Introduction: It’s All in Major
In 2016, the highly popular Slovenian singer and musician Magnifico was interviewed by Al Jazeera Balkans. The interview, conducted by the legendary Croatian journalist Goran Milić, touched on a broad range of subjects. Among other topics of conversation, the interviewer casually remarked: “In the East, we have the impression that Slovenian music is happy, unlike the other [local musical traditions in the Balkans], which are sad.” To this, Magnifico wittily responded:
[Dragan] Bjelogrlić [Serbian actor and director] says it [Slovenian music] is not only happy, but funny. How can someone say that he is experiencing something like sevdah [Arabic for a feeling relatable to melancholy], an emotional state, if […] he keeps doing: ‘ginpei, ginpei.’ [Imitates playing the accordion]. To this person, everything is cartoonlike. […] Like the Slovenes’ character […]; you need to look a little deeper to understand Slovene sentiment. For example, all Slovenian folk songs are in major, and are either polkas or waltzes. Either in two-quarter or three-quarter time. There are no seven eighths, no nine, eleven ... There's no minor at all. The lyrics are sad, very sad, but it's all in major.
Magnifico then picked up a guitar and performed Le spomin, deklica (Just a memory, girl), a song by the most renowned Slovenian folk pop (Slov. narodnozabavna glasba) ensemble of all time, Ansambel Slavka Avsenika – the Avsenik Brothers Ensemble. Toward the end of this performance, Magnifico, a fan of Slavko Avsenik’s music, diverted from the original song. He used tremolo picking and a minor progression to demonstrate how this waltz could “travel south,” and morph into what is generally described as Balkan sound (Al Jazeera Balkans 2016).
This interview was not intended to exceed the scope of spontaneous ideological chatter about national differences in the Balkans, but four years later it unexpectedly spilled over into mainstream politics when the current Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša used the interview to accuse Magnifico of disrespecting Slovenian music by denying its capacity for complexity. This incident, which took place amidst regular popular protests against Janša’s rightwing government and its Covid-19 management strategy, had manifold effects. For instance, Janša’s supporters interpreted it as a call to endorse folk pop music, as a traditional, Slovenian genre, one that complies with the values supported by the current government (Pribošič and Bezlaj 2020). This somber aspect of the entanglements between music, affect, space, and the nation on “the sunny side of the Alps” was thus revealed, inspiring this article.
Slovenians often associate their folk pop, the genre referred to by Magnifico, with their nation or their common temperament, and perhaps even with the various practices involved in constructing a collectiveness. Despite this genre’s outlined significance, folk pop has thus far eluded the interest of researchers. In fact, this article is part of the first ever research project on Slovenian folk pop which was launched in September 2020. The Slovenian Folk pop as Politics: Perceptions, Receptions and Identities project, hosted by the University of Ljubljana and led by Peter Stanković, set out to investigate the cultural, political, sexual, media, and sonic aspects of the folk pop angle of the Slovenian soundscape. At this early stage in the research, the aim of this essay is to analytically grasp the relationship between Slovenian folk pop, its alleged “Slovenianness,” and its sonic affect. In doing so, we hope to re-align the realms of the musical, the affective, and the political, by questioning the power of ideological interpretations over the sonic, and by affirming sound’s own politics.
We proceed using the following steps. Firstly, we outline the main structural traits of the symbolic imaginary of the Slovenian nation to clarify in which ways folk pop is associated with Slovenianness in the popular imagination. This cultural studies lens allows us to go beyond the limitations of thinking about music and sound as functions of a certain symbolic imaginary, and to sketch out the stakes of re-inspecting the affective dimension of music from the perspective of theories on sonic affect. Returning to the aforementioned Magnifico case, we outline its current political resonance. We then establish that the popular presumption about the “joyfulness” of Slovenian folk pop and its incapacity for expressing and eliciting complex emotions such as melancholy, is the reiteration of a historically persistent ideological binary, which opposes Slovenianness against “the Balkans.” In the concluding section, we supplement the cultural studies explanation by exploring the political complexity of sonic affect. Specifically, we reflect on the mechanisms that (re)construct the border between the north and the south of the Balkan peninsula in terms of sound and its affects.