Arts: Would you risk your life for Eurovision?: Bosnia-Herzegovina's entry for Eurovision brings the chill of war to bubblegum pop. Marek Kohn reports

Marek Kohn
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:45

Once war only intruded into Eurovision as a whimsical metaphor for affairs of the heart. 'Waterloo', sang Abba, 'couldn't escape if I wanted to.' This year the battlefield is Sarajevo and the Bosnian competitors had to get out under fire in order to

reach the finals. After decades in which the Eurovision Song Contest dedicated itself to the illusion of a bubblegum continent the Bosnians have seized upon the event as an opportunity to confront audiences with the truth that Sarajevo is part of Europe.

If ever the Contest produced a real song for Europe, this must be it. With its themes of love, patriotism and exile, Bosnia-Herzegovina's entry would have struck a chord with European romantics through the ages, from the Scottish rebels of 1745 to the French Resistance. 'The Whole World's Pain' is a message from a soldier to his beloved, who has fled the war, to tell her that he is still alive, and fighting on.

It's not a fable, either. The singer is Muhamed Fazlagic, known as Fazla, who was once a model and is now one of the defenders of Sarajevo. The woman to whom he is singing is Sanda Bukvic, a journalist by profession, who escaped from Sarajevo to Sweden in January. Now that the 25 members of Bosnia's Eurovision contingent have found their way safely to Zagreb, Fazla and Sanda have been reunited. And, as if the story were not romantic enough, they are about to be married. They will have their honeymoon in Dublin, the host capital of this year's Song Contest.

All in all, Bosnia's first Eurovision bid is a surreal combination of tragedy, romance and black comedy. The European Broadcasting Union is treating Bosnia like any other contestant, issuing a Sarajevo contact phone number for TV Bosnia's Head of Light Entertainment, who presumably has not been in a position to commission any game shows or sitcoms for some time. The lines are all down, in any case; telecommunications with Sarajevo are via ham radio or satellite phone.

The electricity supply is also crippled, which meant that Fazla Band had to record 'The Whole World's Pain' with an auxiliary generator. The UN provided the fuel; or rather, it was bought on the black market, in deutschmarks, from United Nations soldiers. The four male members of Fazla Band are all soldiers themselves, and have vowed to return to their duties in the Bosnian army after the Song Contest. It's a little as if a group of pilots had taken time out from the Battle of Britain to record 'We'll Meet Again'.

The video wasn't any easier. The first pop promo to be made in a siege will give the pundits of postmodernism something to chew on, as well as boggling the imaginations of British viewers waiting to see Sonia, whose Motown pastiche immediately follows the Bosnian entry in the preview broadcast on May 9.

Like any venture into the streets of Sarajevo, where the video was filmed, it had its risks. The most dangerous part of the whole project, however, was the exit from the city. For its citizens, the only way out of Sarajevo is via the airport - not in planes, but running the gauntlet of Serbian fire across the runways. If UNPROFOR patrols catch them, they are returned to the city.

Backing singer Erka Hadzovic, a law student who now works for a company which has installed satellite phone links to Sarajevo, left with five other members of the Eurovision party. The first time they tried, they were forced to turn back. The second

time, they were successful. Others that night were not; six people were killed, and some seventeen wounded. Erka and her companions spent the night in a ruined house in the suburb of Dobrinja, scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the city. She dismisses the danger: everyone in Sarajevo is used to it, she says. They made their way to Mount Igman, a peak held by government forces, and an army truck took them to Mostar, from where they went on by bus to Zagreb.

Even then, their place in the finals was not secure. Eurovision rules limit the number of entrants in any one year to 25, and so an elimination contest for Eastern European countries was held in Ljubljana. Fortunately Bosnia made it, though if the other qualifying entries, from Slovenia and Croatia, are anything to go by, Fazla Band didn't face much in the way of competition. Serbia was inelegible, having been expelled from the EBU.

The three Serbo-Croat entries all have different messages for the Europe they are entering. Slovenia has opted to join the traditional bubblegum Europe of the Song Contest, in which singers frolic amid their country's most alluring tourist landscapes. Come on over, they urge, and never mind the Balkans. The Croats also show off their scenery, but cloak it in misty nostalgia. This is a nation proud of its heritage, it's clear, and unashamed of Catholic kitsch. Their singer, the sort of young womanwho presents flowers to the Pope at airports, ends her kindergarten melody in English: 'Don't ever cry / My Croatian sky'.

In any other setting, the opening image of Bosnia's video would be even more mawkish. But a child carrying a sledge down a snowy street in Sarajevo looks nothing like a Christmas card image. Almost everyone in this video, young and old, performer and passer-by, has the same expression, haunted and burning. It is a bizarre attempt to reconcile the form with the circumstances. A leather-jacketed guitarist mimes in the street; at one point, incongruously, the footage runs backwards.

Watching it, one realises how the pop video has taught us to suspend belief. There have been cemeteries, ruins and handsome men looking sorrowful in videos before. They were there because they were part of an aesthetic that consumers found pleasing. This time they are part of a statement of national identity, as much a challenge to its audience as a plea for sympathy. They are real and theatrical at the same time, a dissonance that induces a sense of unreality. Angst has become so stylised that, at moments in the video, the reason for the trauma etched upon Fazla's face threatens to float away from its image altogether.

The song itself is melancholy and rousing at the same time, proclaiming determination above all. With it, Erka Hadzovic says, 'we show that we are part of Europe, that we are part of the civilised world'. The chorus runs 'The whole world's pain is in Bosnia tonight'. For the first time, the victims of a tragedy, rather than its observers, have broadcast a message to the world in a pop song.

Part of that message lies in the recording itself, made with electricity at a premium. It amounts to a sort of demo: you can imagine what the opening guitar solo would sound like with a U2-style production, or how a string arrangement could highlight the grain of the song. With its heroic chorus and its romantically intermingled moods, it could be a hell of a record. As it is it stands as an example of the constraints imposed on Bosnian loyalists by the meagreness of the equipment available to them.

There are plans to release the song in Croatia, with the proceeds to go to children of fallen Bosnian fighters. In Zagreb, the group is finishing its first album, and is now looking for sponsors to see them through the excursion to Ireland. Their benefactors so far include a Sarajevo brewery and the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, just as if this were a normal entry.

Frank Neff, the elder statesman of the Contest, sticks to the line that juries should vote for 'The Whole World's Pain' on its merits as a song. It is hoped that the Bosnian jury will deliver their votes from Sarajevo by satellite phone; and of course that the Bosnian Serbs desist from bombarding them as they go through their deliberations.

The other juries can rest assured that if they do the transparently proper thing and award Fazla Band maximum points, they will not doom Eurovision '94 to be held in Sarajevo. A winning nation - supposing it still exists - is allowed to waive the privilege of hosting the next contest.

A victory would hardly be a happy ending for the band, anyway. They have to run the gauntlet and rejoin the defence of the city. Sanda and Fazla will probably be parted, too. Sanda laughs a lot, as any bride-to-be should, but not when she speaks of the gunfire at the airport crossing. She will be returning with her husband.

The young men and women of Fazla Band are so desperate to bring Bosnia's message to Europe that they have risked their lives to take part in Eurovision, of all things. It may be that a victory in the Song Contest is the only victory that Europe is prepared to help them win.

(Photograph omitted)

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