Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Slavic Punk Rock Connection

“Everyone is driving eighty in a fifty zone, there is fucking rubbish in the street, fucking tagging, and that’s all because everything is slowly going to shit. People are pissed off, the young people don’t have jobs, they don’t know what they’re going to do in the future. They’re dropping out of school, they have no enthusiasm you know. So what do they do? They fucking trash shit, they’re tagging, they’re going wild. That is all indication that it’s not that great”.

Ziva Radlovacki, singer of four piece Auckland punk band Nemamo Ime is however, not referring to Croatia or Serbia, countries mending from the immense social and economic cost of the war two decades ago, and where the four members immigrated from in the early to mid 1990s, but to New Zealand in the present day.

“This is the thing, is that we actually came from that fucked up country because of the government and whatever the fuck happened then to here. And then, the same shit started coming. Really slowly, happening here….In the way that there is inflation, raising taxes, tax this, tax that, the people’s wages are staying the same while everything goes up, all the cost of living goes up. . You can’t really compare to what happened over there but this is a young country, so you know. That’s how it starts”.

It is the perfect night for drinking outside a bar in the city. Drummer and guitarist, brothers Dalibor and Denis Andzakovic who work in IT, with singer/chef-by-trade Ziva are having a few beers after a band practice which going on their enthusiasm, was as fast and energetic as their live set. Bass player Emil Mihajlov, a high school social studies teacher is having an early night. Dalibor is drinking an Americano (equal parts Campari, Soda, and sweet Vermouth) as he doesn’t “feel like getting shit faced”.

According to Dalibor, the proper version has gin instead if soda and is called a Negroni.
According to Denis, the Russian version has vodka and is called a Negrowski. The music of Nemamo Ime is a scathing, catchy sing along style (with the occasional finger melting guitar solo) reminiscent of old school street punk. But although their influences (mainly the hundreds of punk bands in Croatia, but also Sex Pistols, Clash, Dead Kennedys, Ramones, Stiff Little Fingers) are present, the style is entirely their own, as organic as how the band itself found the style that worked for them.

They met at the Dalmatian Club, a place for the community to meet each Sunday night and “put on some beats and learn the cultural dances”. Another guy “who was a bit of a waster” suggested Denis and Dalibor join him in playing some folk covers, It seemed like a good idea, but didn’t turn out so well.

“What we played and what the crowd wanted to hear were a miss-match” Dali explained, though he smiles at the memory of sound checking Cowboys from Hell in a church in Takapuna. They tried playing covers, everything from ACDC to ZZ Top, discovering that they just played everything faster, with no decision to do so or explanation why. “I don’t want to say it degenerated into punk…” Dalibor ventures. But he can’t finish the sentence.

-+The waster went on to non-musical endeavours, and the four left were soon writing their own songs, a process natural and easy enough to make the majority of bands sick with envy. Ziva arrives at a practice with lyrics, a bit of tinkering ensues, a riff is formed, Dalibor whacks a cow bell and the whole thing falls into place. Between the lyrics, beats and riffs, there is something rare that slots into place and makes everything work.

At no point did they decide to be a punk rock band, nor does anyone in the band have a clear understanding why they ended up writing punk songs.

"Several passing Anarchists who were out dumpster diving managed to rope Nemamo Ime into a gig at Thirsty Dog on Karangahape Road."

While the crowd at the Dalmatian Club may have been less than impressed, it was during one of these sets the band were heard by several passing Anarchists who were out dumpster diving, and who managed to rope Nemamo Ime into a gig at Thirsty Dog on Karangahape Road. “We were expecting tumbleweeds” says Dalibor. We thought nah, people won’t like it because we don’t sing in English. But by the second song people were bobbing up and down”.

“That night we actually met another Croatian scumbag” adds Denis. He was like Man! Didn’t expect to hear those songs in New Zealand!”

Ziva, from Serbia, was especially sceptical, as he doesn’t write songs in English. “I’ve tried and I have a couple of songs in English…when I need a rhyme…I put some English words in.”
Are his lyrics a warning? Angry? Taking the piss?

