New Primitives & New Partisans: A Discussion

There are a multitude of ways to understand and contextualize punk music in the former Yugoslavia. Historically, punk is a genre that has existed as a means for people - particularly young ones - to articulate and express themselves in a separate way from the dominant cultural narrative. Punk groups in Yugoslavia had a unique relationship with the state establishment, and because of this they also had a distinct connection to the question of national identity. There are two primary ways that punk groups in Yugoslavia presented themselves in relation to this question. First, in an “ironic” reappropriation of Yugoslav state imagery and dismantling of traditional narratives for Yugoslav national identity. The second way to link Yugoslav punk to the question of national identity is through grassroots, organic punk communities and spaces built as alternatives to the mainstream Yugoslav centers. It is also important to note the ways in which punk was used to express an opposition to Yugoslavia’s turn to the West and commodity culture.  This second method will be the primary focus of this piece. A brief, general analysis of Yugoslav national identity is necessary for context, and it will be followed by two punk ‘case studies’: the New Primitives, and the New Partisans. These movements can also help us understand the rise of ethno-national identity politics that would come in the 90’s. Yugoslav punk music served as a sort of bridge between the gaps of Tito/Tito-esque state socialism and the rampant nationalism of Milosevic and other figures like him.  

One of the key elements of understanding the growth of these alternative spaces through punk music is acknowledging the ‘emptiness’ of Yugoslav state socialist identity. The word emptiness is used here to describe the lack of fulfillment behind the promises of the state. Strong narratives of a unified republic built on socialism, brotherhood, anti-fascism, and glory became particularly persistent following the Second World War. The mainstream national and cultural discourse of Yugoslavia was centered around traditionalist, often hyper-masculine understandings of identity; these views occurred in tandem with Westernization and increased commodity culture as well. Romanticized, mythicized, and exaggerated glory were central to the national and cultural identity. The promises of equality and socio economic liberation were not actually fulfilled - class divide was prominent, and women and other ‘minorities’ still faced negative stereotyping and societal oppression. This emptiness is a large part of why punk movements emerged in the former Yugoslavia, especially groups that sought to articulate a separate culture, space, and identity.

The first group that shall be discussed are the New Primitives from Sarajevo, particularly in relation to Zabranjeno pušenje. Sarajevo, and the Bosnian nation, have a unique relationship with the Yugoslav state and its dominant identity. Being markedly further East than Slovenia and Croatia, the collective understanding of peoples from Bosnia and Sarajevo was slightly lacking in depth. In “Anarchy all over Bašcˇaršija”, Dalibor Mišinia highlights the exoticized sentiments that were commonly projected onto Bosnia and Sarajevo: “[Bosnia] was a place whose socio-cultural formation grew out of the confluence of the civilizational traditions of the East and West… which would give the city the spirit of intermingled mysticism of the Orient, and aesthetic of the West, the Slavic feel of cheerfulness, and the temperament of the South”. The unique geography and socio political history of Bosnia allowed it to become a place that was easily misunderstood and romanticized. These types of attitudes are common in encounters between the West and the East, and Bosnia was no exception. Sarajevo was of particular interest because it is the capital, a main urban hub of Bosnian and Sarajevan culture. Misina explains the glamorized, yet equally infantilized, image that was normalized: “Sarajevo’s cultural offerings were perceived as insufficiently sophisticated and lacking the lust of veritable culture”. Bosnia and Sarajevo were of interest because they were interpreted as exotic, yet immature and underdeveloped - primitive.

Instead of working to prove all of the ways in which they were not primitive or different from the normalized Yugoslav identity, the New Primitives took pride in their cultural legacy and worked to express it openly and freely. The piece by Misina takes care to note that the New Primitives were not inherently political, and in fact did not promote one solid ideology. Their main focus was to present their unique cultural identity. The goal was to “demystify” themselves, to articulate a community and space that was alternative but equal to the more prevailing narrative. Finding inspiration among “local hoodlums and shady characters on the fringes of society”, the New Primitive punks used imagery and ideas that had been used to “other” them, and used them to their advantage. This is notable with their album “This is Walter”, particularly in the song “I Don’t Want to be a German in a Subsidized Film”:”I don’t want to be a German in a / subsidized movie I don’t want to / be an extra in life, or in cinema / I don’t want to be an occupier there’s something / about my psyche”. These lyrics are a distinct expression against the pervasiveness of Westernization and commodity culture. The New Primitives understood a shift towards Western consumerism and culture as detrimental to their cultural legacy, and they used punk music to build a second, auxiliary space for their self expression. By taking pride openly in the stereotype of being barbaric or underdeveloped, the New Primitives were able to articulate an entirely different identity and express it independently of the state narratives or institutions.

