Macedonia’s Alternative Bands Strike Different Note

Critically minded and socially aware music bands are a minority sound in Macedonia today - but some groups are not afraid to be ‘out of tune’ with mainstream ideology. 

Superhiks | photo by Dimo Popov

While most Macedonians seem mesmerized by massive government-funded projects such as the ambitious revamp of the capital, named “Skopje 2014”, a small group of artists continues to express a sharply critical tone.

Mainly musicians from the independent scene, have a very different take on Macedonia’s prolonged economic transition process, as well as on the government’s so-called “Antique-isation” project, which involves sprinkling the capital with old-new statues of lions and horsemen, triumphal arches and neo-baroque buildings. 

Their audience may be small and their music either ignored or excluded from the mainstream media. But their survival shows that anti-establishment and social and politically engaged music remains alive in Macedonia, regardless which party is in power.

Legijata - photo

Their aim is to show that Macedonian musicians are not all deaf to the country’s massive political and social problems - even if only a few groups, such as Bernays propaganda, Legijata, PMG collective, Kanton 6, Noviot pochetok, Superhiks, Fighting windmills, have the awareness to ask the right questions.

All these bands are followers of a form of socially aware music that started with the 1980s and early 1990s with bands like Mizar, Padot na Vizantija and others. 

Mizar, formed in 1983, is best known for its dark gothic music, with influences of Macedonian folklore and Byzantine rhythms. 

Gorazd Chapovski, Mizar’s front man, traces the origins of this kind of popular music back to the 1960s hippy movement then to post-punk. “In former Yugoslavia … democracy came into society first of all through rock music,” he says. “Mizar in a way was the first NGO project in Macedonia”, he adds. 

He notes that while today’s local music scene has plenty of hip-hop, metal and hard-core underground artists, most stay quiet about Macedonia’s glaring political and social problems.

“I’m surprised that faced with the name issue, the rock scene stays still and quiet. It is a shame,” Chapovski says.

But not everyone is quiet. 

A recent song by rap artist Vladimir Dzokic, “Oda na gadosta”, [“Ode to obscenity”] caused a real stir on social network sites and Youtube, with its mockery of the government’s Skopje 2014 project and its references to poverty and unemployment. In the controversial video, the artist played the role of one of Skopje 2014’s statues.

The video was banned from some TV stations because of the lyrics, according to the artist.

Dzaka Nakot says musicians have no excuse for turning a blind eye to social issues. Music “should reflect life, and politics is an important factor in the world, concerning all of us”, he says.

Another band sticking its head above the parapet in Macedonia is Superhiks. Their song, “Africa”, compared the situation in the country with African wildlife, in a comic form. This song and the video have appeared in the mainstream media, however. 

Petar Mladenovski, the front man, says “Africa” had an excellent reception, as the long list of mainly complimentary remarks on Youtube indicates.

Superhiks, formed in 1994, espouses a hybrid music style, summed up by some as Balkan-Ska-Punk-Rock-Reggae. While the sound is optimistic and upbeat, their lyrics are socially conscious, homing in on problems in society. 

“If artists only want to write and sing about love, that’s fine. But, it would be banal not to have artists sing about the situation in the country and its inability to awaken from its deep dream,” Mladenovski says.

Mladenovski says intellectuals in the country “have already packed their suitcases, or are hidden in some basement, waiting for better times.

“Whether this is because of the passivity of the younger generation, or because of fear, I don’t know.” 

Musician Goran Trajkoski agrees. He was part of the 1980s dark wave band Padot na Vizantija and the legendary Mizar, as well as part of the cabaret project Circo Europia, that carried a strong socio-political message. 

Trajkoski says that few Macedonian musicians dare, or even want to dare, to oppose the line of the government and the political establishment. 

“We have a lot of musicians but few music thinkers,” he says. “They play, sing and laugh, because, so they say, they think no evil. But most of them, in fact, don’t think at all,” he adds. 

Rap artist Dzaka Nakot says musicians are directly affected by the general poverty and low quality of life that affects the whole country. 

“You can’t expect people to buy music CDs or concert tickets when they only have enough money for bread,” he says.

PMG kolektiv | photo by Kire Galevski for Life magazine

One musician not prepared to give up politics is Mirko Popov, a radio host at Skopje’s landmark independent radio station Kanal 103, as well as a DJ and member of PMG collective and Kanton 6.

“For me music is politics. My music is my own political manifesto,” he says.

He says that it is the responsibility of every human being and especially of every artist “to speak out about the true nature of things and try to penetrate the spirit of the time in order to show the way to those who are less awakened”.

PMG kolektiv, a disco-punk indie band formed in 2005, stubbornly challenges the musical and social norms of Macedonian audiences. 

But Popov concedes that the voices of independent musicians reach only limited circles. “The most popular musicians, whose voice is heard most, are servants of our political structures,” he says.

Igor Stojanovski, a musician and member of the non-profit organisation Compressor, says musicians have the potential to be a channel, broadcasting critical ideas to wider society, but there is not much sign of this happening.

“A provincial culture prevails in the so-called mainstream, and as a result, anyone trying to change the public discourse becomes marginalised,” he says.

Theoretician of culture and media, of NGO Kontrapunkt Iskra Geshoska says the problems facing independent minded musicians are societal and go much wider than the music scene. 

“As a society, we lack dialogue,” he says. “Artists rarely let themselves to be socially and politically active. It implies a huge sense of responsibility and awareness.”

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.