“At first I just write down everything as I feel it, so yeah its angry. But I also sometimes take the piss, but about the serious situation. I try to write about all the shit that annoys me, pretty much. Songs about politics, and all the shit, the economic situation in our old country, our former country. And there is a couple of songs about the government here”.

Songs such as ‘Johnny The Dice‘.

Ziva took the melody for the chorus is from an old Croatian kid’s TV show called The Dice, which translated goes “The Dice, the dice, through time and space”.

Nemamo Imes little number is translated to “Bullshit to bullshit, through time and space, and always the same old questions, and always the same old themes”.

In post-election New Zealand, with 250,000 children still in poverty, a lack of jobs, worker’s conditions under attack, wages stagnated and election promises still ringing hollow in our ears, the song’s message that nothing is changing despite the political rhetoric is all too relevant.

Another song, ‘Provincial Hell’ is about a stabbing that happened in Ziva’s home town. “It’s the same shit. Small town, people are bored, no jobs, everything is concentrated in the big cities, you know, fucking privatisation, everything is there, small towns dying out. I mean, same thing. Look at Auckland, its expanding, farms and small towns are getting smaller and smaller, people are bored, they’re drinking, taking drugs. You fight cos’ you’re bored, you fucken stab someone cos’ you’re pissed off instead of talking your way through it. It’s the same here”.

When Ziva arrived in New Zealand in 1996, he says he hardly heard of a murder.

“Everything was from overseas, rugby and cricket. And now…there is murders, babies dying, kid died, this one got stabbed, this one got beaten to death”.

The root cause of violence is something they all have an understanding of.

“If someone is unhappy, and they’re going to take it out in some way, the easiest way is to take it out on someone who is defenceless or the same as them. They’re not going to take it out on the government because they can’t do it…Easiest way is to get drunk and stab him” Ziva says, pointing at their friend Nick, to the amusement of everyone at the table. “And you release your frustration, but after it happens you get arrested, fucken jail for life, you sober up and by the time you realise what (has) happened its too late. More and more this is happening. That’s where I find the correlation between this shit that has happened over there and over here. That’s what I write about and what we play about”.

Ziva keeps in touch with friends back in in the old country, everybody he knows is trying somehow to get out. But they lack the resources to do so.

“When we went back a few years ago, most of the people we knew that were Dali’s age or slightly older had, you know, moved to the UK or Germany” says Denis. “The majority of the economy comes from tourism…there isn’t any industry yet. Getting a job in IT for example in Australia or UK or wherever, if you’ve got some certs you can do that. In Croatia, zero chance. Because there is nothing to do. It is still in a rebuilding stage”.

Denis likes to be optimistic, and hopes in a few years infrastructure will get built and people will be able to progress.

Croatia: “The majority of the economy comes from tourism…there isn’t any industry yet."

“Yeah but its still the same old shit” counters Ziva. “They started privatisation because you know, they wanted to start making money and companies can grow whatever. But it’s the same old rules they stick with like what happened under Communism, which wasn’t really Communism because all these politicians and managers and bosses, they were always pocketing money, and everyone was ‘equal’. Bullshit. They’re still doing it the same way, there is a lot of corruption, criminality. And I wouldn’t say there is a middle class. Well, maybe a little bit. But its starting to look like that here isn’t it?”

We talk a bit about the wharfies, and their battle in the Port of Auckland, and what it will mean if the Union is smashed and privatisation is brought in.

“They sell all the assets and everything, people lose jobs, can’t get jobs…I mean its still so small, we have jobs, we work. We drink beer, have fun whatever. But go to Australia” he smiles as though advising me too. “That’s another thing that reminds me of the shit back home. People trying to get out. Here, its Australia. There is better jobs, more money.”

One of the consequences of the Wharfies losing their battle would be the flood of highly skilled port workers going to Australia where the money is better, and the where they wouldn’t have to tolerate bullying bosses. We talk about how “being competitive” for Tony Gibson means having a ‘casual work force’.

“And casual worker doesn’t give a shit. That is why he is casual. He is going to come, pretend to work…probably fuck up and get hurt” says Ziva.

