WASHINGTONIANS can dance to the music of Egoslavia, but what do Yugoslavians dance to the beat of? According to journalist/disc jockey Drazen Vrdoljak, they dance to the rock 'n' roll beat of such pop groups as Bijelo Dugme (White Button), Riblja Corba (Fish Soup), the New Wave of Vis Idolis (The Idols), Film and Azra, or the punk sounds of Pankrti (Bastards), Elektricni Orgazam, Berlinerstrasse and Urban Guerrilla. Most of the bands perform original material, thought there are also some Top 40 cover bands like Srebrna Krila (Silver Wings) and Novi Fosili (New Fossils).
There's even a New Wave band fronted by Mira Mijatovic, daughter of one of Yugoslavia's post-Tito premiers. "That was more like a joke," Vrdoljak says. "She started a band because it was very chic to have any connection with this kind of 'capitalism' several years ago. Because of her father, she got a little publicity, but it was never serious."
Vrdoljak, on a recent visit to Washington, said that "what is really going on is the new-wave scene, especially in Zagreb, where I live, and in Belgrade. In general, rock is the most popular music for younger people in big cities."
"New wave brought some originality because the musicians were young, clever people who were aware that to play just a copy of English new wave would mean nothing. They deal with specific situations in our country mainly through the lyrics."
At home, Vrdoljak is in an enviable position: he is both a respected music journalist (who has translated encyclopedias of jazz and rock) and a popular host on the state-run radio, playing mostly music from England and America. He was about to embark on a cultural tour of historic rock centers, with stops in Nashville, Memphis and several Texas cities.
Unlike most American jocks, Vrdoljak plays a wide spectrum of Western rock. "There is no official government attitude. I can play anything. The only thing to think about is whether it is listenable. It's easier to play something that's hot and English because not so many people understand, but nobody asks me why I play a record."
The Yugoslav rock scene may be a little backwards, mostly because the product has not been as readily available as it has been in the West. For one thing, there are practically no imported records; most rock albums are leased by Yugoton or another state-run company from major Western manufacturers like RCA, CBS and Capital. "Albums cost about $4, but it's bad quality pressing and you cannot get everything you want," Vrdoljak complains. On the upside, the two companies receive "demonstration copies of records and they give them to me to play on the radio, so I can keep in touch with what is going on. Sometimes I'm real proud to play records that have just been released in the United States."
Sales of popular domestic groups can reach the 300,000 to 500,000 level, "which is much if you know that this is not a very wide market" (population: 20 million). The first big rock concert in Yugoslavia was a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour by Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1973. Since then, some big groups like Deep Purple, Nazareth, Frank Zappa, Santana, Jethro Tull have been there; Talking Heads is currently in the middle of a European tour with several stops in Yugoslavia.
Bijelo Dugme (White Button), which came together in 1974, is the biggest pop group, according to Vrdoljak. "They are to Yugoslavia what the Beatles were to the international music scene. By finding a good combination of hard rock and folk in both music and lyrics, they became very popular. But like every big group in America, they now release a record every two or three years and tour only then."
The punk scene is "still very active in Slovenia, the north, but elsewhere it's considered archaic. Panktri are very good; like the Clash, they've managed to find a way to survive the first punk explosion and carry on." England seems to be a stronger influence than America--groups like Styx, Kansas and Journey are far less popular than British heavy metalers like AC/DC, Motorhead, Saxon and Gillan. Country and jazz have small audiences; American R&B and soul music from the '60s still get some play, as does reggae, but Yugoslavs have not been getting down to funk or rapping. "Disco records are played in discos, but not on the radio." There's also a minor ripple of interest in England's New Romantics (Classics Nouveaux, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet) which is as much fashion as music.
Despite his championing of rock, Vrdoljak himself is a country-western freak who was attracted to music by Willis Conover and the Voice of America's jazz programs. "I was 16 years old and had bought a book on Charlie Parker because of the cover, and as I was reading about Parker, Conover played him. Then I started exploring." Current favorites include Neil Young, the Gang of Four, Tom Waits, and Talking Heads. Who would he most like to meet in America? "Ry Cooder . . . and Willie Nelson."