July 22, 2014 by cosmoakacitizensmith
The idea for touring in eastern Europe came from Lembo, who’d done the artwork for my last two CDs. He’d gone out to south-eastern Europe with Efa Supertramp on a tour last year, and suggested I got in touch with the venues and sort out one for myself.
At the time I’d be trying to get gigs in the UK, but nothing was really coming together. However, within few hours of sending out a batch of emails and Facebook messages to the contacts Lembo had given me, I was getting interest. I thought, hell yeah, let’s go for it.
The tour started in Vienna and then went south, down into Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and then finally up into Hungary, where there was an anarchist bookfair-type event happening. It ran from the 15th – 23rd March. The venues were all either squats or alternative cultural centres. This type of venue interests me for a number of reasons. One, with the crackdown on squatting in the UK, we don’t have many spaces like that here. And two, I wanted to see what purpose they serve in radical communities and how they work within the wider social and political culture – in this case, in countries that are in a worse economic situation than the UK. (Some of you may have read my round-up of some of the alternative spaces I visited in Germany and the Netherlands earlier this year.)
VIENNA: I left sunny Wales and got to Vienna where is was grey and drizzly, UK-stylee. Oh great, I thought. However, when I got to Kaleideskop, the radical bookshop and discussion venue I was playing at, I was greeted by some very friendly people and after a cup of tea we were all sat around chatting and sorting out dinner.
Funnily enough I’d been told that they’d had several meetings about me playing there, as they were concerned about sexist, racist, homophobic, nationalist or pro-life content in my material. I was surprised: either they hadn’t realise I was a frothing-at-the-gob, card-carrying anarcho, or there were some subconscious viewpoints in my material that were working contrary to self-appointed role as a musical propagandist. Uh-oh….
As it turned out, the issue was the song I Blame The Immigrants!, which in fairness some people have taken me to task for as the irony may not be apparent on the first listen. Who knows what it would be like listening to it if English wasn’t your first language? We had a laugh about the misunderstanding, had some dinner and got ready for the show.
First up was Alicia Edelweiss. Frankly, if I’d been expecting a right-on performance of exacting PC standards I’d have been disappointed. Suffice to say it was refreshing to hear songs about blow-jobs, her Enslaved Forestman lover and cockroaches – amongst other lo-fi, theatrical folk-punk gems. I was nervous about following her, and the packed house thinned slightly when I went on, but it worked out fine, and we all ended up jamming into the small hours before I crashed out in a toasty, heated upstairs room.
The next day I was given a guided tour of radical Vienna, courtesy of Julia, a squatter in a disused Pizzeria Anarchia on the other side of town. As we walked through the city, she showed me an abandoned boat that on the river that occasionally gets used for parties. In addition, we passed the place where the Akademikerball happens. This is an annual shindig for an assortment of right-wing nationalists from all over Europe. Scumbags like the Front National in France, the FPÖ in Austria and the Partij voor de Vrijheid in the Netherlands come together for a piss-up (and possibly to discuss who is the biggest right-wing bellend of them all). Of course, the local radical community facilitates a counter-protest and all hell breaks loose. You can read more about it here. I also found out about “silent squatting”, where squatters move in surreptitiously to vacant homes and keep their heads down, pretending that they’re legal residents.
After a chilled night feasting on skipped food and beer, and having a jam with the international contingent at the pizzeria who were fortifying the place ready for an impending eviction, I headed off for a lift share that Julia had sorted out, armed with a new free SIM card. Nice one, Pizzeria!
LJUBLJANA, SLOVENIA: I got onto the bus after being dropped off by the lift-share, and was followed by a load of heavy looking ticket inspectors. The bus driver had let me travel for free, and I tried to explain this, but I felt like I was being a grass so it didn’t come over very well. Fortunately, the driver and I got away with it (not the first time I played the dumb foreigner), and I got dropped off at the fantastic Metelkova, an ex-army barracks-turned-autonomous-social space.
