Alternatives DJ Predrag Strazmester.
When complaining about the music scene in 2003 it is always worth remembering the state of play for our brothers & sisters elsewhere on the planet. Thats right, there is somewhere worse to live than Birmingham: somewhere with considerably less record shops, crapper television & rather more chance of a bomb going off or somebody getting rubbed out. Yugoslavia, as it was once known, has not been a particularly good place to live for the best part of the last decade. The fall of the evil regime of Milosovic has created a vacuum that will take many years to simmer down. YU has become a broken & ruinous country with a political mountain to climb. Salvation & an acceptable standard of living that we may recognise is likely to take many years of patient rebuilding.
Thankfully the citizens of YU & its member states are made of far sterner stuff than us. They will continue to adapt & overcome in their ceaseless struggle to achieve the kind of equality we in the free west (ho ho ho) take for granted. One of those good citizens, Predrag Strazmester, has assisted the souls & the temperaments of his fellow country-folk by continuing to play sweet rock & roll music on his Alternatives radio show come rain or shine or US, UK or NATO bomb. Predrag & his compadres have been to hell & back but have never been broken.
Below Jean Encoule chats with Predrag about the nightmare the 90s were for anyone resident in the Balkans & just how tough it is to cue up that link when the walls are shaking & the ceiling is threatening to cave in:
trakMARX - Your radio show "Alternatives" has now been running on & off for close on a decade - how did it all start?
Predrag - Those were dark times the middle of 1994. The war in Croatia was coming to an end, the war in Bosnia was up to full speed & we in the then Federal Republic Of Yugoslavia were isolated in the ghetto with nothing coming in or out - including music, press or information. I managed to persuade my editors to let me start a radio show featuring cuts from the world independent music scene (of course, I did not tell them the only music I had were some Polish "pirate" indie tapes and my own (already aged) collection of alternative music). Then, I remembered the name John Peel...
trakMARX - We initially responded to a John Peel appeal to support the show with product - how did you contact John & what was the response like?
Predrag - I wrote him a three-pages letter explaining the whole situation - what all the wars & UN sanctions had done to us. That touch of genuine "darkness" I sent him must have hit him pretty hard. A few weeks later I got a postcard from the UK with just a few words: "I'll do all I can to help you start the show..." - and the signature on the card was like a kick in the head. John Peel...the man! Music & stuff soon started flooding in. I didn't know what was going on until a month later when Simon Morgan sent me the NME with John's letter published in it.
trakMARX - In those early days you used to visit the UK to acquire CDs to trade to support & finance the acquisition of material for the show. Can you give us some idea of just how difficult it has been to get hold of new music in Yugoslavia in the last decade?
Predrag - I tried it only the once, it was an idea to get some second hand CDs to sell over here, to use the profits to finance the trip to the UK and meet as many record label people as possible. I was selling those second hand CDs for one year at least (still have some) after my return, but I think that in the end I paid off the money for the trip. Any way, I visited some 20 London independent record labels & promo houses who supplied me with loads of new music & promises of co-operation.
Around this time, nothing was coming in or out of Yugoslavia. I figured John Peel's help & the new wave of enthusiasm it had started wouldn't last forever - so I started to send hundreds of letters to everyone record label Id ever heard of. One day I remember my mailing costs took up my whole monthly payment from the radio station!
It was a rather depressing process in the beginning. One or two labels with a few CDs in my p.o. box. Then I acquired a fax machine & began faxing letters, probably becoming the most annoying man on the planet in the process! I never quit if some label didn't reply to me: it was letter after letter until they finally sent me some music or a few "bad words"!
Eventually, when the music finally started coming in - it was a flood! The peak was sometime in 1998 when I came back home from the post office with a huge bag filled with 60 or 70 packages with a UK Post mark!!!
trakMARX - In those early years you soon built a reliable network of supporters, comrades & allies right across the globe. How important to "Alternatives" was that kind of contact?
Predrag - How important? It was the only way to play new music in my shows! Nothing, and I mean nothing, could be found here. It was like living in the Dead Sea but I never lost hope - I was annoying, I sent probably the most desperate begging letters in the history of the music business. Monthly letters to every record label I was in touch with: all my play-lists as proof that I was playing their bands. In the end I had around 100-120 record labels & promo houses that were supporting my shows regularly with all of their new (and old) releases.
trakMARX - How difficult is it separating the US & UK artists you admire from the regimes behind their countries?
