TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. April 2010

Sektion 5.3. Sharing in / out Culture(s)
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Vladimir Biti (Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zagreb)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Fear of Music

Dalibor Davidović (University of Zagreb – Music Academy, Croatia)



Perhaps as a consequence of the opinion widespread in the Eastern European countries after WWII that fascism is only a period in the world history, a period which is fortunately finished, that the word “fascism” rarely occurred in the recent contexts in Croatia. If the word was used, then it was in the discussions on the character of the Croatian state in the period from 1941 to 1945. Music was not fully absent from those discussions: there was some archival research of the changes in the musical institutions during the time period of the fascist government. However, it gained no attention. Only very recently, the word came again to prominence in the musical context. This time music related to fascism wasn’t looked for in the dusty archives, but at the stages, in the CD shops, in the media.

Thompson, a leader of the band of the same name, whose music is frequently referred to as “fascist”, is the most controversial star in Croatia. Wherever he appears in public, there are troubles. His concerts at the great stadiums look like mass-spectacles, with pyrotechnical effects on the stage and the audience in trance. I can remember the first time I heard of him. It was in the late autumn of 1991, the period of intense war-operations, the time which I spent in Zagreb. There were no more fights in the city itself, but the danger of air raids, and the awareness that other parts of the country were under fire, kept people on alert and made them listening to the Croatian public radio all the time. Radio was the most portable medium at the moment, the one which could be brought along to the cellar on the sound of siren. On the radio I heard Thompson’s song “Battalion Čavoglave”, his first hit. I noticed immediately the harsh voice of the singer, which gave an impression of coming directly from the battlefield, and the haunting beat played by the cheap rhythm machine, suggesting the “local origin”.

The crude overall sound indicated that the piece was produced at home, in a very short time and with limited resources. The voice and the strange aksak rhythm, a rhythmic pattern characterized by the combination of unequal beats, were the elements which made the “Battalion Čavoglave” unique among the songs produced in the war-period in Croatia. It was as if something obscure, hidden for a long time, came to light all of a sudden. On the radio, the song was played precisely to serve that purpose, to mark the moments when the harsh reality of war entered the more protected everyday life. When it was played, the listener knew that there were fights on the battlefield. At other time, the radio played the usual war production, the songs like “My Croatia, my homeland”, whose polished voices, “civilized” equal beats and the lush orchestration, dominated by rich string textures, suggested the quiet situation. However, quite soon, Thomson’s hit lost on importance. Although the remixed version of “Battalion Čavoglave” found place in his first album, released in 1992, his harsh voice sounded too uncanny to be successful among mid-tempo love ballads made in the style of Mediterranean pop music, which prevailed in the album. As if the very roughness of the warrior Thompson prevented him to sing at Sanremo Music Festival.

From that moment on, his career started going down. I paid no attention to him until 2001. Then, there was another battle, but this time he found his enemies both at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and in the new Croatian Government, led by the Social-democrats, who were ready to cooperate with the Tribunal, to locate and handover the Croatian suspects for war crimes. The mass-demonstrations of the war-veterans took place, and Thompson’s star began to rise again. Yet, everything was changed: the new sound of his music reminded no more of the Mediterranean pop, but it was marked by distorted guitars and heavy bass and drums section. His harsh voice was finally able to find suitable texture, where there would be “no foreign body”. The subjects switched from the unfulfilled love for a woman to the myths of the origin of the country of Croatia and of its fate. Unlike his early albums, which indeed compiled only collections of quite different pieces presented previously on different occasions, this later one became very structured in closed unities. Thus his last release, “Once Upon a Time in Croatia”, from December 2006, is actually a concept album, focused on the myth of the arrival of Croats to their homeland and their survival until the present, owing to their, Croatian, heroic spirit. Since he was repeatedly accused for being a fascist, Thompson turned from the formats suitable for public broadcasting, like video, to the combination of CD releases and the stage shows, organized in great tours, which could be recorded and the recordings posted on the web pages. It is of no surprise that most of his videos on You Tube are actually live recordings.

