Punk rock connecting people in Bosnia

by Amir Telibečirović Lunjo
01 November 2011
Sarajevo - A connection between rock music and Islam might seem curious, but to a significant Muslim population in the city of Sarajevo this connection is neither new nor unusual. Locals have been experiencing it for decades. And a recent incarnation of this connection was demonstrated through the book The Taqwacores, which has since become the name of the musical punk movement that draws inspiration from Islam and Islamic culture.

During the Communist era when Bosnia was a part of Yugoslavia, the city of Sarajevo was a significant centre for popular culture and various subcultures. From this era, beginning back in the early 1980s, a type of Taqwacore rock band emerged that was inspired by and focused on alternative rock and new wave music. The band’s name is Zabranjeno Pušenje, which in English means “no smoking”.

Made up primarily of Christian, Catholic and Muslim musicians – though they insist they are all just “Bosnians” – the band was initially well known for using satire and parody in their music. In fact, even during the end of the Communist era, the military siege of Sarajevo and the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, the group was constantly creating irony out of everyday situations in the country and the broader Balkan region through their music.

For many years they have successfully collaborated with a female Muslim choir named Arabeske, which assembles in the mosque of the Croatian capital of Zagreb, as well as with a another female singing group from the Sarajevo High School for Islamic studies.

One of their most popular songs, “This Sky Above Us”, is a combination of rock melodies and spiritual Islamic songs in Bosnia, known as Ilahi or Ilahiya, a musical style that is rooted in Sufism and originates from Turkey.

The song transcends ethnicity, religious persuasion and musical taste. Its musical sound even brings together people who claim they don't want to have anything in common with members of other ethnic groups or religions: hardline nationalists, conservative Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, atheists and agnostics. One of the verses of the song is, “This sky above us is the shadow of the curtain, with seven sky floors, and all of them are in the middle of our chest“, a possible reference to the seven heavens common in Jewish, Christian and Islamic cosmology.

People who are usually provoking each other either on internet forums and Facebook are visiting YouTube to listen to the song, and many of them have left comments in support of the group. Whether its attraction stems from the unique lyrics, the powerful unity of the female voices or the melody is not certain, none of them have been able to explain exactly why they love the song. But the song has attracted people from across the Balkans, including those who have not visited Sarajevo since in the 1990s because of the remnants of the war.

Reading comments about this song posted on various internet forums, its power becomes clear. Whether it’s a proud Serb who otherwise feels animosity towards Bosnian Muslims, a devout Muslim who typically doesn’t listen to punk rock music, or an agnostic who distrusts religion, this song has been able to touch each one in a personal way, thereby melting away the prejudices they hold of those who are different from themselves.

Bringing such people closer to one other isn’t just an online phenomenon. Outside of YouTube, internet forums and Facebook, these groups have started to come together in person. The band, which is currently on tour, has drawn many of these groups together for concerts and has inspired feelings of unity and solidarity whenever the song is performed live.

As the reaction from Zabranjeno Pušenje’s song “This Sky Above Us” shows rock music, when combined with Islam, can transcend differences.


* Amir Telibečirović Lunjo is a Bosnian journalist with the Sarajevo-based weekly magazine Start BiH and a local city guide. To view a video clip of an Arabeske-Zabranjeno Pušenje musical collaboration, please click here. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 1 November 2011, www.commongroundnews.org
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