Who’s Singin’ Over There?: Roma music and survival in Yugoslav cinema

Ko to tamo peva

Who's Singin' Over There (Ko to tamo peva)
Centar Film Ltd.

Who’s Singin’ Over There? (Ko to tamo peva?) opens with two Romani boys addressing the camera with a song. The chorus goes “I’ve been unfortunate / since I was small / with all my sorrows / I sing songs / I wish, oh mother / That this was all a dream.”

The singers return to address the audience multiple times, their verses commenting on the events happening within the film. Who’s Singin’ Over There? takes place on April 5, 1941, as a ragtag group of people make their way from the countryside to Belgrade on a comically arduous bus journey that can’t go more than five minutes without stopping. The following day, April 6th, is the day that Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia, annihilating Belgrade in the process. A viewer with a rough grasp of dates will twig that these characters are doomed from the start.

For domestic audiences in Yugoslavia in 1980—and today across the ex-Yugoslav region—the group on the bus forms something of a cross-section of instantly recognizable archetypes, familiar in the Balkans (all but one or two unnamed in the script). There’s the snobbish Europhile (Danilo “Bata” Stojković), a stickler for rules regardless of how impractical they are; the proud military veteran (Milivoje Tomić), who barely misses a chance to exalt about his son, also in the military; the ornery, short-tempered bus conductor (Pavle Vujisić), who seems to resent having to work at all but loves his simpleton son (Aleksandar Berček); the slimy charlatan singer (Dragan Nikolić) who has eyes only for his own self-aggrandizement; and a newlywed couple, she (Neda Arnerić) desperate to see the world and he (Slavko Štimać) oblivious to everything but food and sex. In fact, all the characters, save for the two Roma boys (Miodrag and Nenad Kostić), are defined  by their own naivety, their own arrogance, or a mixture of the two.

The film, the first feature from director Slobodan Šijan (written by Dušan Kovačević. who would later write Emir Kusturica’s Underground), is at heart an allegory. Who’s Singin’ Over There? uses the platform of a road movie to ruminate on our capacity to fiddle whilst Rome burns. The characters ignore all the obvious signs of impending doom (roads closing, the army mobilizing, evidence of state collapse) in favor of their own narrow-minded concerns, an allegory for much of 20th century Serbian and Yugoslav history. The film’s lessons would have been well-heeded less than 10 years later in Yugoslavia had they been heard, but then again, art is rarely the best place to deliver polemic messages. The moral, if there is one in this otherwise nihilistic film, is not to let your ego distract you from the wider issues at hand.

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Who's Singin' Over There (Ko to tamo peva)

Who’s Singin’ Over There? has been voted the best Yugoslav film of all time by Serbian critics, and was a box office success on release, with many of its quotes entering common parlance. It remains well-loved in its home region today because it speaks to a particular, blackly comic sense of nihilism prevalent in the former Yugoslavia: ignoring the world outside in favor of meaningless obsessions. The Europhile character, for example, collects shiny rocks, perpetually annoyed that “the common man” does not share his hobby. The bus conductor refuses to let the clumsy hunter on the bus when he’s not at a bus stop, claiming that someone could report him; a reverse shot reveals they’re in the middle of nowhere.

This obsessive tendency has a word in Serbian: inat. It’s one of those pesky untranslatables, but the best way to describe it would be a mixture of hard-headedness and spite—a character trait that ensures you’ll do something truly hateful to get back at someone, often with no regard for your own sanity or safety. At least half of the characters on the bus in Who’s Singin’ Over There? would be an embodiment of inat.

Within that is the presence of the two Romani musicians, whose placement as a Greek chorus renders them partially outside of the action (the first time someone mentions them, it’s to complain, “we’re not traveling with Gypsies, are we?”). The characters around them discriminate against and abuse them, treating them as stereotypes and reducing them to musicians and thieves (the two most common stereotypes afforded to Roma minorities in Europe). Aware of the hostility directed at them, they generally try and stay out of the way. They aren’t given any meaningful arc, but no character in the film is given any real depth either—everyone is a larger-than-life archetype, with actors cast to type in roles that were familiar to audiences. 

Even today, viewers in the region associate stuck-up bureaucrats with the portly and snobbish visage of Danilo Stojković. Likewise, the bulbous and goggle-eyed face of Pavel Vuisić (a true gift to an actor with his sense of comic timing) seems indefinitely associated with numerous short-tempered and grouchy bus conductors, bartenders or shopkeepers. As the wannabe singer overconfident about his sexual prowess, Dragan Nikolić recreates the role that made his name in Živojin Pavlović’s 1967 masterpiece When I’m Dead and Gone (Kad budem mrtav i beo). Most know an overtly proud and nationalistic military veteran like the one played by Milivoje Tomić, the sort who still wears his medals every day, even if he bought some of them from the antiques shop. 

