The music of nationhood

The audience at Zdravo Mladi one night festival.

The audience at Zdravo Mladi, a one-night music festival in the Macedonian capital.

Macedonia’s alternative music scene comes of age, as the fledgeling country begins to define its identity.

Vladica Mladenovski watches from his place among a crowd of young Macedonians as The John, a Skopje-based indie band, is welcomed to the stage.

They are playing at Zdravo Mladi (Hello Youth) a one-night alternative music festival being held at the Youth and Cultural center of Skopje, Macedonia.

Mladenovski, the organizer of the festival, nods and cheers along with the rest of the audience. He’s pleased with the turnout of more than 600 young people from around the region. In many ways it is a showcase of just how much Macedonia’s alternative scene has grown, even in the wake of new legislation on music funding, criticized as being nationalistic and exclusive.

Macedonia’s Ministry of Culture and the Agency of Youth and Sport, both branches of the government, have been given a mandate to stimulate Macedonian music that includes the newly proposed law.

The new mandate stems from an attempt by the government to develop a comprehensive identity for a still young nation in the middle of a volatile region. Yet festivals like Zdravo Mladi have not received any funding and a growing number of local artists feel their concerns about the new law have not been acknowledged.

The debate on how to promote Macedonian identity is in full force. And music has become the latest battleground.

“Macedonian music is facing a period of serious under production,” said Anita Jovanovska, public relations officer for the Ministry of Culture. This is especially apparent, said Jovanovska in popular and folk songs. “This new law will help artists re-affirm themselves and become more productive in Macedonian society.”

The law will fund artists who are chosen from eight categories by an anonymous panel to receive €15,000 over five years to produce two pieces of music and one video.

And while a law dedicated to giving musicians money seems at the outset totally worthwhile, categories such as “songs that will affirm family values and big families” and “compositions that affirm the history of Macedonia meaning her fight for independence” have critics riled who say the categories promote nationalistic values and exclude alternative artists.

Tane Dimovski of the Agency of Youth and Sport pulls out several cds from his desk. He agrees with Jovanovksa that Macedonian music is in a critical state. Each CD has a different theme which is meant to showcase Macedonian music.

“We want to get back traditional values of youth,” says Dimovski. “The youth start to listen to songs that are not appropriate for their lives. We don’t like our youth to listen to some music that has no values.” The Agency puts out CDs every few years, there is one from 2008 that is sports anthems, and for the 20th year of Macedonia’s nationhood in 2011, they produced a CD with music dedicated to celebrating the anniversary.

“We want youth to recognize their country,” adds Dimovski. “That’s the main purpose of all these CDs.”

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Andrej Ancevski, Stefan Smiljanovski and “Metal” Martin, rehearse in an underground garage.

In a suburban area just a few minutes outside the city center, Andrej Ancevski, a DJ and producer, opens the door to an underground garage. Punk bands rent out these parking spaces here, as there is nowhere else for them to practice. This particular space is filled with posters, a drum set and a couch. Stefan Smiljanovski and “Metal” Martin, two of Ancevski’s friends, are filling the garage with ear-splitting music as he enters.

“If the government is not into sub-cultures, then they are committing cultural suicide,” says Ancevski as he sticks some cotton balls in his ears. “I’d like them to chill and stop trying to undermine the underground, with laws concerning what time venues should close for example. They are afraid of changes and young people.” Smiljanovski pipes in; “The underground is working its ass off,” he says.

The band begins a new song.

Far away from the underground studio, in a quiet neighborhood south of the center sits RadioMOF an online radio station started in February 2011. It creates content specifically for youth, and at many times by youth, about issues such as diversity ethics and of course, new Macedonian music.

Katerina Vaskovska, is a short dark haired journalism student and program editor for the station. She sits on the small balcony that juts from the station’s one-floor office, along with Bosana Nizamovska, the short, curly-haired lead singer of the indie rock band June and Ante Gulin, the lip-ring sporting bass player of the metal band Furion.

“The current government wants to stimulate a national feeling and it is creating a lot of anger with the youth because it is being forced on them,” says Vaskovska.

“Which is sad,” pipes in Nizamovska. “Because then they reject the old folk music which can be really good and it’s an important part of our culture.”

Gulin even admits to incorporating folk elements in his work with Furion.

“I call it trash-folk,” says Gulin. “We try to combine metal and folk and it actually worked out really well. For seven years we have had a conservative government that is all about the promotion of Macedonia, I think this sort of creates conflict, because then people start to think they are better than others and it means then that it is not a very nice place to live.”

Statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje’s main square

A statue of Alexander the Great looms over Skopje’s main square on a sunny day.

All it takes is one glance at the socio-political landscape of this small landlocked country to sympathize with the government’s attempts to highlight Macedonian culture.

“Macedonia has had very difficult problems when it comes to its existence,” says Vasil Buraliev, a former member of the electronic music scene. “Serbia says we don’t have our own church, it’s the Serbian church, Bulgaria says our language is a dialect of Bulgarian, so we are Bulgarians, and Greece just doesn’t want us to exist.”

Buraliev admits he can understand why the government would decide to create a law that promotes nationalistic music.

“I guess the Macedonian government has a lot of issues they should tackle and in trying to find a solution to answer to all these problems they started to understand that culture is the most important thing that a nation has,” says Buraliev. There are lots of people attacking Macedonia ideologically so naturally there is a cultural defensiveness.” But, he adds, “I cannot agree with the way they are tackling some of their projects…you cannot make an industry out of this. What about good music education? Or good enough studios?”

Sitting at a café in Skopje’s west end, Kire Kostov insists the new proposed law is the best thing that has ever happened to Macedonia’s musicians.

“This is a historical moment for Macedonian popular music. No government has done anything like this before. If you make good music, you will be chosen (to get funding).”

Kostov, a jazz and classical composer and conductor is well versed in the difficulties of life as a musician in Macedonia.

“Before, we couldn’t live off of just our music. Now government is looking for old good Macedonian song, the real stuff, that was made 15-20 years ago.”

The 64 year old adds that in the period before this new law was proposed Macedonian music had lost its identity.

“They have started to compose music that is amateur. Good Macedonian music has a story from beginning to end, the song has a soul,” he says.

The John

The John performing at the Zdravo Mladi festival in Skopje.

Back at the Zdravo Mladi festival, The John, a Serbian-Macedonian duo has just finished their set. Mladenovski claps and cheers with the crowd, happy to see a local band be so well-received.

Mladenovski is optimistic about the alternative scene’s future in Skopje, though he says there is a long road ahead before it is truly accepted by the state as part of Macedonia’s musical heritage. Yet from the reaction of the crowd as The John leaves the stage, a new generation of young Macedonians are preparing to give the alternative the recognition they’ve been craving.

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