We travel, just like we live, mostly through our eyes. Even the expression ‘sightseeing’ – the daily task of a tourist – reminds us of how vision-bound our experience often is. So why not shake things a little and explore Zagreb through our ears?
I’m not talking about the sounds from Zagreb streets, like the rumbling of a tram or the Grič cannon firing off at noon. As memorable and charming as they are, they won’t tell you the whole story about the city. But music made in the city and for the city will.
In my student days, the one and only opening line when meeting a new person was ‘what are your favourite bands’. If your choice of music didn’t align, you knew there was no way you could ever be close friends, or go out together.
Music was everything: our life, our identity, our values.
Music is so powerful it can shape epochs and reflect people’s characters. Sometimes music alone initiates social movements and brings about a particular cultural vibe in a city. Just remember the Manchester scene of the 70s and 80s.
Zagreb music scene may not be as globally famous, but tuning into it will tell you heaps about the city and its people.
Zagreb music diversity
I am not a music critic, just someone who mingled with people of the same music taste at parties. Here’s me, introducing Zagreb and the opening line is rather eclectic.
Zagreb produced great music in at least three distinctive genres: chanson, new wave (alternative rock) and hip-hop. If you asked people about their favourite bands, I doubt many would produce a list like this. Chanson and punk? But still, all these songs have been sung in and for the city.
In defence of Zagreb – that is sometimes unfairly seen as conservative – I give you this diverse line-up of my favourite songs and bands. I could have added many more, but these tunes cut to the core of what the spirit of Zagreb is for me. Elegant and poised in a chanson, open-minded and avant-garde during new wave, rebellious and biting in the lines of hip-hoppers.
And finally, as anyone mature should be, ready to take a joke at its own expense.
Zagreb music – the chanson
The golden age of the Zagreb chanson began in the late 1950s. The popular Zagreb Music Festival, the soul sibling of the Italian San Remo, was a springboard for many musicians whose tunes are woven into our collective memory.
1 | For me, the single most beautiful chanson dedicated to Zagreb is Jadranko Črnko’s ‘Zagrebačkim ulicama’ [Walking the Streets of Zagreb].
2 | Arsen Dedić, a Croatian bard, was among the most prolific Croatian composers whose work is recognized across all generations.
Singing chansons or composing for film, he nurtured his own unique artistic style. The chanson ‘Zagreb i ja se volimo tajno’ (1984) [Zagreb and I love each other in secret] is a good example.
3 | Kraljevi ulice [Street Kings] epitomize the old-world charm of Zagreb. Founded in 1987, they are a band that usually performs in the streets of Zagreb.
You can see them play chansons and traditional urban folk songs at the Jelačić Square. In 2008 they represented Croatia at the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Romanca’.
Zagreb New Wave music
New Wave music stormed all across the former Yugoslavia. The movement gave rise to some of the most popular bands in Croatia and was no less prolific than its founding hubs in the UK and the US. At the time of late socialism, it performed a powerful and not-seen-before role.
Avant-guard not only in their sound but also implicitly critical of many social and political issues, the music boomed without ever being censored.
‘Johnny’ Štulić, the charismatic frontmen of the band Azra, still enjoys a cult following in the region. His evocative rock poetry captured our hearts with a combination of dreaminess and a strong social commentary. Hang at a party even today, and you’ll hear Azra songs played. Stay longer and you’ll hear us shouting out the lyrics that everybody still knows by heart.
4 | Here’s Azra’s ‘Lijepe žene prolaze kroz grad’ (1980) [Beautiful women walk through the city].
5 | And Johnny’s solo hit ‘Usne vrele višnje’ (1990) [Hot cherry lips]
Unfortunately, the copyright doesn’t allow me to embed the video in the post. But hit the link to watch it on Youtube.
6 | Prljavo kazalište joined New Wave with the album ‘Crno bijeli svijet’ (1980) [Blanck and white world]. Most New Wave music was evaluated as ‘kitsch’ by the establishment. Instead of being banned for its social critique, the records were taxed at a higher rate than the proper ‘artistic’ music!
7 | Band Haustor was unique for its Caribbean-influenced rock sound. Their hit ‘Ena’ (1985) is still a main-stay at today’s music playlists.
The frontmen Darko Rundek continues to make innovative music with his Cargo Orchestra, delighting fans with new influences from Balkan, South American and African music traditions.
Zagreb punk music
Two punk bands, each with a distinctive take on the genre, are evidence that ‘punk is not dead’ in Zagreb. Though 10 years apart, they show a similar zeal for rebellion, raw sound and, last but not the least – a soft spot for dressing up as women.
8 | ‘Ja volim samo sebe’ (1988) [I’m in love with myself] by Psihomodo pop quickly propelled the band into fame. Even more so because it was the first time an ex-Yu band appeared on MTV.
9 | When Hladno pivo released ‘Bačkizagre stuhpa šeja’ (1999) [Zagreb’s stallion rides], it was the first ever song entirely written in the popular Zagreb slang based on verlan. It takes a while for the locals too to decipher the inverted syllables in the song!
10 | Not really punk but a definitive Zagreb song because it became the Dinamo anthem is Pips Chips & Videoclips’ ‘Dinamo ja volim’ (1993) [I love Dinamo].
Bad Blue Boys (fans of the Zagreb football team Dinamo) quickly embraced it as their football chant but the song’s powerful energy is used whenever a party needs some heating up.
Zagreb music – Hip-hop
11 | Croatia had no rap music until Tram 11 released ‘Hrvatski velikani’ (1999) [Croatia Great Men] and shot to the top of the charts at the legendary Radio 101. The band’s name comes from the Zagreb tram line 11 that connects the city’s western and eastern parts.
The song critiques post-war reality which bred a privileged class of the nouveau rich, now friends with ‘the great men’ – characters on Croatian banknotes.
12 | Global hip-hop scene was shaken up when the white boy Eminem took hold of the mic. In Croatia, the same happened when Mirela Priselac, knows as Remi, became the first female hip-hop lead in Elemental.
Listen to ‘Romantika’(2004) and what the ‘ho’ has to say about looking for a man.
Zagreb music – bonus track
He started out on Radio 101 in 1985 with the comedy group Zločesta djeca [Naughty Children] and quickly built a large follower base for his notorious uncensored humour.
At the time of heated nationalism in Croatia, the mainstream media promoted Zagreb as a purely Central European city, opposite of everything Balkan and Oriental. But Željko Pervan made one of the funniest homages to Zagreb.
13 | ‘Serbus Zagreb’ (1989) [Hello Zagreb] is a cover of the 1969 hugely popular chanson by Toni Leskovar. Pervan blended the proud Zagreb Mittel Europa mentality with Oriental sounds and costumes.
The result is extremely funny. But Pervan also showed that Zagreb as a city is open-minded and mature enough to embrace even this tongue-in-cheek anthem.
My Croatian readers know I missed tons of other great songs. You’re free to drop your favourite ones in the comments below. I love listening to music in a good company.
And for you, travellers and visitors – go ahead, give some of these tunes a try. When you sit down for coffee with your new Croatian friends, you’ll know where they’re coming from – at least music-wise!
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