Sarajevo Punk Scene: The New Primitives and New Partisans

Madeline Nassif


The New Primitives were in essence a kind of local, Sarajevo-specific response to punk. We created the movement as a channel through which to receive punk or New Wave music, if you will, which had exerted the greatest influence on my generation. We made it up to poke fun at everything and everyone around us.

-Nenad Janković (aka. Dr. Nele Karajlić, one of the co-founders of New Primitives and the lead singer of Zabranjeno Pušenje)


Sarajevo was an important cultural hub of the former Yugoslavia during the 1980s. The punk and rock movements originating in the city, specifically the New Primitives and the New Partisans, acted as a response to the disregard for the specific identity of the city as well as to the increasing fracturing of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). In order to understand more about these movements, it is crucial to first understand the history of the city and its citizens and how they were able to historically coexist in a highly multicultural and multiconfessional urban environment.

Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1980s held the spot as the most diverse part of the Yugoslav federation. Inhabited by all of Yugoslavia’s diverse ethnicities and religions, it represented the whole of Yugoslavia on a much smaller scale. Dalibor Mišina contends that, “Bosnia & Herzegovina was the most Yugoslav republic in a sense that it was the most harmoniously multi-cultural and, in that, a model of what the whole country was supposed to look like” (256). The idea of the republic as a “model” became more important as the Yugoslav region descended into chaos and war, stemming from nationalism and a renewed emphasis on ethnic divisions in the late 1980s. Historically, Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, functioned as the westernmost part of the Ottoman empire. Because of this, it was a meeting point between the East and the West. Like the republic, Sarajevo was also known for its diversity.  Traditionally, the city was not viewed as a hub of “high” cultural production because of its lack of cultural singularity. This created a somewhat prejudiced view of the city as “primitive”—a view held by both the country and the city itself. The cultural movement of the 1980s, “The New Primitives,” emerged as a response to these negative stereotypes and allowed Sarajevo to gain a new appreciation for and understanding of the type of urban culture that was uniquely its own. Mišina states that in the punk and rock movements of the 1980s, “peculiarities were transformed from a source of discomfort and shame into the source of pride and affirmation of local individuals and collective identities” (215). With this in mind, one can infer the importance of such movements in building appreciation for Sarajevo’s urban community.


Zabranjeno Pušenje, Das ist Walter, 1984 (front cover).


Zabranjeno Pušenje, Das ist Walter, 1984 (back cover).

Zabranjeno Pušenje's 1984 studio album Das ist Walter (Ger. This is Walter) (front and back cover). The title of the album refers to a popular phrase in the 1972 Yugoslav partisan film, Walter Defends Sarajevo. The front and back covers feature an airbrushed view of Sarajevo, while the predominant colors--blue, white, and red-- evoke the colors of the Yugoslav flag.   

The most prominent movements that originated in Sarajevo during the 1980s were the New Primitives and the New Partisans. Before these movements appeared, punk music had acted as a form of local social commentary, as it had all over the world. At the start of the decade, nothing very notable was in the Sarajevo music scenes was going on, especially in comparison to other Yugoslav cities. However, in 1981, SLIVKA, a local new-wave project, was emerging that eventually led to the New Primitives movement. This movement became pivotal in changing the idea of Sarajevo as a cultural wasteland.

Zabranjeno Pušenje, "Zenica Blues," from their 1984 album Das ist Walter.