Metelkova explodes colour and creativity as you enter. It must be amazing having all these buildings and spaces free of corporate bars, and dedicated to independent artistic and political activities. Imagine that in the UK? There were several events going on the night I played, despite a clampdown by the cops earlier in the week. Someone pointed out the presence of some right-wing nationalist types in the space; I was surprised they were allowed in.
The show was at the Jalla Jalla venue, where there is also a regular Food Not Bombs event. I started out playing in the bar and ended up playing on the veranda. Afterwards, I spent some time hanging out. There definitely seemed to be a tension on the space between those who see the space as political, those who value it’s independence and those who want to move things in a more commercial and mainstream direction. I think there is a kind of inevitability to this as such spaces become successful.
Had a glorious night drinking weird cocktails and playing cards with a local anarcho. I stayed at his place, even though we had got back late and he had a driving theory test in the next day. His flatmate found him asleep by the table in the morning. Ooops!
RIJEKA, CROATIA…This was one helluva punk rock night of a night! And it was the start of my legendary relationship with buses in eastern Europe. I had a five hour journey on a bus that I had to change twice and none of them had any khazis on. There was always the option of a plastic bottle, but this was difficult with people in close proximity. Ouch.
Anyway, Rijeka is a port city and has a buzz about it. I met the promoter Damir and after some food we headed to the Podrum, a basement venue in a huge warehouse. Word came through someone who’d been sticking up antifascist posters nearby had been attacked by a gang of youths. So the gig was suspended while a bunch of people went on the scout for them.
In the meantime I met a Maltese hip-hop crew who were on the bill, Sempliciment Tat – Triq, and we bonded over being music acts that stick out like a sore thumb at punk rock shows. The people who’d been out scouting came back, saying they had found nothing, but there was some concern as a group of youngsters who were hanging about by the venue.
“They’re teenagers and they’ve probably been goaded to wind us up by some far-right gangs. But they’re our future and we need to look out for them,” said one guy. Some of us talked to them and though they were being arsey they clearly weren’t fascists. I asked someone if this was a common problem at shows. “No,” she said. “This is new territory for us, which is why we’re all hesitating how to deal with it.” In the event, the teenagers calmed down and the gig went ahead. It was a great show, but I was knackered and falling asleep where I stood. Some of the hip-hop crew wanted to go out dancing afterwards but I headed back to the communal space we were staying in with the promoter and we bagsed the best beds in the place. Happy daze.
Except round about this point I get weird illness where I can’t hold my food down and feel sick whenever I eat anything.
ZAGREB, CROATIA. Another legendary bus trip, another water bottle with green fluid in. Fortunately the journey to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, was shorter than my previous one, and I was able to spend a bit of time with the promoter Marko as he kindly showed me around the city.
Marko is involved in a couple of anarchist bookshops in Zagreb. One is actually a library called Infoshop Pippilotta in the Attack Autonomous space, which was hosting a graffiti workshop the day I arrived. The space was huge, and mainly used for artistic projects.
I was given a guided tour of radical Zagreb! I saw the street where students raised the black anarchist flag against the Hungarian occupiers just over a century before, the site where leaders of a medieval peasants’ revolt were executed, and a statue of Marija Jurić Zagorka, journalist, author and feminist icon.
And amongst this whistlestop tour, Marko also told me he had been involved in the anti-war movement in Croatia during the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Serbia invaded Croatia in 1991 in an attempt to keep it within the Yugoslav state. For a few years there were also wars in other parts of former Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Bosnia and Kosovo. It would be a be a bit like if all the constituent countries of the UK split up and and started fighting each other.
The idea of organising an anti-war movement while the country you lived in was being invaded struck me as partly heroic and partly crazy. Marko patiently explained his motivations and the activities of the group. I won’t attempt to do it justice here but you can read all about it here (download from Dropbox of a Word file). Much respect.
