Translating is a task that often requires the translator to go well beyond a term or word to understand and convey the context of what is being said. The incredibly complex and intertwined systems of language and culture rarely offer an easy way of disentangling a clear-cut meaning. The abundance of language-specific undertones and culture-based associations means we have to put ourselves a bit in the position of ethnomusicologists, bound to consider not only the musical aspects of the musical genres about which they write, but also the historical, social, cultural and political contexts – the “ethnographic” part.
Sketching the cultural landscape of Slovenia for our Culture.si portal and database, we came upon a curious challenge of how to translate the possibly most often performed musical genre in contemporary Slovenia: narodno-zabavna glasba. What follows is a short and hopefully curious venture into the reasoning behind the translation that we choose – folk pop music.
Origins of the genre
Incorporating various pre-existing musical expressions of the wider region as well as from the other side of the Atlantic (jazz – and also polka as played by the Slovenian US diaspora), this genre came about during the early 1950s. It established a specific instrumental set-up and a complex of musical structures and embellishments, augmented by a rather novel constellation of signifiers such as clothing, lyrics and attitudes. Supported by the political and ideological climates of the time in Yugoslavia and spearheaded by the musical genius of the Avsenik brothers, it became immensely popular. In spite of its rapid spread throughout the Alpine Europe and beyond, it soon got elevated to the status of an authentic Slovene tradition. Tellingly, it mostly conveyed (as it still does) an imagery of life in rural communities.
The name for this genre was supposedly coined by an unknown radio anchor. While this name fast took hold in Slovenia, the German speaking countries used the term Oberkreinermusik. This alluded to the name that the pioneering Avsenik Quintet used when performing abroad – the Oberkreiner quintett and, later, Slavko Avsenik und seine Original Oberkrainer, Oberkrein being the German word for Slovenia’s Alpine region of Gorenjska. However, in the long run, this particular music did not really attain the status of a global musical commodity (though it does have a close sibling in America, called Cleveland-style polka, and though is has also been incorporated into the traditional music cannon of Austria and Germany as Alpenmusik). As such, it still lacks an established English name.
Narodno-zabavna glasba could literally be translated as “national-entertainment” or “national-fun music”, but neither of these sounds right and such a translation is rarely used. Other terms that occasionally surface are the aforementioned Oberkreiner music, Slovene folk music, Alpine folk music, folk-entertainment music, ethno-pop, ethnic popular music – and folk pop music. None of these translations really hits the semantic mark, but the problems that surround the translation do refer us to a rich cultural tapestry that forms the tacit background of this music.
The first such a background to folk pop is nationalism, a much contested set of ideologies, theories, imageries and rituals that we will only briefly touch on the surface. The first word in the phrase, narod(no), is usually roughly translated in English as “nation-(al)”, yet this concept is a bit too broad. A more apt English translation of narod would be “ethnicity” but this is too narrow and usually used in wholly another context. One could define narod as a group of kindred communities forming a nation – yet lacking the framework of a nation state. It connotes a shared language, a shared culture and a shared blood lineage. It evokes a sort of an (imagined) community, yet not the Benedict Anderson’s modern, media-anchored one, but one that in its associative depth somehow differes from a contemporary society regulated by the laws of its state. The word narod subtly hints to some sort of pre-modern rural-ness and brings to mind the accompanying gemeinschaft (“community”) social ties and politics.
The second word, zabavna, also carries more meaning than generally meets the eye. Though in most contexts it really can seamlessly be translated into either fun or entertainment, it also has another, quite different usage – zabavna glasba (glasba = music). Structurally similar to the concept of popular music, the name itself is a rather literal response to the term “serious music” (which has an analogue equivalent in Slovene, resna glasba) as being the ‘not serious’ and as such obviously (?) fun music. Initially it also covered jazz and genres such as the German schlager and the Italian canzone (their Slovene equivalent popevka is another untranslatable, locally specific gem).
Sometime later the term popularna glasba (popular music) came into use alongside “zabavna glasba“. While the former carries more or less the same meaning as in English, the latter has over the decades grown to be a very specific genre of Slovene music. Distinctively low-brow, this instantly recognisable (yet hard to describe) genre is nowadays – in spite of its immense popularity – treated to a rather marginal cultural position. In many ways it corresponds to the lyrics, rhythms and cultural rituals of the folk pop but lacks its (as the late historian Hobsbawm would put it) invented tradition-ness and has a slightly more urban tone. This particular music – partly featured on Culture.si via the Melodies of the Sea and Sun Festival – is also implied in what narodno-zabavna glasba means and also how it sounds.
As mentioned earlier, narod also denotes the community and ‘the people’. A somewhat archaic English synonym for this is “folk”, a word also very strong in different meanings, among them being a certain vernacular musical tradition (one that socio-culturally occupies a decidedly different position in British and American culture than folk pop, true, but is nevertheless closely related to tradition). There is an also added dimension to “folk” in that it sounds the same as the German word volk, a word quite close to narod in its political semantics. As such, folk (an ethnicity, a community, a nation AND a traditional music trope) seems to be reasonably suitable and rich to replace narod.
Zabavna is a harder nut to crack, and one is in forced to go with “pop”. In a way, it is similar in how zabavna was coined as the opposite to serious music, but later became only a sub-part of the ‘non-serious’ music; pop (short for popular) similarly stems in opposition to serious music, yet is now also but a small part of what popular music encompasses. The term “pop” does carry a heavy baggage of American aesthetics, but structurally it basically occupies a similar, low-to-mid-brow position that is often accorded to folk pop in Slovenia. Furthermore, the prefix “folk” seems to move this type of pop into a wholly other musical territory than American pop and it would be probably hard to associate folk pop with, for instance, Rihanna.
One could dispute folk pop on a number of terms, one of them being that this phrase is quite possibly too invested with a sort of a Bob-Dylan-goes-Eurodance flavour. Furthermore, some of the semantic nuances that try to be carried forward with this translation can only be discernible by one already familiar with the original Slovene meaning. Here, we stand as accused.Nevertheless, if only for the sake of language coherence a decision needed to be taken. Interestingly, during our research on this (conducted a few years ago) we were interdependently contacted by the Institute of Ethnomusicology, who also decided upon such a wording and prompted us that we use it (though they also agreed on its questionable ambiguity).
On a final note, it is possibly worth pointing out how folk pop has a sort of a palindromic structure. One could also turn it around and make it pop folk – and still retain the translation order and a significant part of the implications. Narodno could easily be translated as “popular” (meaning, “the people’s”) – and subsequently shortened as “pop” – and zabavno could also stand as a “folk music”, as they both stand as vernacular musical expressions of a certain time and place. A possible (though admittedly far-fetched) exercise in semantics would be to finally designate this genre as the people’s pop, thus unearthing a curious, rather deeply hidden tautology amidst the presented layers of meanings of narodno-zabavna glasba.