Garth Carthwright talks to the Bosnian band who have become a Balkan phenomenon and aren’t afraid to speak their minds
Bosnian band Dubioza Kolektiv are a Balkan phenomenon. Not just popular in former Yugoslavia, where they have packed 10,000-seat arenas, they also command a large following across much of eastern, northern and central Europe. Indeed, the only part of Europe where they remain largely unknown appears to be the UK. But this is changing; in 2015 they played at Glastonbury in June, and then debuted in London with two sold-out nights at The 100 Club in November.
Dubioza Kolektiv formed in 2003 when several friends in Zeneca and Sarajevo decided to pool their energies. Fusing all kinds of influences, the band embraced a punk DIY spirit and began playing anywhere and everywhere. They have released eight albums, all on their own label, Gramofon, and every one is available as a free download from the band’s website. They also manage themselves. To call the band ‘furiously independent’ is an understatement: they do everything on their own terms and refuse to compromise to commercial or political interests. I mention ‘political’ as Dubioza Kolektiv are more than simply outspoken; the band often lampoon politicians across former Yugoslavia (on stage and in song) as well as express their thoughts on international leaders and events. So much so that there have been attempts by certain politicians to ban them from performing in the towns where the elected member holds power.
Such attempts to censor the band only add fuel to their fire and make them more popular. And they certainly are popular: no other musical artist from Eastern Europe has come close to matching what Dubioza have achieved: their dynamic blend of rock, ska, electronica and folk music has captured a wide, youthful audience who respond to both their high-energy performances and the surge of idealism and anger that runs through their music. I met the band in Sarajevo in 2013 and was impressed by their intelligence, commitment and refusal to compromise. Their popularity has seen them deluged with offers from record labels but as Dubioza insist that all their recordings are available as free downloads, it suits the band to retain control over their music.
Former Yugoslavia always had a strong rock culture and placed a high value on satire, ensuring the band won over audiences disillusioned with nationalism and corruption. The band’s stand against the ethnic divisions that divide Bosnia and Herzegovina makes them a voice for those who believe in peace and unity. But rather than preach, Dubioza challenge stereotypes and ask their audiences not to worship them or any other prominent figures.
Singing in Bosnian, English and Spanish, the band have collaborated with the likes of dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah and Mush Khan from polemical British Pakistani band Fun-Da-Mental. Their 2013 album, Apsurdistan, is very powerful while their new album, Happy Machine, features Manu Chao, Macedonian trumpeter Dzambo Agusev, Punjabi singer BEE2 and Catalan ska-rumba band La Pegatina. Happy Machine is a brilliant fusion of radical ideas and sounds that sees Dubioza Kolektiv ready to extend their international audience.
ALBUM Happy Machine will be reviewed next issue (#116)