The gig was great fun. I played an impromptu kids set to one child earlier in the evening, and stood on a chair to harangue people waiting for a punk show later. You can read all about it in Croatian and see photos and videos if you follow this link! I set off in the morning with a small bottle of the spirit Rakia, which I was told would cure all manner of ailments. It must have worked on that weird vomiting disease. Happy daze again.
After Serbia’s government committed war crimes against former Yugoslav populations in the early 90s, it got bombed to hell by NATO – geed up by the delightful Mr Tony Blair, who in retrospect must have been getting practice for his future role as warlord in the Middle East.
Serbia still suffers for being seen as a pariah state. International investment is harder to come by; Belgrade is noticeably poorer than Zagreb. As I step off the coach and meet Rasha, the promoter of my show, I’m wired from the journey. The sky has become dark and forbidding and there has been a rainstorm. Rasha buys me some food from the supermarket. On the bus journey to the squat, Inex Film, Belgrade seems to have a futuristic, dark and forbidding aspect to it. Or is it just my head that is dark and forbidding..? Some of the city centre has been rebuilt since the bombing.
Inex film is an disused cinema. There is an old-school rave being planned for the evening, and the sound system is already getting set up in the vast, concrete bunker downstairs. I’m shown upstairs to a room with ramshackle furniture in where I’m supposed to be playing shortly. Only Rasha tells me he hasn’t really done any promotion, so he’s not sure whether anyone will come. That old chestnut!
I get talking to four German women who have come over to garner support for an anti-militarist camp at the GÜZ, a NATO training are near Magdeburg. They are dressed in black and look like they may be a feminist terror cell. I tell one of them this and she laughs. We get talking; they all seem very interesting. It’s the first time I hear anything about asymmetrical warfare. I take some of their leaflets about the camp with me, and they go off and decide to walk by a nearby river.
I head off back to the room I’m supposed to play in, but there’s no-one there except an American guy, and we get jamming on guitars. He turns out to be a conspiraloon. Rasha comes in again and we argue with him, but I’m pretty pissed off and depressed at this point so I fuck off to bed, techno pumping in my ears from downstairs. Blerrrghhhhh…..
The next day I’m up early. A group of young Roma kids are using part of the squatted space for a playgroup, and I get a chance to play some songs to them. This works really well, and I think they are convinced that I am a magical alien or something. (This is down a creative use of the language barrier!! 😉 ). The kids seem great, and the playworkers do a fantastic job. It was good to see a alternative centre being used to outreach like this, no doubt showing how state provision has fallen short. This is something we’ll see more of in the UK, I’m sure.
The sun is shining and I feel much better, having seen some really positive things at Inex. Rasha comes with me back to the bus station and I buy him a few beers, (I decided to forget about the lack of show promo!) We talk candidly. He mentions how many locals laugh at western Europeans coming Belgrade and not realising they’re born. They have no ideas about the culture and the problems people face. It may not be something people like to hear, but sometimes you gotta CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE!
KRALJEVO, SERBIA The bus station at Kraljevo looks run down and a bit scary. But within a few minutes of arriving I’m met by Vojkan and his friend who spirit me off to Evergreen Cultural Centre. As soon as I get there, Vojimir the gaffer gets me to drink some Rakia with him. That certainly eases me into the evening. There are a few people getting the place ready for the show, including Filip, who is playing support. All of a sudden, a massive bowl of delicious pasta is brought in for us all.
Vojkan is a youth worker and a straight edge punk, and his take on life seems to inform the dynamic kind of activism. I’m a bit surprised to see him, because when we last communicated he was off to take some youth on a summer camp in the hills. It was good to see him and put a person to an online profile, (an internet version of the phrase “a name to a face”?)
The whole operation is almost military precision. After we finish dinner the audience turn up and Filip gets up to do some tunes. He sings a lot of Anglo-American classics: REM, Oasis and others. I remember afterwards he told me he felt self-conscious singing in English in front someone who speaks it as a first language. I replied truthfully that his delivery of the songs was faultless.
