The Queen of Yugostalgia — Lepa Brena and Slavic Hiraeth

Yugostalgia is a very real thing. What exactly is it? Well, nostalgia for Yugoslavia, obviously, but this is something that has transcended simple explanations and literal descriptions. It is a longing for a something long gone, a deep desire for sepia-tinged memories that may or may not have been real, but feel pretty real and therefore must have been real. It is a sadness when realising that never again shall this be real. Yugostalgia is essentially hiraeth for the south Slavs. But that is another discussion for another time, a much bigger one than can be contained here on this hearty blog.

You know who is the queen of Yugostalgia? Lepa Brena, that’s who. Well, Fahreta Živojinović, to be exact, but the world knows her better as Lepa Brena. An everyday girl (a glamorous everyday girl, but everyday nonetheless) turned international megastar, Lepa Brena was the embodiment of the Yugoslav dream, bringing the simplicity of folk life to the wider world, perfectly marketed to a people stuck between identities and histories. She combined things that should have been incompatible, and decades later many people wish genuinely were. Lepa Brena was Yugoslavia, born into a working-class family but braved the big city to further her education, before being found by fame. She remains the biggest selling female artist from what was once Yugoslavia, and that isn’t all because of the tunes. The tunes play their role, of course, but there’s more to it than that.

The story has to start somewhere, and in this case it begins on the outskirts of Tuzla. Fahreta Jahić was born into a Bosniak family that soon left Tuzla for Brčko, where young Fahreta would grow up. She began performing in school, growing into her voice in high school and soon becoming a fixture at parties in and around Brčko. Balkan parties always involve a lot of singing, so possessing a fine singing voice was a surefire way to find yourself at a lot of parties, but singing at parties can only take you so far. Fahreta needed a break, as in a bit of luck, not a pause or a damaged limb. Come on people, that should have been obvious.

That break came in 1980, when she joined a band called Lira Show (later Slatki Greh). The original singer left, or more accurately was forced to leave when her boxer husband couldn’t deal with having a singer for a wife. Fahreta joined and was initially faced with a little skepticism from the band, but she soon won them all over. They moved to Novi Sad, the first gig took place in Bačka Palanka, and here we are 40 million records later. Is there more to it than that? Of course there is, but a blow-by-blow account of Lepa Brena’s career does little to explain why she is so beloved by the people of a country that no longer exists.

Along the way Fahreta became Lepa Brena, a fast-growing pop star who had already begun to dip her toes into the world of cinema. The band tried out for Eurovision in 1983 but were unsuccessful, although nobody came out of the whole process with more attention than Lepa Brena and Slatki Geh. By the end of 1986, she was the biggest star in the country. 1987 brought an album and a corresponding film, the first of three, and the band tirelessly toured the length and breadth of Yugoslavia, often playing more than one show in a day. The schedule included such record-breaking feats as 31 straight days at Belgrade’s Dom Sindikata, before a massive, humongous, ginormous 90,000 person show in Sofia that saw Lepa Brena arrive by helicopter. She was a big, big, big deal.

That superstardom came with the usual trappings. She married tennis player Slobodan Živojinović (a two-time Grand Slam doubles winner) in 1991, and the whole thing was released on VHS. The couple had two children, one of whom was kidnapped by the Zemun mafia in 2000, eventually being released after the couple paid a 2.5 million DM ransom. ‘Having child kidnapped by mafia’ shouldn’t really be included in ‘usual trappings’, but this was Serbia in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, so there we go.

Lepa Brena and Slatki Greh soon parted ways, much like Gwen Stefani and No Doubt, if you need a comparison, and the solo albums began to flow out. The combination of folk lyrics and modern pop music was a winner on the sales front, and Brena’s fame only seemed to grow as Yugoslavia disintegrated around her. She became something of a poster girl for the terminal country, releasing songs like Jugoslovenka and Živela Jugoslavija. She was a beacon of hope in an increasingly bleak landscape, a source of escapism that wasn’t fraught with actual danger. She was the Yugoslavia that became ever more missed, tinged as it was with inaccurate memories and romanticism.

Controversy was never far away, but Lepa Brena didn’t seem to court it in the same way that many pop stars of the time did. She married a successful tennis player and had a family, when many of the stars that followed her married crooks and criminals. She was a benign fairytale, a drunken 4am conversation about wasted youth and hopes and dreams. She was the Ceca of a parallel world, in short. A different type of glamour. Ceca was the pop star embodiment of ‘90s Serbian chaos, growing ever more bloated and caricature-esque as things got worse. Lepa Brena was the years previous, fading away but still beautiful in the minds of the people. The whole ‘After Tito, Tito’ thing led to the end of Yugoslavia, but in many hearts it was this young girl from Brčko who followed Big Joe.

Which is as good a place as any to leave it. My opinion on the music of Lepa Brena are irrelevant (I’m listening to Bossk as I type this, so work that out for yourselves), but the nostalgia element is undeniable. Yugonostalgia is hiraeth, and Lepa Brena is its queen.

How are you supposed to deal with grief? By immersing yourself in memory? Hitting the bottle? Or by packing your bags and heading out to Bosnia & Herzegovina, travelling the length and breadth of the state in the hope of coming to terms with the tragic death of a loved one? John Bills chose a combination of the two, and ‘A Currency for the Cat’ is the story of that trip. From Mostar to Jajce via Sarajevo, Trebinje and more, Bills dives deep into the history of this famous country on a most personal level, facing his biggest fear in the face all the while. It is available in digital form from www.poshlostbooks.com.

A Currency for the Cat cover

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