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All Strung Out, No Place to Play

Story and photos by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief

Musicians In Sarajevo

AS SO OFTEN HAPPENS IN THE BALKANS when you are sniffing around for one story, more then likely you will run into something you didn't expect and wind up running with that. That's how I met The Moron Brothers, one of Sarajevo's hottest emerging bands.

It started with a trip over to the massive Bosnian Television building down on "Sniper Alley." I was going there to see an old friend from WTN and scout up some info on the art scene when I came upon some hip-looking kids rolling into the place with guitars. We chatted briefly and I found they were going up to Studio 1, Radio BiH's recording facility. It's not often that foreign journalists take an interest in emerging young rock and rollers, and an invitation to check out what was up was quickly proffered.

Going up to the studio was a chilling journey. This is the building that had been hit last summer by a medium-range missile, and anything that could be damaged by the massive blast effect was blasted into smithereens. As I found out though, more than the lights and toilets were out of order. The bureaucratic hoops and outright theft of copyrights that young musicians face when they walk through these halls is equally screwy.

AS THE GUYS WERE GETTING SET UP, I started getting an earful of what goes down when young artists want to get studio time. "Edo", the bass player, started telling me about the situation. In order to get studio time at the only functioning facility in town. you have to have the backing of the government or sign over all rights to Radio BiH. That's right, for six hours of studio time and three tracks you lose all rights to that work now and forever. The licks they wound up laying down were catchy, jammin' little pop tunes and I could see the financiers at RBH licking their chops and counting the royalties in their sleep.

How do you say, 'Places for Meat?'
Edo Rocks Out at Radio BiH Edo expounded further and it became a lengthy list of problems facing Sarajevo musicians. They didn't have a producer who knows their medium, a pseudo-grunge as he explained it. Finding a venue is very difficult. Just keeping your axe in strings, and your drummer in sticks, is also a major problem for kids with no money and no music shops around if they had cash. "They have turned all the old music shops into, how do you say, places for meat," Edo said. "Butcher shops?" I asked. "Yes." We both felt a little sick. It was almost a sort of sacrilege.

Then there were the uppity-ups in the Bosnian government who control the facilities and aren't much interested in youth culture or their music, and deny it vital support. They are more interested in producing traditional, peasant mountain music with a "Praise Allah and Beat the Chetnicks" patriotic, propaganda bent.

Basically, the situation is tow the party line, sell out, or content yourself with a scrounged boom box to record on. The Moron Brothers were caught in the two-way crossfire. Not only were they into rock and roll, but they also sang their songs in (god forbid!) English. A double no-no with a government agency of communist-descent working to hold sway over a constituency composed mostly of "primitive people," a term used by Sarajevo's artist community to describe the agrarian, refugee peoples who flooded Sarajevo and now compose 84% of the city.

Over and over I was told how only 16% of Sarajevo's pre-war population remain, and the country people who now form the majority had no interest or appreciation for the arts. The remainder felt isolated and threatened.

An Airlift of Guitar Strings, Drum Heads and Amps
EQUIPMENT IS LIMITED AT BEST. Guitar strings are an endangered species. Ditto drum heads. There's power in Sarajevo on a regular basis, now, but precious few amplifiers can be had. Space and facilities are almost non-existent, and the powers that be are hostile to the movement unless they see an opportunity to exploit it. It sounds a lot like the plight of garage acts I have come across in the United States, but this situation is critical. The musicians I met were talking about rebuilding a nation, and the best way they could see to do that—and ensure a lasting reconciliation—is by reaching out to the youth. It was agreed all around that the best way to do this was through the arts, and music in particular.

TRUST Sarajevo logo For five days I hung around with the leaders of the local musicians young and old, artists, a couple of forward-thinking, hip cafe owners. A loose coalition was emerging and known as TRUST, the Citizens Coalition of Sarajevo. Together we began hammering out a clear picture of the future of the movement.

Over many coffees, Lozas and Pivos we examined all the problems and worked on a solid framework for the emerging organization. The first of many things agreed upon was the need for professional managers to run it, money to secure a building, and lawyers to protect the rights of all artists. It boiled down to three guiding principles, the three Ps.

1. Promote. Through resident artists, music distribution, an in house venue, exchange programs, and the Internet.

2. Produce. Through in-house production studios of every medium, practice space, art space, a place to meet and develop new projects and professionals from the international arts community to guide and refine emerging young artists through residency programs.

3. Protect. Through lawyers on retainer and a place to work free from any form of government control or influence.

We also started exploring options for space. A place to set up and operate out of was the first priority and everyone had their eyes on an old building constructed in the late 60's by the Yugoslav Boy Scouts. It had been designed as a youth center with studios, art space and editing facilities built in. It even had an observatory. The building also contains a full theater and a café-restaurant. It is a big, solid stone building that overlooks the city and during the war it was occupied by the military.

Drummer in a Sarajevo Club With the peace, and downsizing of the army, the place will be up for grabs, and like with everything else in Sarajevo, money talked. I asked if a cool million would do the trick. More than enough I was told. That would grease the right palms, snag a ten- year lease, pay for renovations and clean the place up, and still have a nice operating budget to get things cooking.

A Plea to Musicians Around the World
WE BEGAN COOKING UP ALL KINDS OF PLOTS. Exchange programs to bring in college acts from the United States and elsewhere. Putting local acts on tour on the U.S. college circuit. Bringing in recognized leaders in the industry for shows and workshops. An in-house label, and on and on. But the overriding theme of all of it was the unification of people not only in Bosnia but around the world through the common languages of art and music.

We hit on a strategy. First we hit up the art and music community for the cash and get our hands on this center, then we start producing, educating, and reaching out to the world at large.

We all figured that if the power players in the business had enough cash to build never-lands, kick down on castles in Scotland or uplink live from a city under siege during a concert, they could afford come to the aid of their protégées when they needed it most. At the same time, they would help rebuild a nation and heal a people caught in the middle of a madness beyond their control. Forget generating a cyclone of positive publicity or reaching out to an emerging market that has always been an enthusiastic sales outlet.

Not an easy task, but not an impossible one either, for in the community at large there are people dedicated to the guiding principles, and in Sarajevo there is a sunburst of creative energy waiting to be unleashed.

Additional resources
The Amps, Sticks & Strings Campaign
from Berserkistan & KCRW-FM

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