's love. Meanwhile, official concert T-shirts have been produced for the first time in green (matching the new album's cover) as well as the traditional black, although unofficial vendors have stayed faithful to the old colour scheme.

(Of course, the most emphatic thing to do would be to drop Čavoglave and the black outfits entirely, but for the sake of consistency it might be a step too far.)

Whether Maksimir reflected Thompson the mature father or Thompson the corporate edition, Sunday's concert seems to have lived up to its billing as a landmark in his career. The evening was just as significant for Tomislav Bralić and Klapa Intrade, who confirmed their place on Croatia's patriotic showbusiness A-list by appearing in the only guest spot to perform their unavoidable hit Croatijo, iz duše te ljubim (Croatia, I love you from the soul) - the cornerstone of the current klapa revival.

No report of the concert was complete without at least one picture of audience members (usually teenage boys) playing up to the camera with Ustaša salutes, although Jutarnji list at first took the trouble to take a wider-ranging look at the crowd - such as a 67-year-old woman who enjoys Thompson's 'national folklore', or a younger woman who has no problems reconciling her Croatian patriotism with her intention to vote for SDP. The most emphatic thing to do might be to deny the Ustaša-cap-wearing types the satisfaction of a photograph rather than framing them with sanctimonious captions about 'the unwanted images' and the like.

Except that then there'd be no scandal to be made, which for the Croatian media (or anybody else's) would probably be a step too far.

UPDATE>: Lupiga and Balkan Baby have been to the concert too.

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At 2:08 pm, June 20, 2007, Anonymous Viktor said...

Thompson is clearly a fascist or at least an admirerer of fascists, but he managed to present himself as a patriot and a lot of people bought it. It makes me sad to see so much young people admiring fascists under the mask of patriotism... We have our own similar problems here but it doesn't make me feel any better when I see our neighbours have to cope with same shit too.
A black t-shirt is never just a black t-shirt in Thompson concert, no matter how they try to conceal it.

At 2:20 pm, June 20, 2007, Blogger Catherine said...

Not even when it has Bart Simpson on it, I fear, which was one of the more creative efforts I saw around Maksimir....

At 11:30 am, June 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I was at the concert myself and will write about in on my blog over the next week. I wore a black t-shirt myself (though this was an accident and wasn't any message since on the rained off concert on Saturday I wore an orange and white t'shirt!).

Thompson treads a very thin line, and though he appeals to fascists and skin-heads I think he himself is a pure Croat patriot. To bother himself with issues such as fascist ideology would distract him from his love for Croatia. He has made some awful blunders with some of the things he said, and his celebration of NDH attrocities was terrible, but as with Serbia's Eurovision winner and her recent comments concerning Finnland, I think this is more stupidity rather than any genuine mallice.

I hate trying to deffend rascist attitudes, but I just feel that there are far worse and far more dangerous people than Marko Perkovic. The concert itself was excellent, and with 45,000 people in attendence you can't say that all of us there were fascists or fascist sympathisers. No?

Take care,

At 4:41 pm, June 21, 2007, Blogger Catherine said...

10-15 years ago he used to be a lot more specific about his historical/political sympathies... who knows whether he avoids so much detail now for the sake of marketing, or whether he's genuinely changed his mind somewhat.

As for the aspects of his music that fascists can latch on to, it's another question whether Thompson himself interprets those as fascist (in the sense of a transnational political movement) or whether anything going on outside Croatia is irrelevant to him anyway.....

At 7:42 pm, June 21, 2007, Anonymous Viktor said...

Hi Ed,
Of course there are bigger problems in Croatia and Balkans today, but that doesn't justify the problem called Thompson. I could have said the same thing about Marija's statement, and not mention it, but I found it important. If we are trying to compare this two things, however, Marija is nothing in comparison to Thompson.
I honestly don't understand why you defend something that's not possible to defend - of course i don't think you are fascist or anything like that, but I think you are deeply wrong about Thompson.
Looking forward to your report from the concert, hope it will be as objective as Catherine's or as this one at Lupiga, and we will continue our discussion there.

At 8:14 pm, June 21, 2007, Anonymous Viktor said...

Here's the link of Lupiga report, I messed it up the first time

At 2:33 pm, June 22, 2007, Blogger Ed said...


Typing it at the moment and will try and have it done before I go away to Austria for a few days... ummm... given the topic of our conversation concerning fascism it's a somewhat unfortunate destination I guess!

Take care,

At 6:32 pm, June 29, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Viktor how about you first read what Thomson said in video, audio and translated in English?

At 3:58 pm, December 24, 2009, Blogger bathmate said...

very good posting. i liked it. :-)



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