As we mentioned when beginning the series, our top 10 articles aim to cover a wide range of aspects of the contest – with today’s countdown, the third in the series, being no exception! Following on from Rory’s run-through of the most memorable joke entries sent to the contest, I am going to unearth the highlights of one of the most definitive genres ever exhibited on the Eurovision stage: the Balkan ballad.
Okay, so let’s just establish some parameters before we begin. We all think we have a vague idea of what a Balkan ballad is – it is one of those genres that most people would only ever hear at Eurovision, and for the purposes of this article the criteria I am using are as follows:
- the song is a Eurovision entry from one of the Balkan nations (Serbia, Bosnia&Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro or Yugoslavia for entries pre-1992)
- the song is sung in one of the national languages of the country
- the song features aspects of traditional instrumentation or vocal style
This considered, I have had to exclude amazing songs such as “No One” (Slovenia 2011) and “Lako Je Sve” (Croatia 2011) due to their more Westernised sound, and songs like “Od Nas Zavisi” (FYR Macedonia 2002) and “Zauvijek Moja” (Serbia & Montenegro 2005) as they are not quite technically ballads.
Additional common features of a Balkan ballad are listed in the eurodummies guide here – well worth a read. However, I will be discussing where they come into play in our individual entries during the countdown, so if you’re pressed for time… let’s get straight into it shall we? 😀
10 – Regina – Bistra Voda (Bosnia & Herzegovina 2009)
I was at a loss to choose a tenth place in this countdown. It was between this entry and Hari Mata Hari’s “Lejla“. Both sublime, both atmospheric. Both delivered in an ever so slightly creepy fashion… but in the end I chose “Bistra Voda”, purely for its originality when compared to the Zeljko-by-numbers effort from 2006. The thing I adore about this entry is the way it builds – one of the recurring features of a Balkan ballad which generally adds to the drama. The backing singers are subtle yet effective, and the band’s 20 years of experience is evident in their confident live delivery. Their eventual ninth place in a difficult year was the best showing of all the Balkan nations in Moscow.
9 – Berta Ambroz – Brez Besed (Yugoslavia 1966)
This, Yugoslavia’s sixth ever entry to Eurovision, is what I would describe as the dawn of the Balkan ballad. Previous songs from Vice Vukov and Lola Novakovic had begun to incorporate a couple of the aforementioned tropes of the genre, but “Brez Besed” – the first time Yugoslavia sent a Slovene contestant – is the first time they put all the ingredients together and really capitalised on the formula. It’s dramatic, it’s angsty, the lyrics detail eternal devotion in the face of separation… it’s as close as the sixties came to the genre we all know and love today, and it bagged a respectable seventh place for the nation in Luxembourg, proving that it could be a lucrative genre for future attempts.
8 – Zeljko Joksimovic – Lane Moje (Serbia & Montenegro 2004)
Now for many many people, “Lane Moje” is THE Balkan ballad, and I expect my decision to only rank it eighth will not be a popular one. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with it per se, and I do adore it as a song. This is the first blatant exploitation of the traditional instrumentation that became an integral part of Eurovision in the 2000s following the success of this song. Indeed, it’s final total of 263 points remains the highest score to date by a song which did not win. It is captivating and magical, building up anticipation with the violin, flute and soft vocals before launching into the full-on epic final chorus where Zeljko’s compositional skills are showcased in their full brilliance. The backing vocals and percussion, combined with the end note, serve to ensure that this song leaves a lasting impression on the listener… However. Eighth. Because time has proved just how formulaic this entry really is. In 2004, because it had never been done before in this way, it stood out a mile, and rightfully captured everyone’s attention. But now, in 2013? Yes, it’s still brilliant. But the same thing has been done better before. And since. Sorry Z.
7 – Boris Novkovic feat. Lado Members – Vukovi Umiro Sami (Croatia 2005)
I get the impression that this particular Croatian entry isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but for me, it is one of the best things they have ever sent. And as a Balkan ballad, it’s got it all. I particularly love the incorporation of a key change here, sneaking in without even a hint of schläger-esque cheese. It’s got the drums, the FIERCE backing choir (seriously. Step aside Neiokoso, the ethnic peasant-choir scene has found their new leading ladies!) and above all, the swung rhythm, which makes it all a little bit different and stand-out. It still has all the drama and darkness, but that melody over the top of it is just brilliant. Deserved to sneak into the top 10 in my opinion!
6 – Darja Svajger – Prisluhni Mi (Slovenia 1995)
Slovenia has hit a high of seventh place twice at the contest; with the perennial fan favourite “Energy” in 2001, and back in 1995 with this sublime slice of Balkan balladry. Coming from the era where the genre wasn’t so dependant on flutes and violins, Darja Svajger’s faultless lead vocal is laid over a simplistic orchestral arrangement, which highlights both the beauty of the melody, but also the mysticism and intrigue of the language she sings in. Put simply, it just sounds lovely. And it creates a contrast to the darker, minor key Balkan efforts which have been more common in recent years, showing that there are multiple incarnations of Balkan ballads, and not all of them have to be robotic factory-made Zeljko numbers to succeed. Indeed, in such a weak year, I’d say Darja deserved even higher than seventh!
