Most people wouldn’t associate Balkan pop culture with Latin America. However, Mexican music was massively popular in the former Yugoslavia for several generations — first in earnest, and then as farce.
The YuMex phenomenon is partly explained by Yugoslavia’s unique position in the Cold War after 1948 — a socialist country that was a de-facto enemy of the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Speaking with Public Radio International, Slovenian author Miha Mazzini said: “This rupture left the country in a very difficult position, in the middle between the Eastern bloc and the West. (…) This caused problems — one of them being what to show in cinemas. We could not import ‘capitalist’ movies from Hollywood. But we could not buy Soviet films anymore.”
Tito-led government’s solution was to import films from Mexico, which was not only living its Golden Age in the 1950s-1960s, but also frequently referenced the Mexican revolution — a perfect match for the country that had just been reborn as socialist out of the Second World War.
Influenced by the movies, dozens of bands from all parts of the Federation recorded famous Mexican songs, in Spanish or translated in the national languages.
One of the most celebrated was Ensamble Magnifico, from Skopje, whose career spanned over 25 years — their last album was released in 1983.
By the 1970s, British and United States’ pop and rock took over the scene in the Federation. However, some of those new American-influenced bands took a jibe at their predecessors with parody songs of the previous Mariachi trend. And those parodies were just as popular as the new rock ‘n’ roll songs.
In 1983, singer-songwriter Đorđe Balašević, from Novi Sad in Serbia, released the album “Celovečernji the Kid” (which could be translated as “Wholevening the Kid”) featuring the smash hit “Don Francisco Long Play,” with English lyrics sung in an exaggerated Mexican accent.
You must be careful, my compadre,
you must be very careful if you going south,
because in mountain Sierra Madre
is very best for you to shut your dirty mouth.
O, there are banditos mucho danger,
they want your money and your horse.
You are a gringo, I mean, You are a stranger,
but you know everything of course
about famous and very popular
Don Francisco Long Play.
A year later, the Belgrade pop-rock band Bajaga & Instruktori (“Bajaga and the Instructors”) released their first album, “Pozitivna geografija” (“Positive Geography”), featuring songs about various parts of the world, from Berlin to major cities in Russia, from Asia to the Americas.
One of them, “Tekila, gerila” (“Tequila, guerilla”), sung in Serbian, also tells a story of a fictional Latin American character: Juan, a young boy who gets drunk on Tequila and starts a revolution in order to save his kidnapped girlfriend from the clutches of a stereotypical evil general. The events take place in Macondo, the fictional town of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” and have no claim of historical accuracy at all.
Ni Markes ni Kastaneda
Nisu znali Juanita
Ali su čuli da mu je deda
Susreo lično Meskalita
The album became a major hit and solidified the reputation of the young bandleader Momčilo Bajagić, also known as Bajaga, as lyricist and performer.
And then, in 1987, the Croatian band Duo Pegla (“pegla” means “clothes iron” in Croatian) recorded “Mi imamos lots of problemos” (“We have a lot of problems”), also sung with an exaggerated Mexican accent.
The song became a major hit. The cassette tape that contained it — Duo Pegla’s only album — sold over 400,000 copies in the Federation, which at that time had a population of 22 million.
Besides zeroing in on the zeitgeist with “we have a lot of problems” — Yugoslavia did disintegrate a few years after the song’s release -, Duo Pegla also referenced two Mexico-related household names: Mama Juanita and Speedy Gonzales.
Mi imamos mnogos problemos
i lutamo svijetos bez kintos
nosimo brkoves i ocales
a svi nas zovu Speedy Gonzales
Aj, mama Huanita
Gonzales po svijetu skita
We have a lot of problems
and wander the world without a dime
we have mustachios and glasses
and everybody calls us Speedy Gonzales
Ay, mama Juanita
Gonzales roams the world…
Speedy Gonzales, as many readers will know, is the Mexican mouse of the Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes series, a cartoon that was also extremely popular in former Yugoslavia — it was replayed on an almost daily basis on the Federation’s state TV.
Mama Juanita is a character of the 1950 Mexican film “Un dia de vida” (“One Day of Life“), which seems to have started the original wave of Yu-Mex music, according to a 2018 essay on contemporary Mexican film published by the Cinematheque of Macedonia:
The film “Mama Juanita,” as the film “Un Dia de Vida,” was entitled by the Yugoslav distributers, after the eponymous song from the film that entranced the domestic audiences with its pathos, started a wave, or more correctly, a tsunami of singers and bands that made music following the Mexican model, to accompany lyrics written in one of the languages of former Yugoslavia.