Although the now globally ubiquitous charges of “cultural appropriation”, have been a staple of inter-ethnic relations in the Balkans since times immemorial (especially when nations insist on their protochronism), they have never stopped the willingness of local musicians to draw from foreign music to create local hits which became treated as local folk songs.
This phenomenon was best described in a 2003 Bulgarian documentary, “Whose is this Song” about what in Serbia is considered a traditional Vranje song – Ruse kose – but which is present so widely across the greater Mediterranean basin that it is really unknown who first made the melody.
Another interesting case is the song “Tamo Daleko”, a popular anthem from WWI describing the longing of Serbian Soldiers to return home from their temporary hideout in Corfu, which was so popular that it was allegedly played at Nikola Tesla’s funeral. Serbian self-taught musician and composer Đorđe Marinković from Kladovo was listed as the author of the song in 1922 (although it is assumed it was composed in 1916), however there are doubts if he was inspired for the main melody from a 1908 Turkish song “Hatırla Margarit” by Muhlis Sabahattin Ezgi, a Turkish operetta composer . In 1920, Marinković emigrated to France (where he also worked under the pseudonym Georges Mariel), and allegedly distinguished himself as a player of cythara, an ancient predecessor of guitar.
Modernisation after WWI, better travel connections, as well as the advent of the gramophone and the radio (invented by Tesla, not Marconi!) meant that popular music became more global. The newly formed Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and especially Belgrade as its capital, were constantly striving to prove their modernity and cosmopolitain character by embracing all novelties from the West, and among them jazz music. Belgrade’s love of jazz was demonstrated by the visit of the great Jospehine Baker in late 1920s, but it also inspired locals to embrace the new style in music. Another great influence was the German schlager music creating many new local schlager stars, as well as producers and publishers. The two that stood apart in bringing foreigns sounds to Yugoslavia were Jovan Frajt and Sergije Strahov (a Russian emigree) in Belgrade. All the foreign hits that Frajt published in Serbia were translated into Serbo-Croatian and Strahov made his name translating foreign lyrics, but was also an accomplished original lyricist who penned one of the oldest local pop hits: Mansarda mali stan.
German occupation of Yugoslavia during WWII made a huge impact on the local music: firstly they worked with local musicians to create entertainment to pacify the local population, often promoting easy listening hits with sentimental or exotic themes.
A list of songs from Strahov’s studio in 1943-22 reveals not only German schlagers translated into Serbian, but also oddities like a song “Pod južnim suncem” (Under the Southern Sun) by a local Hawaiian music cover band – “Havajski kvartet Đorđević”. This hawaiian cover quartet was not the only one, nor the most popular one in Belgrade – the greatest stars of the genre were Savovićs.
The most popular local schlager singer at the time was Đorđe Gligorija Popović, born in 1922, whose rise to prominence unfortunately coincided with the occupation of Serbia. He sang “Ne birni majčice mila” (Don’t worry my dear mother), a lugubrious song aimed at Serbian POWs which became famous once again in the film Balkan express. The popularity of the song, and his perceived collaboration, pushed him towards emigrating to the US ad quitting music in late 1950s, despite being a very popular schalger singer (and frequent singer of Latin American covers) after Yugoslavia was liberated in 1945.
The Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia between 1940-41, also changed the local music as it resulted in much of the pre-WWII records being destroyed due to looting as well as bombings of the Nazi-led Soldatensender Belgrade (as Radio Belgrade was then known). The destruction of most recordings led to the Radio crew having to play the obscure song Lili Marlene, which quickly became a hit not only among the German soldiers, but also the Allies.
Although a socialist country after WWII, the popularity of foreign music continued, for similar reasons like before: it not only showed the international reputation of Yugoslavia, was apolitical but also allowed a new neutral culture to be created above local ethnic identities.
Somewhat strangely, the initial taste turned toward covers of “Mexican” songs. An early superstar was Ivo Rodić, from Zagreb, who was the main schlager singer in Yugoslavia until the end of 1960s and whose work helped educate many a Croatian star in his long career. He also managed to make an international career in Germany with his 1959 hit Morgen.
As Yugoslavia turned more decisively towards the West, after the break with Stalin in 1948, one could hear more and more covers of US, UK as well as Italian and French hits. This was the most pronounced during the golden era of schlagers in 1960s and 1970s. Pretty much every big hit of the era was covered into Serbo-Croatian (or Slovene in the case of Majda Sepe), no matter the style from Bossa Nova to disco hits like “I will survive”. The popularity of foreign sounds was so big that the former president of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar Kitanović was named after a cover of a Cajun traditional song Allons Dancer Colinda.
Although the Yugoslav rock tried to be more original, many of its greatest hits were also covers like, Riblja Čorba’s “Kad sam bio mlad”.
The practice of remakes continues to this day, although the sources have changed. Even turbo-folk, considered the ultimate local music, is in a lot of cases Instead of British and American hits (to which rights would probably be prohibitively expensive), ever since the 1990s it is Greek and Turkish hits that are regularly “mined” for summer hits of local stars, but there is also a shit eastwards with Bollywood increasingly providing inspiration.