Dawning Of An Age: Sounds Of Sarajevo Come To Seattle

For two years, a committed throng of actors and musicians gathered in a small Sarajevo theater to sing about peace, love and the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

Their 70 under-siege performances of the 1968 rock musical "Hair" attracted global media attention. The show became an emblem of the unbroken spirit of Sarajevan artists, determined to defy the nationalistic war raging around them.

While artillery shells and sniper fire exploded on the streets outside, the youthful troupe (made up of both Serbians and Muslims) delivered their updated, topical script of "Hair" in Serbo-Croatian.

But their "James Brown-meets-Metallica" renditions of tunes like "The Age of Aquarius" and "Let the Sun Shine In" were sung in the original English - and in a style more thrash-funk than psychedelic, more war-weary than flower child.

The Sarajevo "Hair" was the brainchild of two Bosnian rock musicians, Amir "Lazy" Beso and Srojan "Gino" Jevdjevic. Along with 20 fellow performers, they risked their lives daily to make sure the show went on - even when local electricity was cut, and they had only car batteries and gasoline generators to power the lights and guitars.

Today, with the aid of some prominent American friends, Beso and Jevdjevic are visiting Seattle as guests of the Group Theatre and several other local arts organizations.

In the past month they also have traveled to Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles, on a lecture tour sponsored by the United States Information Agency.

Chatting about their tumultuous lives, Beso and Jevdjevic wasted little time on small talk. Both are 33, and dress in the standard rocker mufti of dark Levis, T-shirts and battered leather. But they look older than their years, and it's clear the ravages of war have taken a toll.

Their conversation is shot-through with passion, anger, cynicism, black humor and glimmers of idealistic hope that maybe, just maybe, they can help prevent future Bosnia-style tragedies. Assisted by Hollywood film director Phil Alden Robinson ("Sneakers," "Field of Dreams"), they are now trying to arrange a U.S. tour of the Bosnian "Hair" to spread the word.

Jevdjevic, the larger and more hyper of the pair, explained that he and Beso have been friends since their teens. Their disparate ethnicities (he is Serbian, Beso is a Muslim) was never an issue in the cosmopolitan milieu of Sarajevo.

Noted Beso, a wiry, bearded fellow whose dark sunglasses hide the effects of a serious war wound, "We grew up in a communist country where religion was not popular. Our generation's religion was rock 'n' roll, and American movies."

In 1991, when civil war broke out in nearby Croatia, Beso was a star guitarist and composer for prominent Balkan rock groups, and Jevdjevic had his own struggling band. Alarmed by the growing nationalism of the Serbs, Beso wrote a protest anthem, "Only in Love I Believe," sung at an outdoor Sarajevo peace rally before 90,000 people, and later recorded in several versions.

"We were very naive then," recalled Beso. "We thought war was impossible because our city was always known for its sophistication, its multiculturalism. We had 15 nationalities living in peace together."

As the war spread, and Serbian forces attacked his own Muslim neighborhood, Beso abandoned his pacifist stance and joined the Bosnian Army. "It wasn't really an army," he pointed out, with a laconic half-smile. "Because of the arms boycott we had no weapons, so all we could do is make noise and try to scare people away by shooting off blanks."

Meanwhile, Jevdjevic moved from one sector of the newly partitioned city to another to dodge the Serbian draft. He decided to present "Hair" because, he says, "We had no work, and I wanted so much to make something. I realized this musical would be the best way to join my two loves, music and theater."

Beso warmed to the concept, too: "I said, let's do `Hair' but turn it upside down. Let's do it as mean and dirty rock 'n' roll."

From opening night, the bare-bones but high-octane production was a hit - and the only show in town. Though they played in a theater with 200 seats, as many as 500 people would turn up to clog the aisles, the sides of the stage, anywhere they could fit.

Film director Robinson attended the musical during a visit to Bosnia with an American delegation. He came up to the producers afterward with tears in his eyes, and said he would do all he could to bring the show to the U.S.

Robinson kept his promise. But despite his advocacy, an American invitation signed by 56 U.S. congressmen, financial backing from the Warner and BMG record companies, pre-arranged visas and even a specially chartered airplane, the planned 1993 tour ran aground.

United Nations High Refugee Commission, which controls the Sarejevo airport, would not allow the cast to fly out. UNHR director Anthony Land told Jevdjevic that the project didn't fit the agency's guidelines for humanitarian evacuation.

Jevdjevic and Beso still fume about that. They insist the policy is hypocritical, that people with money can bribe their way out of Bosnia and smuggle in black-market goods on U.N.-approved flights.

So how did they finally manage to leave? By two highly dangerous alternate routes. While on patrol with his army unit, Beso was wounded by a piece of shrapnel that went through his eye and lodged in his brain. He was airlifted out to receive the medical aid that saved his life.

Jevdjevic risked a trip through a new underground tunnel built under the Sarajevo airport. He emerged in Bosnian-held territory, and hiked over the mountains to a demilitarized zone. From there he arranged to fly out of the country, and rendezvous with Beso. (Most of the other "Hair" performers also left Bosnia through the tunnel, and are staying in Paris until the U.S tour is finalized.)

The men were eager to visit Seattle, where they will remain for an indefinite period as resident artists at the Group. "It's the opinion all over America that Seattle is a good place for creation, because people are not obsessed with money or stardom like they are in New York and Los Angeles," says Jevdjevic.

"We feel here like we did back home," Beso added wistfully. "Pre-war Sarajevo was the Seattle of Eastern Europe - the same size, spirit, mix of cultures, originality, humor."

The Emerald City certainly must seem a peaceful oasis, but these two unofficial cultural ambassadors are here to spread awareness about the Bosnian tragedy, not merely to flee from it.

"We are asking the world to pay attention," Jevdjevic emphasizes. "Europe is turning very right wing now, and it is going bad with nationalism and neo-fascism.

"It's not a question of saving Sarajevo anymore, because Sarajevo is lost. But maybe Sarajevo can save the world post-mortem.

We are showing what happens when you don't believe something like this can ever happen to your country. We've learned there are many things in the world worse than communism."

------------------- MEET THE PERFORMERS -------------------

The Group Theatre hosts a free public forum with Amir Beso and Srojan Jevdjevicthem on Dec. 3 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. (Details: 441-1299.)