5 – Danijela Martinovic – Neka Mi Ne Svane (Croatia 1998)
Ah, 1998. The closest voting we have seen in a fair while, it was this song which received the final 12 points of the evening, and thus secured Dana International’s infamous victory. Finishing in a memorable fifth place amongst a number of equally strong entries from the Netherlands, Belgium, Malta and the UK, Danijela’s song makes use of the rhythmic pattern also employed by Boris Novkovic, and strikes a fine balance between contemporary ballad (for the era) and Balkan ballad. The key change and dress change moment is just so slick. And by the final chorus, we’ve all got to the point where – despite linguistic hinderances – we can just about sing along with her. Absolute classic.
4 – Fazla – Sva Bol Svijeta (Bosnia & Herzegovina 1993)
The debut entry from Bosnia & Herzegovina is without a doubt one of my favourite Eurovision songs from the 90s. The music reflects the song’s lyrics and context perfectly, and without even understanding the language, the entry conveys the sadness and indecision expertly. As a piece of music, of course, it has all the Balkan archetypes, my particular favourite being that spinge-tingling flute motif during the introduction. This entry was the first time the Eurovision stage witnessed the Balkan ballad being used as a tool to connect to the true horrors of the ethnic tensions in the region, and although it was criminally underrated on this occasion, it at least elicited a moving show of support from the audience, thus succeeding to a certain extent in highlighting the issues in the country.
3 – Marija Serifovic – Molitva (Serbia 2007)
Without a doubt the most successful (at least in terms of rankings) Balkan ballad ever to grace the Eurovision stage, the 2007 winner from Marija Serifovic is often overshadowed by it’s eventual position. Six years after her victory, the majority of people regard it as “one of the weaker winners”, and seem to forget what a bloody powerful piece of music it actually is. And they seem to not take into account how effortlessly it was delivered on stage, or how dramatic of a final chorus it has, or what a truly epic long note it incorporates… True, it is by no means reflective of the chart music back in 2007, but it was a deserved victory – not only for the song, or even the country. For the genre. An exemplary display of the Balkan ballad’s merits – adding a touch of ethnicity without appearing pretentious or formulaic – it is most certainly a worthy winner, and on top of that, a hands-down timeless and moving song.
2 – Doris Dragovic – Zeljo Moja (Yugoslavia 1986)
For today’s silver medal, I am diving back into the 80s to retrieve one of the many fan favourites that Yugoslavia produced towards the end of their Eurovision career – “Zeljo Moja” performed by two-time contestant Doris Dragovic. For a long time, I only knew of Doris from her splendiferous 1999 effort “Marija Magdalena”, having a vague awareness of this 80s entry that everyone else seemed to love, and I just didn’t “get”. Until last summer, that is. I heard it again, and suddenly everything just clicked. It’s brilliant. Understated. Soft. Powerful. The chorus is instantly recognisable, and the trademark synths juxtaposed with the acoustic guitar in the middle 8 help to establish the aura of this timeless entry. Like “Prisluhni Mi”, it manages without ethnic instruments and angsty drama. It is just a beautiful piece of music, which shows off the multi-faceted nature of the Balkan ballad. Love it.
1 – Jelena Tomasevic feat. Bora Dugic – Oro (Serbia 2008)
Now remember how earlier I mentioned that the Lane Moje formula had been done better since? Well… this is what I meant. The winner of today’s top 10 is Serbia’s sixth-placed hosting entry from 2008 “Oro”. Performed exquisitely by Jelena Tomasevic (and, for some reason “Bora Dugic”, although to this day I still have no idea who or what Bora Dugic is, and what role they play in this fantastic song…) this is the song I would capitalise on when looking for the epitome of the Balkan ballad. The gradual build-up is there, the interesting instruments are too. The lead vocal is sufficiently floaty and mournful, yet at the same time authoritative and smooth. However, what really singles this song out from the rest is that chorus, Wordless, yet magical. It shows how the melody is the key aspect of any true Balkan ballad, and this one here is the kind that leaves a lasting impression long after it has finished being sung. Congratulations Jelena – you were woefully underrated in Belgrade, but five years on, we have selected “Oro” as the best Balkan ballad in Eurovision to date!
But what do you think of this top 10?
Chris Bambaren Haagkvist from the United States: As far as best Balkan Ballad, I say Bosnia 2006 as my first place and second comes in Serbia 2008. I think it’s one of the best entries Serbia had ever sent!
Nick Eurovision Song Contest from Greece: No Balkan ballad can be compared with Lane Moje but this one is awesome,too! 10/10
Peter Henshaw from Ireland: Yugoslavia 1981
Claus Michael Fasting from Finland: Bosnia 2012 is better
Frank Bischof from Germany: Oro was one of the best songs in 2008, in fact. Best Balkan ballad, maybe “Rijeka bez imena” in 2007?
As expected, “Lane Moje” and “Lejla” seem to be popular choices amongst the fans, however a couple of other entries previously unmentioned have also been put forward, which goes to show just how many examples of the Balkan ballad can be found if you look hard enough! However, as far as I’m concerned, “Oro” is today’s winner, albeit a very close one!