The verses that Mile Kekin wrote – "God, country, and nation / Everyone get down, this is a privatization!" – capture the state of a country in transition better, i.e. more precisely and colourfully, than any political scientist, politician, sociologist, analyst, or historian from "these parts".
Hladno Pivo's upcoming performance in Belgrade was an occasion to have a chat with the leader of this Croatian band. The most influential rock band in the region has announced the biggest concert so far in Serbia (Tašmajdan, 21 August, organized by Long Play). Between 10 and 15 thousand people are expected to attend.
Mr. Kekin, shall we talk in Croatian or Serbian?
"We can speak our language, as long as we understand each other! It's interesting, you know, when I go to Dublin, for example, to those new immigrant areas, where both our guys and your guys live, the new immigrant generations have tacitly agreed to speak our language. They use that term – 'our language' – because the who, what, how, where from, or who's who of it all doesn’t matter. What matters is what sort of job you've landed."
The tensions between Serbia and Croatia persist. Who can reconcile Serbs and Croats nowadays? Is it politicians, or perhaps athletes, actors, or musicians, such as yourselves?
"Tell you what, it's not always easy to put musicians and athletes under a common banner. It's not the same thing. In sports, you play against someone, whereas musicians always play for someone. I'm not trying to say that musicians have some sort of a monopoly on cooling high emotions, but baser instincts have a way of tipping the scales in sports, especially when there's an excess of fanaticism, nationalism, and alcohol."
So, musicians are more of peacemakers?
"Like I said, there are many athletes, on both our and your side, who have realized that their role is to win in a noble, sportsmanlike manner. They act like human beings first, and Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, and Estonians second."
Like, say, Đoković and Ivanišević? The two collaborate like Boris Dvornik and Bata Živojinović in films about the Yugoslav Partisans. Side by side in the fight against the bitter enemy!
"Sadly, nowadays there are many people on social media who think they are entitled to write all kinds of drivel under the cloak of anonymity. Thankfully, though, there are also people who know how to play the ball and not the man, so to speak, no matter if it's in football or tennis."
Both yourself and your band have been politically active through your songs practically since the start of your career. A few years ago, you entered professional politics as well. What did you do that for?
"Well, I joined hands with people who had been civilian activists for many years. They started out by trying to stop the construction in the Zagreb city centre, organized by the controversial entrepreneur and former mayor, Bandić. Some 17 or 18 years on, the very same guys who once stood in front of an excavator are now in power in Zagreb, which makes me very happy. A year and a half ago, together with my wife, I set out to help them, primarily to get more media coverage, as they didn't have enough money for jumbo billboards and these sorts of things. Our aim was to help remove from power the most corrupt local government that the City of Zagreb had ever seen! The upshot is that some ten or so former officials have ended up in prison in the past month.
"The guy that organized the construction works in the city centre is being put in prison as we speak. He also ran over some people in his car, and an Italian couple in his yacht, killing them all. Like I said – a controversial entrepreneur."
So, you believe that it is important for a public figure to be directly involved in politics?
"To put it simply, it's never enough to only be a chronicler of your time. You must become an active contributor. Of course, you can always say, 'I'm not getting involved, it's best to keep quiet. I can tarnish my reputation, stay away from politics, it's all rotten anyway.' We know what politics is, but when I saw decent, respectable citizens on one side, and a demimonde on the other, I couldn't just stay away. I think it is the duty of all citizens, including us musicians, not to stay away."
Some political and social circles in Serbia accused you before of provoking new conflicts in the Balkans by the verse "The church bell rings, portending new storms…".
"Well, I've heard a lot of bad things about myself coming from both sides, Croatian and Serbian. Those who called me out for these verses should have learnt in Croatian – or Serbian, as you prefer – language classes how to analyse a poem. Remember when we were taught poems and stylistic devices back in elementary school, and then for the remaining portion of the class period – or 'lesson', as you would put it in Serbia – we would analyse them and try to answer questions like, 'What was the poet trying to say?' Well, they slept right through that bit of the class period. They should have put in a little more effort, literature is very important, and it's important to know what a metaphor is, or a hyperbole, or an image in poetry in a general sense. That is what I have to say about all those people who don't know what the poet was trying to say."
You are a German language teacher. Have you considered leaving your home country to work abroad, as have many young people there?
