The last column was about the oddity of places no longer here but that still live on in people’s minds. Those are generally of the local and small-scale: a shop or block of apartments or a cinema or a park. The same thought process, however, can apply on a much grander scale, to whole countries, those which no longer can be found on a map of the world but which still inhabit imagination and songs. Some sound so romantic you can hardly believe they were real places. Like Bohemia – imagine living there. You could probably lie on a sofa all day reading a French novel and drinking absinthe out of the bottle. Reference was made in an earlier column to the continuing allure of Siam in songs – probably in many mental maps being somewhere east of Shangri-La rather than being the more prosaic Thailand. The Beatles’ Back in the USSR is now a historical statement. Johnny Wakelin’s 1976 hit about Muhammad Ali, In Zaire, would have to be re-released as In the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There was Cat Steven’s pre-Sri Lankan Ceylon City. Then there is, of course, an example nearer to home, with Yugoslavia – which was slowly broken up from the mid-1990’s and had vanished from maps of Europe by 2003.
One of the striking things about songs about Yugoslavia, and also about the countries that emerged from its breaking-up, is the bleakness of many of them, coming from the period of the Balkan conflicts. One of the best known is The Cranberries’ Bosnia, from 1996, one of those songs whose good intentions is marred by clumsy lyrics :’Bosnia was so unkind, Sarajevo changed my mind’. Like Culture Club’s War Song -‘ war is stupid, people are stupid’. (These are different from another group of songs whose lyrics can actually seem at odds with the supposed overall theme. Take, for example, the 1970 hit by Blue Mink, Melting Pot, a song about multi-cultural harmony by a group of session players that included soul singer Madeline Bell and with a second verse starting ‘Mm, curly latin kinkies, mixed with yellow Chinkees’. Or Siouxsie and the Banshees’ 1978 ode to a Chislehurst Chinese takeaway, Hong Kong Garden, which Siouxsie described as a tribute to the restaurant staff being harassed by National Front skinheads - ‘Slanted eyes meet a new sunrise, a race of bodies small in size, chicken chow mein and chop suey’ ..).
Other songs about Yugoslavia have been as equally dark as Bosnia. They have included the forceful Yugoslavia by Tatu about the NATO bombing of Serbia - ‘For the death during the spring rain, For that I never came to your rescue ,Forgive me my sister, Yugoslavia...’ - and Dubrovnik is Burning by the Croatian Liberation Front (an American-Croatian rap group). And the song here , Lyla ,by Cocorosie from their 2004 album La Maison de Mon Reve, the song title inspired by the film Lilya-4-Ever, about a teenage girl from Estonia forced into prostitution.(Note the track is not distorted, it is supposed to sound like this!).
Cocorosie are 2 American-born sisters based in Paris whose work tends to the experimental – few conventional musical instruments are used - and is perhaps best listened to in small doses. What keeps this track this side of irritatingly discordant is the overall sense of resignation and bleakness from the lyrics and tone - the sound of tower blocks and graffiti - combined with vocals that seem dreamlike to the point of drifting away: one reviewer described their sound as the sort of voices you might hear coming through at a séance. As the ‘It’s not Yugoslavia,’ refrain comes round you can almost see the country dissolving in front of your eyes. There goes Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Slovenia, here comes the capitalism of MacDonalds and child prostitution. ‘It’s hardly Yugoslavia at all’.
As it happens, my own images and memories are very different from the ones of the song, or any of those mentioned above. Dubrovnik in 2002 was not burning any more but appeared as a fairy - book medieval walled town of winding alleys and archways, the newer tiles on the redbrick roofs marking where rockets had landed ten years before. On the Trebizat River in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the pastoral scenery of overhanging trees and flowers and butterflies could have been an English river in Surrey or Oxfordshire, a surreal thought at the time when put against the Cranberries' song. Hardly Yugoslavia at all.