I get to do my set, unamplified, and try to keep my smart alec introductions to the songs as brief and as possible. Things go really well. Afterwards, Filip and two of his of his mates show me to my room down the road, but we decide to go and have a look around the town. We end up in a rock bar, smokey and loud, and talk about the town and what it’s like. The guys tell me that there is not much to do there, and not many opportunities to move forward. There is also terrible unemployment. It strikes me that the Evergreen Centre has a valuable role to play as an outlet for people’s natural creativity, and a place where alternative ideas can be acceptable, especially when there are very few options around.
Filip and his friends are really nice and very hospitable, and I have a jam with them the next day before I leave.
NOVI SAD/ÚJVIDÉK, SERBIA. This is when the transport side of things gets really potty. My bus from Kraljevo is cancelled, so I have to get a later one. I need to tell the promoter in Novi Sad, but my Austrian SIM card doesn’t work. So I get my UK one out, even though I know it’s gonna cost me a bomb to contact people. What else can I do if I am going to be late? Then the bus I’m on breaks down. I wait. No reply from Anna promoter. Then the bus works again and we’re off. I get a reply from Anna: she tells me how to get to then venue by cab. I’m stressed now and wonder if I’m going to make it. It’s like John Cleese in Clockwork.
I literally turn up to the Culture Exchange venue, plug in, play, finish and then get pissed. Highlight: getting into a argument at the bar with a Serb speaker, who is pissed off that his kid learns Hungarian at school. Vojvodina, the region where I am, is part of Serbia, but many speak Hungarian. I say to him: “Look, I regret being a monoglot speaker. Your kid will always speak Serbian cos you and your wife do, what’s the problem with your kid speaking another language? ” But he won’t have it. So I say, “Well at least when you go into a shop owned by Hungarians you know what they’re saying when they take the piss out of you!” He laughs. But I’m sure he doesn’t find it funny.
I go back to the Anna’s flat and crash out. She and her boyfriend sleep in a tent. On the balcony. Fair play. I get up at half o’clock in the morning, gutted I don’t have some time to chill with them the next day and see some sites. Some of my family came from Vojvodina and got pushed out during the Yugoslav Wars.
Maybe that’s why I was a bit of a twat at the bar.
(I had a weird obsession with train stations in Novi Sad….)
BRNO, CZECH REPUBLIC. After a day with my family in Budapest, I’m off to Brno. The whole travelling thing is getting crazy, but by now I’m on a sleep-deprived, alcohol-fuelled merry-go-round and I don’t give a fuck. Sami put on the show. I met him previously in Palestine and we’d been shot at by the Israeli army at various places in the West Bank. I meet him after a six hour journey at Brno station. He seems nervous about the show but it goes fine. It is in a bar in the city centre, and support comes from Filip Drlik, who sings in Czech and does a form of experimental folk.
The crowd is great, and we get to play through a wonderful, old valve PA. I also get turned on to the work of Karel Kryl, a Czech songwriter whose career straddled the communist and post-communist era. Not for the first time, I am given a random person’s flat to stay in. Sami wants to go partying and I really regret not having any energy to do anything after the show, particularly as last time we were in such extreme circumstances. Next time!
I think I may have fallen in love with nakladany hermelin, though….
Hungarians are unique amongst the people that surround them. They are not Slav or German, but Magyar. The language is completely unrelated to anything, except maybe Finnish or Estonian, but even then the link is tenuous. They have an imperial history, and many of those the independent nations around them, (e.g. Slovakia, Croatia), were previously under their control, in the so-called Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In some ways Hungarians remind me of Brits. They can be insular and can have an inbuilt sense of superiority. There is a fear of anything foreign or different. I’m generalising, of course! 😉
But due to the dire economic situation there since the collapse of communism in 1989, the rise of the far-right and extreme nationalism is more developed than here. In the parliamentary elections in April just before I arrive, Fidesz, the centre right party won. Previously, they made changes to the constitution that have aroused the wrath of the EU and the US, (and let’s face it, if Hilary Clinton is on your case saying you aint democratic, you have a problem). Jobbik, an openly fascist party, get nearly 20% of the vote. Like here, there is massive voter apathy.
