Smiles Over Sarajevo

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Sarajevo Popmart concert, September 23, 1997

Smiles Over Sarajevo

From The Independent (Britain)

(U2 held their historic gig in the Bosnian capital and although Bono's voice gave out, Andrew Meuller witnessed a set which lit up the city).

There probably hasn't been as strange a cast of characters at a backstage party since the reign of Caligula. It is not often, as you elbow your way to the free drinks after a concert, that you find yourself standing next to the Irish Minister for Defence or tripping over cables trailing behind a CNN crew, or sharing a couch with the Bosnian ambassador to the United Nations.

By this point of the night, however, any previous conceptions of what constituted weirdness have been well and truly run through the shredder. We live in an age in which rock n'roll gigs are routinely described as history in the making. These stakes on posterity are at best silly and at worst mendacious, as if a few thousand people standing in a paddock, or a group of middle-aged bores deciding to speak to each other again are events comparable to moon landings. Tonight, its happened for real.

As Faris, the drummer with the local support act, Sikter put it: "It's one of the most important things that's ever happened here. The railway has opened today, after four years, just for this. It's like when the Winter Olympics were held here, in 1984. But it's bigger than that, even. Look, my father made me some new shoes, just for tonight."

Faris smiles. There's been a lot of that this evening, a night which has been four years in the planning. In 1993, U2 were on the road in Europe when their Zoo TV tour. At a concert in Italy, a film crew from Sarajevo presented themselves. After being granted the interview they'd come for, the crew explained to the band something of what was then being done to their city by the Bosnian Serb Army. U2's response was to suggest that they go and play there. The band were persuaded that, as things stood, that wasn't practical - aside from the fact that such a trip would have induced spectacular apoplexy in U2's insurers, the crowd such a show would have attracted would doubtless have been all too tempting a target for snipers and gunners who had already demonstrated that they considered marketplaces, water queues and funerals to be fair game. The idea was shelved.

The compromise arrived at was the satellite link with Sarajevo, which saw part of each night's Zoo TV multi-media overload being devoted to the beseiged city. A young American aid worker called Bill carter, then working in Sarajevo for London-based organisation, The Serious Road Trip, operated a hook-up, enabling various citizens to speak, live, to whichever audience U2 were playing to at the time. Memorably, during a show at Wembley Stadium, one young woman scoffed via satellite that "Nobody cares. You're going to let us die. Why not let them get it over with?"

Back in Sarajevo, Bill Carter had been aiming his camera away from the headlines. His acclaimed documentary, `Miss Sarajevo,' recording a beauty contest heald during the war, inspired a song of the same name by Passengers, a group consisting of U2, long-time producer and mentor Brian Eno and, for that one song, Luciano Pavarotti. Bono finally made it to Sarajevo at the end of 1995, three months after NATO's bombers had put an overdue stop to the city's misery. He sang at impromptu sessions in a few bars, put in several hours being deafened by local groups in snad-bagged rehearsal spaces, said he'd be back, and that next time, he'd bring the band.

And that he did as part of the current world tour, PopMart. He brought with him the most complicated and expensive live rock show ever assembled. PopMart employs 250 people, costs around #160,000 a day to run, and requires 55 trucks and a Boeing 727 to carry it. When I heard, earlier this year, that U2 were definitely going to play Sarajevo, I assumed they'd be taking the bare minimum equipment. When I heard they intended to take the whole show, I assumed they'd been out in the sun without hats on.

In July 1996, I covered the first post-war visit to Sarajevo by a British band. Newcastle punk trio, China Drum travelled a good deal lighter than U2. All their gear, crew and me, just about fit into one van. They did two shows at one small club. The trip was a logistical and administrative nightmare.

We were turned over by Croatian customs, run off the road by a deranged woman who then abused us for trying to hurt her baby, pestered by a rogue Bosnian Serb Army checkpoint, menaced with a pistol by a clearly insane Bosnian policeman, refused entry to Slovenia, and if it hadn't been for thebottomless kindness of the Queen's Lancashires British Army regiment, we would probably still be camped in our broken-down truck, somewhere near Vitez, drawing lots to see which of use we ate next. It could be said that Bosnia doesn't really have an infrastructure for dealing with touring rock groups, especially if you were trying to win some sort of award for understatement.

"We thought it was going to be difficult," agrees Paul McGuinness, U2's long-sewrving manager, speaking after the show. "But it's been quite straightforward. People have just wanted to help. We've blagged a lot of equipment, forklifts and son on, from the military, and the local crew have been incredibly enthusiastic. There was talk of just doing a scratch show, but we felt it was important that we treat this as another city on the tour, to pay them that respect. To come here and not do the whole show would have been rude."

McGuinness cheerfully confirms that U2 will lose a tidy fortune on the gig recognising Sarajevo's post-war poverty, tickets were sold cheaply - by McGuiness's estimation, the last time it cost that little to see U2 was around 1983 - and whatever surplus wa realised from sales of the concert to radio stations around the world wa earmarked for the coffers of the War Child charity. Crucially, tickets were also sold in the Serbian and Croatian areas of Bosnia-Hercegovina, as well as in Ljubljana, Zagreb and Belgrade. Sarajevan friends had been telling me all day of their happiness that the night before the show, Sarajevo's bars had been full of people from all over what was once Yugoslavia and there'd been no trouble - although, the next day in town, I see one local knock on a window of a car with Belgrade license plates and scream uncomfortable obscenities at the occupant.

Inside the 45,000-capacity Kosevo Stadium, as showtime nears, no such bad vibes are evident. Even the stands containing the khaki ranks of troops serving with the multi-national stabilisation force (SFOR) are getting in on the act - the Spanish contingent have tied their national flag in bandannas around their heads and are crowd surfing among themselves. They also try to institute a Mexican wave among the foreign troops but, in a neat metaphor for the western military presence during Bosnia's war, this collapses amid confused signalling and lack of communication.

The first two acts on stage are a local choir and local rock group, Protest, one of the better acts to have emerged from Sarajevo's startingly vibrant wartime rock n'roll scene. Sikter, who follow them, start by tearing up the Bosnian national anthem i the style of Hendrix's `Star Spangled Banner,' - an astute populist touch that properly kickstarts the evening.

U2's show is perhaps not everything it could have been, as Bono's voice gives out on him about six songs in and he struggles with high notes after that. It doesn't really matter, of course. What's important tonight is that one of the biggest bands in the world is here, that their set lit up when it was plugged in, and that, with the exception of a few entirely forgiveable yelps of "Viva Sarajevo!," there's no hint of self-congratulation up on the stage. The only moments tailored to the evening are Edge's lovely solo rendering of `Sunday Bloody Sunday,' and the first tentative live performance of `Miss Sarajevo,' for which the band are joined onstage by Brian Eno and on tape by Pavarotti. "We wrote that song for you," laughs Bono, as it closes, "and we can't fucking play it!" This, like everything else, gets a huge and heartfelt roar.

There's anothing touching moment as the lights come up. Led by the Spanish, the SFOR troops rise and applaud the crowd, the people of Sarajevo, as they file out of the stadium. The people stop, turn around, and clap back. The Spaniards, who appear to enjoy their work, respond with spirited renditions of `Y'Viva Espana' and `The Macarena.'

Copyright © 1997 The Independent. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on September 23, 1997 4:41 AM.

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