As published in The New York Times

A Wartime Star Endures, Singing To A Torn Serbia

By Daniel Simpson 

The New York Times, 2003

BELGRADE, Serbia, Jan. 27 - It would be difficult to find a more divisive figure in Serbia than Svetlana Raznatovic and her come-hither cleavage. 

But it is not the cut of Ms. Raznatovic's revealing outfits that most irks her detractors, nor the fact that her murdered husband, Zeljko, better known as Arkan, was the most notorious warlord in the Balkans. Rather, it is the sound of her music.

A hybrid of traditional folk and modern electro-pop, the songs of Ceca, as Ms. Raznatovic styles herself, were the soundtrack to a decade of destruction that reduced Yugoslavia to an impoverished pariah state dominated by Serbia. 

Her maudlin lyrics do not indulge the inward-looking nationalism that still poisons the region, and the lurching melodies of the genre, called turbo-folk, are heavily influenced by Turkish music, a legacy of the centuries when the Ottomans ruled this corner of Europe. 

To many people here, however, Ceca and her musical peers epitomize all that was wrong with Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic, when wars, ethnic cleansing and international economic sanctions helped cliques of common criminals to acquire extensive wealth and power. 

Although Mr. Milosevic's autocratic government crumbled in the face of mass street protests more than two years ago, the popularity of turbo-folk - and of Ceca herself - has endured, much to the chagrin of those who are appalled by its glorification of a garish, gangster lifestyle and want Serbia to embrace an international future and move beyond its past. 

The vogue for synthesized folk music throughout the Balkans has even won her a small following among non-Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, even though Arkan's paramilitary units swept through both countries committing atrocities in the 1990's. 

"I'm irresistible," said the 29-year-old singer in an interview in the boardroom of F. C. Obilic, a soccer club she has presided over since her husband, the previous president, was assassinated three years ago. "Music shouldn't be confined to borders and it shouldn't be linked to politics."

Her fans mostly beg to differ.

<!--more-->When she took to the stage last June for her first concert since her husband was shot in the face in a Belgrade hotel lobby, a crowd of about 70,000 roared its appreciation by screaming, "Arkan! Arkan!" 

"It's a normal reaction from my audience because my husband was such a great patriot," she said, dismissing his indictment by the United Nations war crimes tribunal as politically motivated. "It was a spontaneous celebration." Despite the widely documented murderous rampages carried out by her husband and his followers, she defends him to the hilt. 

Although she was already famous when she first met Arkan at a party at his paramilitary training camp in 1993, Ms. Raznatovic regards him as the most significant influence on her career. 

"He always told me that I was gifted, that no matter how happy I was in my private life I needed to be on stage to feel fulfilled," she reminisced. "I lived with a man who made me feel like a princess and my love for him has not diminished."

A single photograph of her late husband adorns the boardroom of F. C. Obilic, which is named after a Serbian warrior killed by invading Turkish forces six centuries ago. It pictures Zeljko Raznatovic in uniform, sporting a cocky grin and his beret at a jaunty angle. 

Even the comeback concert was inspired by Arkan, who had long cherished the vision of his wife performing to an adoring crowd in the Belgrade soccer stadium within view of their lavish home. 

His death, which Ms. Raznatovic witnessed, only postponed the plan. 

"For a year after that tragedy, I didn't leave my house. I wore black and mourned," she said. "I was thinking of never going back to singing again, but I knew he would have insisted. That's why I dedicated the concert to him." 

Although her husband, 21 years her senior, clearly strengthened her self-belief, Ms. Raznatovic was apparently never short of it. 

"I got this feeling I was a star when I was much younger," she said, reflecting on her childhood in the southern Serbian countryside and vacations on the Montenegrin coast, where she started singing in a restaurant one summer and was promptly offered a job. 

"Ever since I was 5, I performed in amateur singing competitions," she said. "I got used to people all over the Balkans looking at me as if I was a wunderkind."

According to Kim Burton, a British musician who has worked with artists across the Balkans, the sound of Ceca and other turbo-folk stars is "at its best in noisy company with some form of alcohol abuse." 

But heard in an office decked out with two Spanish suits of armor and 13 broadswords in a display rack, its invigorating melancholy may be even stronger. 

Asked to sing during an interview, Ceca leaped at the opportunity, a cigarette burning between her fingers as she shut her eyes and let rip with the quivering, husky voice that has enchanted thousands in dimly lit bars packed with men knocking back strong drinks. 

It was television that really made Ceca a star. She cavorted with tigers, the mascot of Arkan's paramilitaries, in her music videos and was married in a ceremony broadcast live to the nation in 1995, with a beaming groom firing a pistol into the air afterward. Some commentators compared the event to the wedding of Charles and Diana. Others referred to Ms. Raznatovic as "Serbia's Scarlett O'Hara," although the Southern belle she probably resembles most is Dolly Parton.

"If I was American I would definitely be singing country music," she said. "It's the same as Serbian folk: it speaks to ordinary people." 

This is precisely what concerns her critics, who worry that tentative economic and political reforms will do little to transform Serbia if popular culture remains stuck in the vulgar excesses of the 1990's. 

"This country is split right down the middle," said Zoran Milosavljevic, a 34-year-old journalist and part-time D.J. "The easiest way to work out whether someone supports change here is to ask them if they like Ceca." 

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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