These archetypes are all distinctly male, speaking to the still male-dominated rural world which the film depicts. The Roma boys may also be archetypes, pigeonholed as musicians, but they are the only archetypes who acknowledge their own ugly reality and see it for what it is, a perspective the film shares with them. Their archetypal status is not their own, but crafted by the discrimination enacted upon them by the world of the film. No other character can see beyond themselves. Only the Roma are capable of seeing the camera, and therefore the outside world, addressing it accordingly.

Eventually though, things come to a head—towards the end, just as the bombs are about to fall on Belgrade, the military veteran realizes he has lost his wallet (an earlier shot shows he’s simply dropped it). The group collectively accuse and beat the Roma musicians. Ironically, the bombs kill everyone on the bus except the two boys.

Until that point, the Roma musicians are observant bystanders, taking in the events and spinning songs out of what’s happening around them. They document the world of the film, circling the action, commenting, but refusing to partake in it. Their addresses to the camera take place in the form of tableau—still, carefully composed shots that stop the action before cutting or panning back to the story. In a film that’s bustling with movement, expressive close-ups cut alongside hectic group compositions in which most of the actors are in constant motion, these tableau give a welcome breathing space.

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The music of the two Roma, vocals accompanied only by accordion and jaw harp, is unmistakeably Balkan folk, placing their Greek chorus into a much wider panoply of the region’s rich ethnographic musical history. The song they sing, “Za Beograd,” written by the film’s composer Vojislav Kostić, has taken on a life of its own, frequently covered by other artists. Folk music itself forms a chronology of how common people have survived and existed throughout the Balkans. The northern regions—Slovenia, the northern parts of Croatia and the Vojvodina region of Serbia—betray Austria-Hungarian and central European influences in their music. Bosnia, Serbia proper, Macedonia, and Kosovo showcase increasingly Turkish and Middle Eastern notes as you go further south. Meanwhile the Adriatic coasts of Croatia and Montenegro offer a more relaxed, Mediterranean musical sensibility. 

Over the decades, the same folk songs would travel across the Balkans, carried by itinerant musicians (many of them Romani), with the lyrics and arrangements adapted as appropriate. Adela Peeva’s little-seen documentary Whose Is This Song? takes on this very subject, tracking a folk song from a café in Istanbul across Turkey, Macedonia, Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria as it gets adapted and reused in multiple contexts. Folk music itself carries the soul of history, adapted and adjusted to language that the average person understands. Subject to discrimination across much of the region and relegated to second-class or third-class status, many Roma turned to music as a means of survival, giving Romani folk music a rich and intense history that pulls in influences from all over, giving each adaptation its own distinct touch.

Seen in this context, the Romani musicians in Who’s Singin’ Over There? become more than just a Greek chorus. Inside the story, they represent the Othered “enemy within,” an easy scapegoat for xenophobic impulses, looking to distract attention from the greater issues (state collapse and a Nazi invasion). But when outside the story, they become documentarians, carriers of the events of the day and its sole survivors. The camera, dropping in and out of individual stories, tells a less “complete” story than the Roma boys, who are given the capacity to see everything at once. The film gives the forgotten an opportunity to write history, by having them survive and live to tell the tale.

As both outsiders and interlocutors, the Roma boys help uniquely place Who’s Singin’ Over There? within Yugoslav cinema history. The bulk of depictions of Roma people in Yugoslav and ex-Yugoslav cinema tends to fall into two categories: hard-hitting social realism, as in Aleksander Petrović’s 1967 Oscar-nominated I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Skupljači perja), or romanticized fabled vagabonds, as in Emir Kusturica’s Black Cat, White Cat (Crna mačka, beli mačor). Who’s Singin’ Over There? acknowledges the discrimination the Roma face but refuses to hew to dramatic conventions, falling closer to comic and chaotic anarchy. 

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As the older of the two Roma musicians, Miodrag Kostić pours every ounce of his voice into the songs with the sort of full-throated passion that can be characterized as quintessential Balkan folk music. But what constitutes quintessential? In 1999, anthropologist Dr. Mattijs van de Port wrote on his experiences frequenting Romani music taverns in the city of Novi Sad in Serbia, commenting on how the segregation thatcharacterizes most Serbian-Romani relations would so often dissolve in the musical taverns, where patrons would eat, drink, and party with Romani musicians to their heart’s content. He describes seeing musicians play to expectations of a specific “type” of Romani music—wild, passionate, melodramatic, and powerful—the audience responding in kind. The musicians, he writes, are invited in “by the Serbs to exteriorize their state of soul” in a performance of perceived authenticity, allowed to join in with mainstream Serbian society for a brief moment, but only in their context as musicians (though I’m not sure if his approach to Serbian society is not in itself somewhat reductive and simplified, but that’s an argument for another day). Roma people are underrepresented in nearly all areas of Serbian and wider Balkan society, but as musicians they are exalted.