It is certain that the accusations of Thomson for his fascistic orientation are to be taken seriously. No need to know that Thompson praises the nature of the Croatian regime in the early 1940s, when Croatia was a puppet-state under the protection of the Third Reich, to realise what his political views are; it’s enough to listen to his voice. I suppose that his critics feel the same what I felt when I listened to the “Battalion Čavoglave” for the first time. Perhaps because of my mixed ethnic background, I found his harsh voice and the offensive rhythm too violent to promote a way of life which could respect differences. Such frightening feeling has induced the need to ridicule it, in many people. But how to come to terms with one’s own fears? In the horror movies, always there is a character who doesn’t believe that the displayed strange phenomena are really supernatural. Since that strangeness is perceived as an aggression, which puts to question the usual order of things, such character tries to minimize it. The usual method of doing that is to establish continuity between the strange phenomena and the “natural” realities. For example, from the perspective of such a character, the ghosts or other dangerous beings are only inventions of the mind of a psychic. As such, they can be exorcized, whereas the treatment should end in the moment when the psychic is able to see the supernatural beings as products of his own inner life. The critics of Thompson are such “disbelievers”. It is not by chance that they are so much obsessed with his statements. Since they find his music an extension of his own views, first they try to identify political stances in his words, whether in the lyrics or the interviews. Their resistance to “fascistic” music thus becomes a resistance to music in general. Some others try to ridicule Thompson’s music by emphasizing that the rhythmic pattern which is used in “Battalion Čavoglave” is not exclusively Croatian element at all: it is a widespread characteristic of the traditional music of the Balkans and of the Middle East. Likewise, the harsh voice of Thompson is found to be wild, uncivilized, something that doesn’t belong to “genuine” Croatian music. But is there really any discontinuity between Thompson’s and such a genuine national music? The wish to produce music which should be an expression of the pure national spirit, and which should have the power to heal the souls of the people, in order to stimulate them to establish a national state, was indeed the central issue of the musical culture in Croatia since the 19th century. The souls of the members of rural communities were found to be a privileged medium of the spirit, but at the same time such vocal music could be spread only in very limited area. Therefore, it was supposed to be transcribed, in order to be reproducible at different places and thus stimulate the common soul of the people. However, the emanations of distinctive national spirit get erased as soon as they get transcribed: in the symbolic system of musical notation, they are perceivable only as the deviations in the field of tone pitch or rhythm. Even the number of such possible deviations is limited – this has been the problem which has affected much of the music written in Croatia since the 19th century under the premise of being national. What the critics of Thompson called the raw, uncivilized elements of his music, were indeed only the effects of another media system, phonography. Unlike the notation, phonography is able to write down real sounds, and not represent them only symbolically. Recorded as such, the emanation of national spirit became the object which has gained attention. What I noticed immediately, when I heard “Battalion Čavoglave” for the first time, was precisely the specific colour of Thompson’s voice.

In the horror movies, the character who suspects that the supernatural phenomena are more than just the inventions of psychics is punished, frequently. Why is horror so merciless to individuals who take a critical stance? It is for sure that the genre of horror is on the side of the supernatural: not only that the dangerous beings are presented as real, but they can be embattled only if a character believes that they really exist. If a character is suspicious of the distinctive reality of the miraculous world, his eyes will remain blind for the real danger, but also for some other given possibilities, e.g. for the possibility to live life without fear. As every dark romantic knight would do, Thompson, too, gives such a possibility. In one of the songs from his last album, entitled “Let no one touch into my little part of the universe”, he addresses his critics as dry and prosaic, as those who can not understand the very reality of his “beloved” (I quote the English translation from his official web site, slightly modified):

“East, West, everyone defends their own,
But I am not allowed to defend what’s mine from the ancient times,
My only world.

Only because of that, they say I am a fascist,
But I never wanted anything what belongs to someone else,
Only her,
My free country.”

How to understand these lines? The critics of Thompson will presumably find that the lines refer to the political reality of Croatia. Interpreted in that way, the lines could be frightening, since it is not difficult to imagine what kind of liberation such a “free country” would imply. However, there is something to be learned from Thompson. Like the horror movie, his song abuses the critic. In staging the failure of the critic, though, the movie and the song refer at the same time to their own existence: the character in the movie, or the critic addressed in the song, can be understood as the prefiguration of their audience. If the audience doesn’t believe in the existence of the aesthetic worlds, the very audience can not realize that only through the genre of horror it can be saved from fear. Observed from this perspective, the work of Thompson should not be minimized, it should be even supported. The more his albums become closed works and his stage shows “miracles which are unseen as yet”, the more they will lead to the place beyond fear. Dream, dear Thompson, dream of your little piece of the universe.

5.3. Sharing in / out Culture(s)

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For quotation purposes:
Dalibor Davidović: Fear of Music - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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