The New Primitives eventually grew into a local subculture. Like New Wave, this movement was related to British punk and, in Mišina’s words, arose as “Sarajevo’s response to punk” (210). The success of the movement was related to the fact that it gave voice to those deemed inconsequential and combined local and international musical influences, such as rock, country, and sevdah, or “local blues.” In addition, a type of humor unique to Sarajevo that noted the mundane with wit attracted people to the New Primitives. With the goal of bringing awareness to often ignored areas of local social and cultural life, the founders were intent on presenting Sarajevo and its people from the viewpoint of Sarajevo and its people. A 1981 film by Emir Kustirica, Do You Remember Dolly Bell? found inspiration in the local and presented the world as being comprised of common people with common lives. Mišina describes Kusturica’s film as a “catalyst for Sarajevo’s socio-cultural renaissance” (220). Shortly before the release of the film, on January 21, 1980, the Zaborav basement was opened in Sarajevo as a meeting place for the New Primitives, promoting the start of the movement. A few year later on March 8, 1983, the venue featured free concerts of bands associated with the movement. This included pieces by Zabranjeno Pušenje, one of the most influential groups that came out of the New Primitives. Because their music was easily accessible by the public, the founders reaffirmed the notion of the movement being for the locals. Mišina sums up the importance of the New Primitives for the city by outlining its two main functions: “authentication of one’s own identity in light of one’s everyday reality and experiences; and affirmation of one’s own milieu as the basis for one’s socio-cultural purviews and the foundation of one’s attitude towards the ‘world out there’” (225). The New Primitives, then, brought validation to a space that had historically been overlooked as a dumping ground, therefore giving Sarajevo its much-deserved, unique brand of cultural contribution.


Zabranjeno Pušenje, While You're Waiting for the Dawn with the Devil, 1985 (Liner Notes) Zabranjeno Pušenje, While You're Waiting for the Dawn with the Devil, 1985 (front cover).

Zabranjeno Pušenje's 1985 double album While You're Waiting for the Dawn with the Devil. 

Zabranjeno Pušenje, mentioned earlier, helped bring the New Primitives movement to the front and center of Yugoslav culture, as it was one of the more notable bands at the time. The band was inspired by the same sources as the New Primitives, “turning to [their] own socio-cultural essence as the source of artistic inspiration” (Mišina, 216). Some of their music suggests this as well. Their song “Heart, Hands, and Shovel” presents the story of a working class man who does seemingly monotonous work with great pride and interest. The song is a gently ironical, but ultimately sympathetic tribute to Alija Sirotanović, a coal miner from the Bosnian town of Breza and one of the early Heroes of Socialist Labor, who had a shovel named after him and was eventually featured on a 20,000 Yugoslav dinar banknote. The lyrics, “His dream is shocking/ And his dream is/ A thousand tons in a single day” reflect the focus on the local, lowly, and everyday as a source of inspiration. Their song “I Don’t Want to be a German Extra in a Subsidized Movie” alludes to the 1972 Yugoslav war film, Walter Defends Sarajevo. By evoking the history of anti-fascist resistance in Sarajevo and its lasting cultural legacy, the song reflects the anti-colonialist character of the New Primitives movement.  The lyrics, “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” affirms the centrality of local cultural and political identity as a source of pride against the assumed superiority of the West. Mišina asserts that in order to identify with the movement, one had to resist colonialism, making Zabranjeno Pušenje a perfect example of New Primitivism in Sarajevo.  

Zabranjeno Pušenje, "I don't Want to Be a German Extra in A Subsudized Movie," 1984.

Bijelo Dugme, Spit and Sing My Yugoslavia, 1985 (front cover).

Bijelo Dugme's 1985 studio album Spit and Sing My Yugoslavia. The cover features a still from a Chinese socialist ballet, while the the lyrics on the inner sleeve are printed in both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.  

