Kombinat Ženski Pevski Zbor: Any art has a statement

Interview of the Female Choir “Kombinat” from Slovenia for the “September 23” Movement

First, I want to thank you for agreeing to speak with us. We’re making this interview shortly after May 1st. What does this day mean to you and how did you celebrate it this year?

May 1st is, I dare say, one of the central holidays to us. A great part of our repertoire consists of workers’ songs so the rights that were hard won through the centuries are constantly in our focus. 1st May is our opportunity to share this with our audience and the broader public. Many events are organized on this day all over Slovenia and we always get more invitations than we can accept. Although this year all events were cancelled for the well-known reasons, there came a perfect opportunity to continue the tradition: the anti-government protests in Ljubljana. Our 1st May was therefore just as it should be.

We know that your choir was formally created on April 27, 2008, when is the Resistance Day in Slovenia. Tell us a little about this holiday. This day become your group’s birthday by chance or is it a deliberate search for symbols of the holiday?

27 April is the day when Slovenian Liberation Front was founded in 1941, hence the date of the national holiday. It became our official founding date half by chance and half by choice: the idea of the choir, namely, came up a few days before that, so we decided to combine the two.

Under what conditions was your choir created and what was the idea of ​​its appearance?

The choir was first a group of old friends who decided to sing in order to see each other on a regular basis. The central idea, we can say, was that of self-organisation. Of course, nobody even dreamed of what it would grow into through the years. I guess the time and place was right for us. The appearance – the name of the choir incorporating the hammer and scythe symbol – is a result of brainstorming of the founding members, and it’s so good that nobody ever thought of changing it. It simply summarises all we stand for.

Where did you have concerts? Have you sung abroad?

In 12 years, we’ve had well over a hundred concerts. There is practically no corner of Slovenia where we haven’t appeared and though we’re always happy to sing no matter where, there’s a particular excitement whenever we get an invitation to perform abroad. So far we’ve sung in Austria, Croatia, Serbia, Italy, Paris and Berlin. It’s always a challenge to address an audience from different backgrounds, cultures and (revolutionary) traditions, and so far the response has always been great.

You play many songs from different parts of the world in the original languages. Is it difficult to sing in a language you do not speak? Do you have statistics in how many languages ​​do you play songs?

Singing in a language you don’t speak is always a bit difficult from the first, but then again, it broadens your horizons. We sing in more than ten languages, the most exotic of them being Turkish and Zulu. We don’t have a Bulgarian song yet, but will be grateful for any suggestions!

We see that your choir is made up of women only. How many members has “Kombinat”? Are you professional musicians or have other professions?

The membership fluctuates quite a great deal, we’ve had more than a hundred women in our ranks so far. The number of active singers is generally about thirty. The only member who is a professional musician is our conductor. All the rest come from a variety of other professions – teachers, public servants, scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, social workers, shop assistants… you name it. J

The choir usually sings acapella or with the accompaniment of several traditional instruments. You bet on classic sound, instead modern sound. Why?

On the one hand, it’s mostly due to our lack of knowledge and time to explore more possibilities. On the other, in our genre it’s crucial to get the message across, so the means of expression are subject to that. What we’re certainly trying to avoid is being too rigid and static. The decision on whether we’re classical or modern is really up to each listener.

Many of the songs you perform have revolutionary messages, they are sung to fight for a better life, for a fairer system. Some of them talk directly about socialism and communism. What would you say to the people who say music should be apolitical and art should be politically neutral?

I personally believe that any art has a statement and that avoiding political messages is also a political act in itself. Politics is not about parties and regimes but about the world we live in, our relationships with other people, the arrangement of everyday life, and this is what art depicts.

Many former socialist countries in Eastern Europe have undergone restoration of capitalism, followed by a libelous anti-communist campaign. How does the Slovenian audience perceive you with your communist symbolism? Is there nostalgia for the socialist past?

First of all, we don’t see our symbolism as Communist in any way. The hammer and sickle are a symbol of workers’ struggle, they represent proletarian solidarity – a union between the peasantry and working-class, and were only later appropriated by Communism. This is what we often explain to both our supporters and opponents. We also stress that our songs do not support any regime in particular, just the universal struggle for human rights and better world. Anyway, the nostalgia for the Socialist past is still strong in a considerable part of the population and it seems that they sometimes project their sentiments onto us. We stress, though, that what we do is not about reviving nostalgic memories of the times past, but showing that some principles and situations are still relevant today.

How do you define your political positions? Do you like any party or organization?

We strictly reject associations with any political party or organized movement. Each member’s voting preference is her intimate thing. We often perform for charities and human rights organizations, sing on protests against bad political decisions and so on.

I cannot help but ask you about the situation with the spread of coronavirus, which is now affecting the whole world. What measures are taken in Slovenia? Does the government help the affected by the crisis? How does all this affect your music activity?

Our music activity is, of course, greatly affected because we’re still not allowed to practice indoors. Luckily, we can go on the streets at least so it allows us to remain in touch and shape. The situation in Slovenia is specific in that we got a new, (far) right-wing government just at the onset of the crisis, and it didn’t waste any time pursuing it agenda under the cover of corona. The government’s help to those affected is definitely insufficient, superficial rather than systematic. This is the reason why the people now protest in large numbers every Friday, and the rallies have also been covered by the foreign media (for example here: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52597748).

What would you like to say to the Bulgarian audience?

Stay strong, keep your mind open and see you some day – hopefully soon!