So getting out to play an anarchist bookfair-type event in a former communist shopping centre, now occupied by grassroots groups was definitely up my street. The guy who was putting it on looked like a sailor. He had a white beard and looked old school. He must have seen a few things . Being an anarchist during the communist period must have been no joke. He spoke no English, and my Hungarian is bad, but he showed me the stage, where there were going to be speakers, films and music later. There were some stalls too, but not many. Things are different here to many of the other places I have visited on this tour. It’s almost as if the culture here is not as receptive to anarchist politics.
I met up with Jade, an American who has been living in Budapest for year, married to a Hungarian. He wanted to show me around the area, but I wasn’t able to due to family commitments. That part of Budapest has an interesting radical history, and has been home to the Jewish community for many years.
“There used to be many more radical spaces, but the government clamped down,” said Jade. There were also meeting rooms in the space. A group of Budapest Pride activists were gathering in one. In recent years, this event has been attacked by far-right groups.
There was some Brazilian music, then I got to play. I was chuffed that finally, twenty years after the collapse of communism, I was standing on stage in Budapest, singing and cursing all governments and ruling elites in my bad Hungarian. This would have got me arrested back in the day, (cursing governments, not speaking bad Hungarian!)
I wonder what the old man would have made of it were he still alive. (I imagine he’d say something like: “VERY WATCH IT!” He usually did).
There were punk bands to finish, and I end up hanging out with some people in the smoking room in a disused toilet playing guitar till the small hours. At last, I’ve met the dissident Budapest crew! Here are some stickers that I saw on the wall. This one shows the map of Greater Hungary, a common sight, unfortunately. Some people want the country to extend its borders back to what it was during the empire days. But check the big word in the centre – very refreshing to see! The actual borders of the country today are in yellow.
Once again I get given a flat to stay in. After we get turfed out the shopping centre in the small hours, I get some sajtos tejfölös lángos – a taste of childhood. It takes me ages to find the flat. Sorry – booze! I wake up the next day, the sun is shining and Budapest looks beautiful. Is this what it looks like, sleep walking into a far-right nightmare? After I get back home, UKIP gains 4 million votes in the UK.
AND FINALLY……If you have read this far – well done! This has taken me a lot longer than I expected to write, I hope you have enjoyed it. I’d like to thank everyone who organised shows for me on this tour, and those that put me up. I’d like to thank my family for looking after me while I was there. And many thanks to all of you who bought stuff from my website to help me get out there. Nice one 🙂
What does it all mean? I have been in and out of countless squats and alternative social centres in my 20+ years of playing music. It was great to see them in different contexts other than the UK/Western Europe. I think the same things apply when evaluating their effectiveness, and I’ll turn to my friend from Cardiff Emy Lou AKA Big Red to sum up:
The spaces we create have had thousands of people through their doors. We have created spaces where people who would otherwise have not come across each other have met and created other brilliant and beautiful projects, friendships and affinities. The knock on effects of having these spaces – for however short a time that may have been for – cannot be charted or counted because we will never really know the true extent of the reach we have had in our small communities and in the wider society we live in. Try to never let the negatives overshadow the positives. Everybody is fast to recall a few times when something has gone wrong or not worked as we had hoped it would but we easily forget the hundreds of good times, but it is these good times that I feel when I think about my home and the other spaces I’ve been involved with. Love and rage!
I would add only this. As I have seen, alternative spaces can get closed down. In the last 20 years, the UK and Europe, despite having the freedom to have these kind of spaces, have moved inexorably to the right. They are certainly part of social struggle, perhaps like a kind of right-brained, temporary or not-so-temporary autonomous zone where “normal” rules do not apply. But right now we need more than that. A lot more.