The “Slovenian” in Folk Pop: Identity Over Sound?


The idea of the interconnectedness between a national entity and a national musical genre as a symbol or an expression of that entity have been well documented (in the context of the Balkans see for example Archer 2012; Grujić 2009). Similarly, the links between national identities and folk pop music have been researched in the context of Slovenian diasporas in Argentina (Molek 2017), the USA (Cvetko 2007), Australia (Hardwick-Franco 2009), among others. We have already mentioned that both the iconography and symbolism of the famous Avsenik folk pop ensemble, which gave rise to the genre in the late 1950s, and their performances all revolved around Upper Carniola, a specific region of Slovenia, rather than the nation in its entirety. Later, the “Upper Carniolan” aesthetic became the standard for the entire genre; it is even prevalent among contemporary, twenty-first-century bands, although many of these do not always perform in traditional apparel, preferring casual modern clothes. Stanković’s (2021) analysis of the symbolic imaginary of Slovenian folk pop aptly draws attention to this detail. What ensured the prevalence of the visual, musical, and linguistic denominators of the Upper Carniola region above all other possible choices? The fact that this region was home to the Avsenik brothers does not explain why its sonic and visual traditions have so consistently been appropriated by folk pop musicians from Slovenia at large.


Stanković argues that the “standardization of Upper Carniolan iconography [is] also related to the processes of symbolic distancing from other parts of the former common country, Yugoslavia” (Stanković 2021: 18). Indeed, Upper Carniola is geographically the land that is furthest from the Slovenian-Croatian border. As an Alpine region, it is connotatively connected to lands and regions, such as Austria, Switzerland, Northern Italy, and Alpine France, which were all presented as aspirational ideals in the former socialist Yugoslavia. Furthermore, Alpine iconography became an inseparable part of Slovenian identity in the nineteenth century (Šaver 2005) and has since become a familiar, highly symbolic trope in film, tourism, and promotional activities in various spheres including sports and culture. Hence, the Upper Carniolan region emerges as the symbolic cultural reference point that provides an anchoring point for Slovenian identity, by differentiating it from the other nations of former Yugoslavia in particular, and from the Balkans in general.


This argument is supported by assorted studies that examine the main reference points of Slovenian national identity and the processes of its formation. For example, Vezovnik’s (2007) analysis of the discursive constructions of Slovenian identity in the Slovenian media during the country’s accession to the European Union (EU) in the late 1990s examines how the nation’s identity was formed in relation to (Western and Central) Europe on the one hand, and the Balkans on the other. Since the development of the Slovenian national project in the nineteenth century, Central and Western Europe had traditionally been presented as a powerful Other and a potential threat to Slovenian autonomy and local mentality and customs. In the late twentieth century this historically ingrained attitude mixed with expectations of a better future in the EU. Velikonja (2005) specifies that this better future also included the sound of Slovenian folk pop. For example, in 2002 the Dori quintet released an album titled Slovenija med zvezdami (Slovenia Among the Stars), featuring the European flag on the album cover, while the Mesečniki ensemble advertised themselves under the slogan “Europe for Thirty Years Already” during Slovenia’s EU accession process. On 30 April 2004, the day before the country’s official entrance into the EU, several special folk pop concerts were held around Slovenia (Velikonja 2005).


In contrast, public discourse toward the Balkans exhibited persistent attempts to distinguish the “civilized” (the Slovenes) from the “uncivilized” (all Balkan nations south of the Slovenian-Croatian border). Following Slavoj Žižek, Vezovnik elaborates that, in relation to the other nations of the former Yugoslavia, “Slovenian identity” has discursively been constructed around denominators such as “diligent–hard-working–effective.” Imaginary inhabitants of other former Yugoslav countries, on the other hand, have been attributed with contrasting qualities, such as “lazy–chaotic–lying” (Vezovnik 2007: 477).


A similar discourse on the Balkans as a chaotic and uncivilized milieu can be found in the history of musicology, for example early twentieth-century travelogues describing the “oriental” soundscapes of this “primitive” region. Western travelers made frequent generalizations about oriental music, using its sound to comment on the values and lives of the Balkan Others. A British example from 1909 states: 


Native Turkish music, it must be admitted, is still very primitive in character. The airs are generally either wild and plaintive, or sentimental and melancholy, presenting little variety and – in common with the folk-music of Southern Europe – generally they are invariably pitched in a minor key. (Garnett in Pennanen 2010)


The remark demonstrates how a socially constructed opposition between the civilized us and the uncivilized Balkan people plays out in the realm of music. Moreover, this century-old observation brings us back to our political anecdote, and the presumption about the melancholic feel of southern Balkan soundscapes and their opposition to the ones in the “north of the Balkans.” Interestingly, while the melancholic sounds of the south represent complexity for Magnifico, the tone of the British travelogue casts the same music in a different light: music that is melancholic, wild, plaintive, and sentimental is, here, also primitive. Keeping in mind the temporal gap between both remarks, the polyvalence in interpretations nevertheless reveals the gist of the discussion: it is not so much about the sound as such, but about drawing borders between “us” and “them.” The Balkans and their soundscape represent the Other to Western European musical conventions.