Just as strong as the serious subject matter of their songs, and the experiences that have shaped them, is the ethic of enjoyment that exudes from every aspect of Nemamo Ime. They present as four people who play the music they love with little regard to popular sentiment. Their’s is a refreshing honesty.

They happily talk of the sea of beer bottles in their practice space, a damp, mouldy basement that also serves as the studio for their next album, a follow up to their first EP, a release available for free download. and featuring the crowd pleasing ’Rakia’, a tribute to the popular Yugoslav drink . Similar to Germany’s schnapps (which they assure me is sub standard to the Croatian Rakia), it involves getting 60kg of your favourite fruit, dumping it in a barrel with some sugar, then distilling it. A semi-heated debate follows a suggestion that you can use a mix of fruit. Dalibor scoffs at this notion. “What? You’re going to make a fucken tutti-fruity Rakia?” While 60kg of apricots can be “a pain in the arse to find”, pears and plums are easy enough
“Slavic connections” Denis says proudly. “You go to an old family who are retired and their orchard has turned to shit, and you say “Hey! Mind if we come and tidy your orchard for you and take the fruit?” And rotting fruit, the just fallen onto the ground and started to rot is the best for making booze. Six weeks later, twenty litres of booze”.


In true DIY punk tradition, they record their music themselves on equipment acquired from sources sympathetic to the cause.

The correlation they identify between the results of the neo-liberal economic model New Zealand has followed in the last twenty seven and a half years, and the increasing social slide into violence is impossible to ignore. It is a chilling reminder of how important the stakes are, of what can happen when the working class feels the pinch of tough economic times and people in power find scapegoats.

As Denis puts it, “eventually some arsehole starts shooting guns”. He tells me a theory from Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (who Denis describes as ’awesome, giant beard, bat-shit crazy‘) on his cure fore for extreme racism. Which is, odd as it sounds, is more racism. “When we had former Yugoslavia, everything was forced polite, because someone figured out that the only way these guys won’t be at each others throats is if they all have the same right to shut the fuck up. Before Yugoslavia and that sort of stuff, yes there were a lot of people that were pissed off at each other, but the majority would take the piss and there would always be horrible racist jokes. So they desensitized everything. Every single nation has its stereotypes (as any New Zealander on the end of a sheep shagging joke can relate too). Then Yugoslavia came along, and they said “oh no you have to be polite, and say I like your cultural dances, and you have great food”. Fuck off! I don’t care about your ethnic dances I want my dirty jokes!. It is a little bit silly, but it is a valid point. If everyone takes the piss out of everything else then the silly things can’t be taken seriously.”

An amusing way to counter what Freud called ‘the narcissism of minor difference’, where in an effort to separate themselves, people make the smallest, most insignificant of differences between them into huge ones.

Zizek: The cure for extreme racism is....more racism.

And the future? “The old pensioners will sit around, drink Rakia and talk shit and the subject of politics will often come up but it is just like a discussion they will have.”

Denis says that the “horrible nationalists” are the kids fifteen and younger, who weren’t even born when the war was on.

“It only takes a little bit to twist the young mind, you know. You twist it the wrong way and then shits going to get fucked up in fifty years, or forty years, or thirty years or however long it takes for someone to have enough power to squash you”.

But, he says it doesn’t have to be that way.

“The last time we were there we decided fuckit, we’re sick of the family and that sort of stuff, grabbed an acoustic guitar and a box of piss (a Croatian box of piss is 25 half litre bottles in a plastic container), and we parked up next to the Danube river and played some random songs and whatever. And we met some guys, they were wearing military uniform…ish. Basically, I was sixteen, seventeen at the time, these guys were…youngest one was twenty. And they were the fucken coolest cats ever. They were like ‘yeah man, fuck all that shit, this guys from Macedonia and hes’ like my brother and we go out boozing’ and that sort of stuff. And they were the coolest cats. They understood what happened and they didn’t care. Its all bullshit and its bad for ya”.

As the effects of the attacks on the working class continue, and attempts at dividing us along insignificant lines increase, I hope the importance of that last line is remembered. Just in case, here it is again.

Its all bullshit, and its’ bad for ya.

-Matt B., SA.

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