Another pivotal punk and rock movement that holds roots in Sarajevo is the New Partisans, whose name directly alludes to the WWII Communist-led resistance fighters responsible for the liberation of Yugoslavia from the fascist forces. New Partisans acted as a sort of continuation of the New Primitives starting in the mid-1980s. Straying from the previous local ideals rooted in the city of Sarajevo, this movement was more patriotic and more explicitly pro-Yugoslav, evoking the militancy of the early revolutionary years. Because it was also focused on the arts, Mišina describes the movement as engaging in the “poetics of the patriotic (256).” Due to this emboldened direction, this movement was certainly more political than the New Primitives. Despite this, the two movements were similar in many ways. Like the New Primitives, the New Partisans were extremely influenced by the local people and daily life of Sarajevo. The movement recognized how quickly Yugoslavia was splintering and felt they embodied the country’s ideals of diversity and lack of cultural uniformity as source of its strength rather than weakness. Aware of the increasing problems with xenophobia and nationalism, the New Partisans made efforts to advance a pro-Yugoslav message. In order to do this, they presented three main ideas to hopefully attract people to their ideology and movement. The first of their three areas of focus was the socio-political. Mišina contends that the New Partisans hoped to instigate a “relaxing [of] the rigidity of an official political ideology” (257). By presenting multiple perspectives in their work and presentations, the movement hoped to foster peace and communication amongst the people of Yugoslavia. The second of their three areas of focus was social-cultural. The New Partisans emphasized a Yugoslavia built on the foundations of multiculturalism, which needed to be preserved in order to avoid the dissolution of the republic. After World War II, socialist Yugoslavia was created by combining several nations into one state. This obviously caused tension in the republic, but the ideal of peace prevalent at its founding needed to be reaffirmed in order to preserve the entirety of Yugoslavia, the New Partisans believed. The third of the three areas of focus was moral-ethical. In promoting the ideals of peace, the New Partisans had to confront one’s personal role in preserving peace. Citizens had to get involved to make this idea into reality. By highlighting the danger of self-centeredness, the movement contended that avoiding this moral fault could lead to resolution of the Yugoslav crisis. If this advice was ignored, however, the people of Yugoslavia would not be able to coexist, the New Partisans suggested. By connecting the present to the past, the New Partisans hoped to advance a pro-Yugoslav message that would inspire others to look to the past to preserve peace in the present. To do this, many bands spread these messages through their songs.

Bijelo Dugme's 1986 album Spit and Sing My Yugoslavia opens with a traditional Croatian song "Fall, Oh Force and Injustice," used by the Partsians in WWII to boost troope morale. Here it is sang by a children's choir. 

Bijelo Dugme, meaning “White Button,” was a band formed in 1974 in Sarajevo closely associated with the New Partisans. Starting as hard-rock group, the band responded to the New Wave musical movement, transforming their style in the 1980s to make it more contemporary. The group experienced success in both spheres. Some of their songs represented the ideals of the New Partisans, such as “Spit and Sing My Yugoslavia.” The lyrics, “Yugoslavia, get up on your feet/ Sing, let them hear you/ Those who don’t listen to song/ Will listen to the storm” suggest the movement’s focus on the unification of the people of Yugoslavia, as well as its militantly patriotic character. Bands like Bijelo Dugme were able to bring the message of the New Partisans into the mainstream with hopes of affecting the outcome of the Yugoslav conflict. Despite the dissolution of the federation, the position of the New Partisans helped bring attention to the culture of Sarajevo and its people.

The punk and rock movements of the 1980s helped bring Sarajevo into the forefront of Yugoslav culture. The New Primitives and the New Partisans reflected Sarajevo’s mixture of cultural, political, and historical influences and presented them innovatively through art and music. Even though the efforts to preserve Yugoslavia were unsuccessful, the culture that came out of Sarajevo during this time period left a rich and lasting legacy.

Works Cited

“Bijelo Dugme.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Apr. 2017, Accessed 12 Apr. 2017.

Mišina, Dalibor. 'Who's that Singing Over There?': Yugoslav Rock-Music and the Poetics of  Social Critique. Ottawa, Library and Archives Canada = Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, 2009. 

“New Primitives.” Accessed 30 Apr. 2017.

Rogel, Carole. The Breakup of Yugoslavia and its Aftermath. Westport, CT, Greenwood, 2004.

“Zabranjeno Pušenje.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Apr. 2017, Accessed 12 Apr. 2017. 

Sarajevo Punk Scene: The New Primitives and New Partisans