Predrag - It was never hard in that sense - just turn the whole thing around: I was living in a country under Milosevics iron boot that had killed thousands of people in wars all the way from Slovenia to Kosovo. People on the outside must have looked at us as if we were all monsters - but still loads of people from UK & US accepted me & my aims with open hearts and helped me a lot. People in Novi Sad are just as good and just as bad as those in the UK, South Africa, Georgia, US, Iraq or Kosovo. We are all Homo Sapiens! I was conducting my own "war" with Milosevic from the very day he came to power on Serbia's political scene (1987) and am still at war with his followers here in my country now - as well as in the UK, US, Iraq, Russia - you name it - they're all the same - they're all Milosevic!!!
trakMARX - The US bombing of YU may have ended the regime of Milosovic but what has the vacuum thrown up in his place?
Predrag - The bombs were terrible but I will never accept the freeing of one innocent man by the killing another innocent man! OK, we all realise that we couldn't throw him out (Milosovic) without financial help from the same people that bombed us, but still the sour taste in the mouth still remains. This question gets right to the political core of matters I loathe but cannot ignore.
The remnants of the former Yugoslavia that kept the name Yugoslavia are Serbia and Monte Negro - & they aim to become independent within the next 2 to 2 1/2 years! Kosovo definitely isn't a part of Serbia - Vojvodina (where I live) is slowly but steadily forging state status inside Serbia. Right now, I'm begging God to bring us a third/fourth wave of politicians (ones that aren't contaminated with the Nazi virus) who'll get us into the EU and finish the whole Balkan story...
trakMARX - Is it any kind of an improvement?
I guess I've already gave that answer ...
trakMARX - The US bombs took "Alternatives" off the air for some time. Tell us how you got it up & running again & what life was like for you in the interim?
Predrag - Milosevic took up more 10 years of our lives - NATO bombs took up 78 days. Finally, I hope we have realised that we're on our own - that there's no one who's "on our side" (as people here like to see UK and France) & no one who's "against us" (Germany, Moslem world...). Everything started to fall down around our ears, you could taste it over here in those days. After 6 and 1/2 years of being on one of Novi Sads main radio stations constantly I decided - that's it! I found a steady job at a nice bookstore and tried to live an ordinary life. I bred tropical fish, grew house plants, lost track of days, months, years...I promised myself - no more media bullshit! But, shit happens...it took half an hour of watching MTV's "Alternative Nation", for which they literally scanned the template for one of my shows, to start me thinking again...
trakMARX - "Alternatives" is now back on air & getting back to full strength. What can record labels, artists & collaborators do to help in 2003 & where can they contact you?
Well, as ever, music, music, music...the market still isn't working here along Western terms. No promo labels, no organized selling of foreign music...it's always tough to persuade someone to send me music, knowing that they just can't sell anything here for the time being. On the one hand Im disgusted by such a way of thinking, but on the other hand, I do understand their position. Business is business! I'm always looking forward to discovering new music, bands & labels. I can only promise any perspective benfactors that their stuff will be properly promoted here, and maybe, one day, they'll have ready-made market!
Rodoljuba Colakovica, 6
21000 Novi Sad
Serbia & Monte Negro
trakMARX - As an innocent bystander in the face of naked US aggression, how do you view the current expansionist oil war going down in Iraq?
This question begs a great answer...especially now the real truth is coming out. The CIA have a lot to answer for, is all I have the energy to say.
trakMARX - Has the UK been foolish in it's support for a right wing tyrant hell bent on a new world order?
Predrag - Right wing, left wing - they all end up stealing from their own people dependent on size & power. Just take a lesson from Woody Allens "Sleeper" watch it & study the ending & you will never have any doubts about governments again!!!
trakMARX - Throughout the decade we have known you & "Alternatives", we have always been left speechless by your power of faith in music & it's abilities to heal & unite as well as object & express. Where does that inner strength come from & is it still alive & kicking in 2003?
Predrag - Don't make me "blush"...I'm just as stubborn as one can be, that's all. Alternatives is alive & kicking once again & the audience & the support of labels, bands & promo houses has returned. Right now, it looks like that it just won't quit "haunting" me!
trakMARX - It has been a very tough 10 years for Predrag Strazmester & the youth of YU. What does the future hold for your country & what are your hopes & aspirations of your people?
Predrag - I think that 99% of "normal" people over here see our only future as a member of the EU. We know that it won't heal all our wounds at once or create Nirvana here in YU overnight but it is the right place to start. Right now at least we live in a "safe haven" at last. We have unlimited possibilities for being DIFFERENT in the future whilst living alongside others equally as DIFERENT as us - all under heavy good manners & at peace.
Jean Encoule tMx 10 - July 2003