POP / Slavs to the rhythm: Marek Kohn finds young Slovenes revelling in bland pre-war Yugo-rock; for them, the past is another country

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A couple of boys in hipster shades lay their arms across each other's shoulders and kick their legs to a rhythm with roots south of the Alps and east of the Adriatic. A girl of about 16 sits singing raptly, as if the song were her autobiography. This is a night of anthems, and they sound suspiciously unpatriotic.

The 'Balkan Party', held Thursday nights at the K4 club in Ljubljana, is devoted to the pop music of former Yugoslavia. The kids, for whom Yugoslavia is a childhood memory, are partying like it's 1991.

The music is mostly mainstream pop and rock; some has folk influences from the other former Yugoslav nations. Imagine, for analogy, an independent Wales whose state-run media declined to broadcast British pop music, but whose young people flocked to

'British Parties' to dance to Madness, Bros and the Proclaimers. The spectacle adds to the air of unreality that pervades Ljubljana - an affluent European city in miniature, where the convivial hum of cafe life hovers above the warm cobbles.

Three years ago they had a small war here. Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia seem to belong to another continent now. But what kind of a nation is Slovenia? This is what the Slovenes are trying to work out. A recent survey found that they feel closest to Germans, Swiss, Czechs and Slovaks, and threatened by Croats and Serbs. But the popularity of Yugo-rock suggests that a desire for something of Yugoslavia is returning.

'It is nostalgia combined with forbidden fruit,' says the musician Zoran Predin. To him, the basis of Yugo- rock's popularity is that it is good party music. Igor Vidmar, a local rock authority, insists that there is nothing political about the Balkan parties; but whatever they have become, they started out as an initiative in multicultural politics.

After the break-up of Yugoslavia began, Peter Barboric, who now runs the K4 club, compiled Balkan charts for a TV show called Southern Comfort, taking pains to include the music of all ethnic groups, along with Yugo-rock. The first Balkan Party, a live version of the show, was held in December 1991, but the events really took off last autumn - three or four hundred people were queuing up outside - many the children of Serbian or Bosnian 'guestworkers'.

Then, according to Barboric, things started to go wrong. Fights broke out between Serbs and Muslims, and heavy security became necessary. The musical policy was changed to reduce tension, and, according to Barboric, the multicultural ideals yielded to Serbian pressure.

The event survives for purely commercial reasons. Drawing an average 700 customers, it's the best-selling night of the week. But the audience has changed. The students are less in evidence, perhaps put off by the new musical fare. Barboric says the atmosphere has staled, yet an overwhelming spirit of bonhomie still transcends the language-barrier.

So what does it mean, when you're a girl of 16, to sit in a club singing a song from a country that no longer exists, in a language that probably isn't your mother tongue? 'She's channelling her frustrations about her inability to understand the war,' suggests Ales Debeljak, a Slovenian writer. 'It's a childish sentiment, but it has a great deal of legitimacy. 'To her, these mediocre old pop songs, mean a lot - they are spasms of nostalgia for something she can't articulate.'

Debeljak, who is 32, feels that the young find the melancholic, Alpine nature of Slovenian music insufficiently expressive. As a teenager, he recalls, he and his friends felt the same way: 'We had to resort to Serbian and Dalmation songs; the tradition is still South Slavic, so it's ours, yet not ours,' he observes, 'and the friction accounts for the fascination.'

With the end of Yugoslavia, the balance was radically altered. 'We have come to see what is being produced south of our border as exotica, lament and nostalgia.'

So what should the character of Slovenian culture be? Roberto Magnifico, a 28-year- old musician who grew up a 'typical Yugoslav', uses folk motifs in his music, but also draws on Western themes. It sounds like the ideal musical model for a small new nation - pluralistic and open to outside influences.

'Culture gives you independence - not borders or presidents,' Magnifico says. 'In the late Nineties,' adds Debeljak, 'culture will be the harbinger of countries coming closer together.'