Alongside the New Primitives, there was another group of Yugoslav musicians that used punk in an attempt to answer the “national question”. The New Partisans chose to express themselves in a slightly different fashion. We have come to understand the way in which the New Primitive groups wanted to express their national identity and localism in opposition to the Yugoslav state socialism. In a marginally contrary move, the New Partisan punks sought to assert their own interpretation of Yugoslav national identity. Groups like Bijelo Dugme and Plavi Orkestar, much like the New Primitives, understood the hollowness of the promises made by the state establishment. Both of these groups hoped to express a certain level of cultural and national “authenticity”. Authenticity, originality, and organic articulations are key components of punk music and alternative space-creation. One of the driving factors for Yugoslav musicians to build distinct and divergent spaces from the “norm” was this concept of authenticity. Further Western influence and increasing consumer culture were regarded as inauthentic, generic, and culturally disingenuous. The New Partisans recognized the impending vacancy in Yugoslav “new socialism” and national identity, and they used music and performance to express their more fundamental, organic perception of national identity.


Bijelo Dugme, "Spit and Sing My Yugoslavia," 1985.  

Dalibor Misina also researched the New Partisans, and he provides a clear definition of what the New Partisans were expressing through their music. Misina defines what the New Partisans sought to promote as “original Yugoslavism”. This is directly related to the interpreted inauthenticity of the Yugoslav state. Since the state and it’s national narrative is empty and vapid, it is up to these alternative groups and communities to articulate the original and truthful Yugoslavism. The song ‘Spit and Sing, my Yugoslavia’ is arguably the pinnacle of this radical Yugoslavism. The lyrics “This bread, I’m breaking it / My Yugoslavia, for you and the better days / horses not saddled if you don’t toughen up here / here no one will ever find this tribe until learning to howl / Rise up Yugoslavia sing - let them hear you” illuminate the depth and the passion felt by Bijelo Dugme and the New Partisans. Being brought up in a state with a strong national identity focused on unity and brotherhood allowed the New Partisans to continually take pride in their country and their selfhood. When inauthentic forces jeopardized this source of reverence, the New Partisans took it upon themselves to build their own community space and their own dominant national narrative.

Although the New Partisans and the New Primitives worked through the question of national identity in different ways, both of these groups illuminate the faults of the dominant national narrative in Yugoslavia. Each of these groups used punk - a genre of music with deep roots in organic, authentic self expression - to build and shape their individuality. The New Primitives and New Partisans were unsatisfied with the national identity that was promoted by the Yugoslav state, and they used music and performance to express an alternative. Punk spaces, and the music genre in general, fostered an articulation of different cultural and social identities. Individuals who felt alienated by the dominant social narrative found a community where they could express their individuality and authenticity.



Yugoslav Punk and the National Question: an Analysis

Mišina, Dalibor. "“Spit and Sing, My Yugoslavia”: New Partisans, social critique and Bosnian poetics of the patriotic." Nationalities Papers 38.2 (2010): 265-289.

Mišina, Dalibor. "“Anarchy all over Baščaršija”: Yugoslavia's new socialist culture and the New Primitives poetics of the local." Journal of Historical Sociology 26.2 (2013): 169-199.

Komelj, Miklavž. "THE FUNCTION OF THE SIGNIFIER ‘TOTALITARIANISM’IN THE CONSTITUTION OF THE ‘EAST ART’FIELD1." Retracing Images: Visual Culture after Yugoslavia (2012): 55-79.

New Primitives & New Partisans: A Discussion