"Not a day goes by when I don't consider getting out of here and moving elsewhere – to Denmark, for example, or another country which collects your taxes, but then you know that you have well-kept hospitals and schools, and regular pension payments, and so on and so forth. Then again, I feel close to my neighbourhood and people, through the language, the culture, the work I do, and the friends that I have. I know what it's like living abroad. I was born in Germany, but when I was 13 or 14, I decided to go back to my country – back then it was Yugoslavia. My parents had started to build a house on the outskirts of Zagreb, and it was back then that I felt I wanted to live here. An internal compass of sorts was guiding me, and I think I didn't make a mistake. It was difficult when the horror of the war started. My mother was trying to persuade me to move to Germany. I don't know what would have become of me had I decided to live in Germany, whether I would have had a band or, like my parents, ended up working the assembly line."
Many young people from Croatia have been leaving for Ireland in recent years…
"We have played there a few times. Sure, there are many young people there who work as warehouse staff and waiters, but they're often overqualified for the jobs they do. You know how it is, these youths weren't lucky enough to get jobs here because they didn't know the right people. Here, you have to know someone who knows someone, or you need to have a CDU (HDZ) membership card to get a job. Actually, that is key in getting a job, which is why we are where we are…"
How similar are Serbia and Croatia really?
"I think both countries have a problem with mobsters turned controversial entrepreneurs with strong political ties. They are dangerous people that the laws don't apply to. On the other hand, you have people who can't get a job in the cities they live in, or get ahead in their careers, because they're not members of that sect. What's in place is negative selection, combined with across-the-board pessimism and orchestrated media stultification."
A while back, as a band, you were involved in the fight against violence towards women. The song "Slap (Šamar)" and the album with the same name are dedicated to this issue. Do you think that violence against women "in these parts" has gone down?
"The problem is still the patriarchal society in which we live. Nothing much has changed since our 'Slap'. What's more, all the EU studies show that the pandemic has resulted in a 39-percent increase in violence against women. Male discontent, frustration over job loss caused by Covid, online classes – women often bear the brunt of it all. And all the traditional stereotypes mostly benefit us menfolk. A large part of the domestic chores, invisible to the government, are done by women. In a nutshell, it's a lot more difficult being the fair sex, not just in these parts."
So, you are saying that women remain vulnerable, and that they have had a harder time in the pandemic?
"Husbands are the perpetrators of most of the violence against women. The church in Croatia has, in a sense, been relativizing that sort of violence throughout, along the lines of women needing to take a bit of violence, sparks flying in every marriage, and similar sort of nonsense. Our former government minister said without batting an eyelid, 'That's how things go in a family.' "
Do you follow the political situation in Serbia and the region?
"I do, but not in great detail. I need to stand by the woman who is seriously involved in politics here in Croatia, so I'm not finding the time to follow the politics abroad."
You will be coming to Belgrade's Tašmajdan soon. Rock bands like Riblja Čorba, Bajaga i Instruktori, and Partibrejkers have had concerts there, but did you know that Tašmajdan was synonymous with one of the most popular folk singers, the late Sinan Sakić?
"I did not know that! Really?? I first met Sinan Sakić when I returned from Germany. I was living in Bosnia at the time, and a relative of mine liked Sakić's songs. I remember him as a singer who had a sort of nasal singing style, very very emotional as well."
Will Hladno Pivo be as emotional as Sinan Sakić at Tašmajdan?
"Oh yes, we will! We'll be even more emotional, because Sinan didn't have to suffer through a year in isolation, without concerts or an audience. Now we have an opportunity to have the biggest solo concert in Belgrade, certainly the biggest this year. I'll be choking up for sure, but I'll try hard to make sure it doesn't show in my voice."
'Lajkovačka Pruga (The Lajkovac Railroad)'
Have you ever travelled down the Lajkovac Railroad?
"Hahaha! Do you know how many times they sang that song to me when I was doing my military service in Niš? I know it, of course. I also know 'Mile Voli Disko (Mile Likes the Disco)', they sang that one to me too. As well as 'Miki, Milane'… My daughter sings that! She found it on YouTube, it's a folksy song of sorts, and for a while she would play it to me all the time."
What sort of guidance do you give your children regarding social media?
"My son is old enough – he's 14 – to understand how the social media work. My wife and I have talked a lot with our children, and we told them not to share their information or reply to anonymous messages. We explained to them what sort of content should be avoided, and they know that both their mother and father are public figures, and that they have to be on their best behaviour online.
"Interestingly, our daughter, who is nine, closely followed the most popular Serbian YouTubers for a while. This one time she started to paint the picture for us about how a YouTube video is made, and we heard our child speaking Serbian! Children in these parts are born with a unique gift of an instant command of two languages."