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Will Turbo-Folk Survive Ceca Blow?

Arrest of pop singer Svetlana Raznatovic may have shaken the world of Serbian showbiz, but her music may be hard to silence.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

The wave of arrests following the assassination of the prime minister Zoran Djindjic and the police drive against organised crime has rocked the world of Serbian show business.


In particular, the detention of pop diva Svetlana Raznatovic, nicknamed Ceca, has dealt the turbo-folk music scene - which flourished under the Milosevic regime - its greatest blow so far. But it may turn out to be a harder nut to crack than the mafia.


Fusing pop, folk and oriental sounds, turbo-folk encapsulated the cultural values of Milosevic's Serbia. Milan Nikolic, director of the Belgrade Center for Studying Alternatives, says the regime actively promoted it. "For years musical taste was destroyed while primitivism triumphed," he said.


Turbo-folk stars glorified the criminal milieu surrounding Milosevic. They may have wallowed in drugs, but embraced a mystical patriotism, too.


The police investigation into Djindjic's murder has revealed that their ties to the underground and the "patriotic" milieu went deeper than wailing sympathetic lyrics.


After police arrested Raznatovic on March 17 in the grand Belgrade villa built by her husband Zeljko, they found as many as 88 illegal weapons and items of military and police equipment.


Better known by his nom-de-guerre Arkan, Raznatovic was a key figure in the Serbian mafia and a major paramilitary leader in Bosnia and Croatia in the early 1990s.


Indicted by The Hague tribunal in 1999 for war crimes in Bosnia, he was assassinated in the lobby of a Belgrade hotel in 2000.


Ceca's official website denounced the police's "skillfully staged attack" on the 30-year-old star and teenage idol as the work of "malicious individuals".


The police say they believe Ceca hid members of the Zemun mafia clan, held responsible for Djindjic's murder, in her house after the premier's murder.


She is suspected of maintaining close links with the two leaders of this clan, Milorad "Legija" Lukovic and Dusan "Siptar" Spasojevic, before and after the assassination.


On the evening of her arrest, television news showed a secret videotape of her sitting in a Belgrade restaurant chatting to Lukovic and Spasojevic.


Ceca is not the only turbo-folk star feeling the heat. Among 20 or so show business personalities brought in for questioning for ties to the underground was Aleksandar Vuksanovic, turbo-folk's biggest male star.


Aca Lukas, as he is known, was arrested on April 4. Last week he received a four month jail sentence for possession of illegal firearms.


Media reports say sources close to the investigation claim Spasojevic supplied drugs to Lukas, who hardly kept his addiction a secret. He regularly started his concerts with a song dedicated to cocaine, called White. "If cocaine is a drug, I am a drug-addict," the tabloids reported him as saying.


The arrest of so many musicians has led to a sudden change in the repertoire of Serbia's radio stations. Not long ago they all hailed Svetlana Raznatovic as a young, beautiful, successful woman, devoted to family, nation and traditional values. Now songs by her and Vuksanovic, once the staple items of Serbian radio and TV, are rarely heard.


Music shop staff say that sales of her last album flopped after her arrest and the subsequent hostile media campaign. "I used to sell seven or ten of her CDs a day, but now it's more like one or two a week," one salesman said.


Milan Nikolic says criminals attach themselves to female singers in order to buy into their reputations and popularity, and conceal "their dark past".


"They have the impression that the public thinks someone whose wife is a famous singer cannot be all that bad," he said.


Videos of the sumptious Belgrade wedding of Ceca and Arkan sold more than a hundred thousand copies in 1995, a record figure in Serbia.


Polls chose them as the "Couple of the year" - one survey of teenagers showed most boys in Belgrade wanted to be as successful as Arkan, while an equal number of girls similarly hankered for a role like Ceca's.


Veran Matic, editor of Radio B92, which consistently opposed the Milosevic regime, says the government's campaign against crime must also include "the complete cultural transformation of our society, from education to cultural, media, political and social systems" if the turbo-folk phenomenon is to be tackled.


But Matic says the task will not be easy, as the music fad outlived the ousting of Milosevic on October 5 2000, when most television stations slapped restrictions on it.


The ban was very short-lived, because no musical alternative was offered, forcing many stations to resort to throwbacks from the 1980s.


Crucially, TV Pink, the main promoter of the whole musical ideology of the mid-1990s, crossed over to the side of the victors after October 5.


Pink's owner, Zeljko Mitrovic, a former official in the party run by Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic, began backing the Djindjic government at the same time as rehabilitating the musical culture of the old regime.


Thanks in part to TV Pink, Ceca's career (she was also a maid of honour at Mitrovic's wedding) reached an all-time high. At the end of last September, 80,000 crammed into her concert in Belgrade's largest stadium.


The evening before Djindjic's murder, Pink proclaimed Svetlana Serbia's most popular singer, only to join the campaign against her after her arrest.


With its strong instinct for backing winners, the station suddenly proclaimed its fervent support for the fight against crime and against the whole Milosevic legacy.


On April 4, it paid for a lavish advertisement, trumpeting its activities, over eight colour pages in the reformist magazine, Vreme.


Although it was a paid advertisement, the appearance of such a large "puff" for Pink angered many Vreme readers when it was published.


But it points to the continuing resilience of turbo-folk and the values it upholds. It outlived the Milosevic regime - and may yet outlive the collapse of the career of its greatest star.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is the editor of the Belgrade daily Blic News.


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