The Guardian / Come together: how music is rebuilding bridges in divided Balkans

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Students rehearse at Mostar Rock school, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Photograph: Jasmin Brutus for the Guardian

This story was first published in The Guardian on March 16, 2018.

A rock school unites youngsters from both sides of a city in Bosnia-Herzegovina, using the universal language of song.

Back in the days of Yugoslavia, they used to call music “the seventh republic” – a great unifier in a region prone to division.

Today, in a small schoolroom in Mostar, it is still bringing people together. Here, the curriculum is rock’n’roll, the pupils are from both sides of a still-divided city, and the professors are stars.

“Music can be used as a tool to connect people, to strengthen the trust between them,” said Orhan Maslo, the 39-year-old director of the Mostar Rock school.

“You cannot come into a war zone with a guitar and stop the war,” Maslo added. “But after the war, if there are groups that hate each other … music can do a lot to reconstruct.”

Mostar, once a paragon of ethnic tolerance, suffered brutally during the 1992-95 Bosnian war and has become a place of uncomfortable coexistence. The west bank of the Neretva river is home to the Bosnian Croat population while the east is dominated by Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks.

Maslo founded Mostar Rock school (MRS) in 2008 in collaboration with Dutch NGO Musicians Without Borders. There were 16 students in the first class. This year, there are 128 enrolled and 80 more on the waiting list. Students take lessons in guitar, drums, bass, keyboard or vocals and play together in bands.

“We pick students of similar ability from the east and west [sides of the river] and form bands,” Maslo said. They have 40 days to rehearse before MRS hosts a concert showcasing the bands to the public and providing a space for the student’s families to mingle.

Orhan Maslo, project manager at Mostar Rock school: ‘Music can be used as a tool to connect people, to strengthen the trust between them.’ Photograph: Jasmin Brutus for the Guardian

The concerts draw a diverse crowd. “You have someone in the audience holding a three-year-old child in their arms, but also a grandpa with an old camera recording their grandchild [on stage],” Maslo said.

“It’s not just about learning the music,” said Semin Merzic, 24, rock school graduate, guitar instructor and guitarist for Floridus, the first band formed at MRS. “It’s a place where everyone can come and they are welcome …believe me, there are not very many places like this in the Balkans.”

The contemporary music scene in Bosnia is dominated by turbo-folk, a blend of regional folk music and electronic pop that originated in Serbia in the 1990s. It often features sexual, misogynistic and nationalistic lyrics.

MRS is a refreshing antidote, part of a counterculture movement led by Bosnian musical artists protesting against the divisive atmosphere created by ruling ethnic nationalist elites.

Many young MRS students are tired of being defined by their ancestry and events before they were born.

“We don’t think about [ethnic] backgrounds. We all hang out, play music and drink beer,” said Josip Palameta, 21-year-old vocalist in jazz band Smooth Groove. “The war was 25 years ago.”

MRS students Marija Raspudic and Amar Basic at rehearsals at the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar Photograph: Jasmin Brutus for the Guardian

Music has always played a big role in Bosnia – then and now.

Three weeks before war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, a Serbian rock supergroup called Rimtutituki released an anti-war song in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital city, which quickly became popular in Bosnia. “For them, it said that not all the people in Serbia went mad,” said Yugoslav rock critic and journalist Petar Janjatović.

During the 44-month siege of Bosnia’s capital city, Sarajevo, music helped keep spirits up.

“We didn’t have electricity, food or anything and the snipers were shooting all the time,” said Samir Hodovic, Sarajevo native and vocalist of the band Velahavle. “The bands at that time put everything into the concert. You didn’t have tickets because there was no money. People who could come came if they could run through the streets,” he said.

Musicians were among the first to cross the new borders between the former Yugoslav states and re-establish the lines of cultural communication after the war.

“It helps when people are chanting songs they like from other regions,” said Jovan Matić of Del Arno Band, a Serbian reggae group. “The elite aren’t doing much for reconciliation, the international community is not doing much … it’s up to us small people to try and reconcile,” he said.