Aside from the obvious discriminatory, institutional, and structural issues that Roma face in having their voices heard, this commonly held belief that Roma musicians are innately talented creates a further ethnic divide that blurs notions of authenticity. Van de Port wrote of how, from a purely musicological focus, the traditional folk music he heard in these places was frequently Serbian in origin, but played with a Romani touch, rather than The Real Thing™. But in a region whose various cultures have long been shaped by mixing, matching, adapting, and appropriating, tracking down the notion of an “authentic” folk music is a fool’s errand, perhaps precisely because folk music is so consistently mutable.

The question of authenticity in performance reveals a conundrum in the way Who’s Singin’ Over There? uses music. For what purpose are the Roma musicians documenting events? For themselves, or for someone else? As a direct address to audience, they serve as reminders of the impending doom that awaits the film’s characters, and their status as audience surrogates gives them a certain amount of distance from events. The incoming mayhem will be targeted at the film’s Serbian characters, but the Roma people themselves were the target of mass genocide alongside the Jews in World War II. By giving the two Roma characters a place outside of the action, there’s a risk that they’re inscribed with the same mythic, fabled status that sparks Kusturica’s romanticized pop-culture vision of the Roma, as if musicianship and wily survival is a natural-born matter for the duo, buttoning them into stereotyped roles. But I think that’s a simplistic reading.

Their survival bolsters the film’s allegorical nature, a defining feature of writer Dušan Kovačević’s work. His scripts—and a small handful of films as director—nearly always deal with specifically Serbs, rather than Yugoslavs or otherwise. They use allegory to comment on what he seems to see as a self-destructive and nihilistic trait within the Serbian national character. And here is that word inat again. Kovačević is arguably one of the great chroniclers of inat in Serbia, and it remains the most enduring quality of his best work as either screenwriter or director; The Marathon Family (Maratonci trče počasni krug), also directed by Šijan, Balkan Spy (Balkanski špijun), and the aforementioned Underground all dig deep into this particular strain of stubbornness.

But where Kovačević sometimes goes awry is his tendency to align these traits, personified in his protagonists, with the wider sins and traits of a nation. It’s a particularly common trend to Serbian cinema, and it became more prevalent after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Films like Huddersfield (Hadersfild), Midwinter Night’s Dream (San zimske noći), and the infamous A Serbian Film (Srpski film) all align the damaged, dark or traumatized mental states of their protagonists with the damaged or traumatized state of the nation.

It’s an unconvincing stretch that betrays a myopic and ego-inflated view of the world—something that Kovačević’s weaker films are guilty of. But in Who’s Singin’ Over There? the characters themselves are held so distantly from any particular psychological insight that, aided by their archetypal nature, they become something closer to blank canvases, awaiting an audience to inscribe meaning unto them. There is no outward attempt to make their arrogance and obliviousness part of the wider “sins of the nation.” It is simply a fact of their lives, perhaps even a survival mechanism, and one that does not prove particularly successful in the end.

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Who's Singin' Over There (Ko to tamo peva)

I’m finishing this essay the day after a group of America’s far-right cultists and neo-Nazis, encouraged by Donald Trump, attempted to storm the Capitol building. Amidst all of the shock, outrage and fear, I can’t help but feel a sense of jaded inevitability. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but neither did it fall in the span of a night. A sense of creeping desperation seems to produce in people a complete inability to respond coherently, a sense no doubt exaggerated today by a devastating pandemic and the incoming tectonic shifts of both its economic after-effects and the looming climate emergency. 

Just as the characters in Who’s Singin’ Over There? must be dimly aware that everything they hold dear would very soon be obliterated, a sense of “let’s pretend things are ok” prevails for many of us, especially once we get off our social media. I still get up and work, even though my “work,” such as it is, is essentially meaningless. I can stop tomorrow and nobody will die, suffer, or go hungry (except maybe me, eventually). I still use a car and I still buy meaningless junk from time to time, always dimly aware that none of this is “helping” per se. Just like Stojković, I might as well be collecting shiny rocks and feeling aggrieved that “the common man” does not appreciate the beauty of Who’s Singin’ Over There? But of course, the world is always ending for some, and constantly looking for the apocalypse is exhausting. Being able to see the end of the world on the label of a tin of beans is not a healthy way to live.

The music in the film is the only thing that survives the destruction. The film presents culture as the only thing capable of surviving the endless cycle of chaos and destruction, not politics nor social structures. Culture may be born out of and closely interlinked with social, political, and economic trends, and in its contemporary moment of production rarely gifted the ability to meaningfully change any of the above, but culture also seems to have a habit of sticking around a lot longer. 

In part, the two musicians survive because Who’s Singin’ Over There? acknowledges that the Roma archetype is itself a product of the society around it. Once the social structure that hems them in is obliterated, they can present something more truthful to the audience. Survival becomes intertwined with music, because music—especially folk music, sung by and for the people—has long been one of humanity’s first tools when it comes to building a communal culture. By documenting the world of the film, the Roma duo ensure their own survival and their future. Perhaps there’s something in that.