I heard of Le Zbor, Croatia’s mixed lesbian and feminist female choir, the first such choir in southeastern Europe, just a few weeks ago. Soon after, I went to the release party for their first album at Tvornica in Zagreb – and loved these ladies.
Not only are they great on stage – such energy! – but they’ve been doing incredible work as a major promoter of human rights and activism through arts and culture. So I caught up with one of their members, Australian-born Zagreb-based Kat Bowman (pictured here together with another member of Le Zbor, Lea Jurišić), to learn more about what they’re all about.
Tell us a little about Le Zbor.
Le Zbor was started nearly seven years ago by a very small group of girls who were disappointed by the fixed and narrow ideas of other choirs and ensembles. It was formed to give creative outlet to people who couldn’t find a place in more ‘traditional’ groups and also to be an instrument for spreading a message of tolerance, acceptance, and anti-oppression. Over the years, about 60 women have passed through the choir but several of the original members are still very much involved.
I’ve been in the choir since the first week I moved to Zagreb, three and a half years ago. As I had seen them perform a few months earlier, Le Zbor was actually one of my motivations for moving here. It is one of the most important aspects of my life in Zagreb, and I feel that communicating our message through the music we sing, the outfits we wear, the places we perform, is an important addition to the Zagreb activist – and music – scene.
I see Zagreb and Croatia making such painfully slow moves toward accepting homosexuality. What’s your view, since you have your ear to the ground, so to speak?
In the years I’ve been in Zagreb I’ve definitely seen things get easier for the LGBTIQ population. There are still problems, but things are changing, gradually. The community is bigger, stronger and more diverse than before, and has a very healthy number of young people, which I hope means that young people, at least in Zagreb, are finding it easier to come out than before.
That and the amazing response to the violence at Split Pride last year, which resulted in a massive increase in the number of people at Zagreb Pride – both straight and queer – which in turn makes it more acceptable to go to pride at all, as you no longer have to be perceived as a ‘radical queer’ to help fight for equal rights. All that said, there is still plenty of work to be done to gain acceptance and recognition from both government and society, particularly outside Zagreb.
Tell us a little about Le Zbor’s activities and performances in the last couple of years, and about your latest – and – first album.
The last few years have been a fantastic ride for Le Zbor. Locally, we have performed for festivals and organisations in the queer community as well as the broader community. We’ve had protest concerts in the streets, performed at Split Pride while people threw rocks at us, we’ve sung in clubs and bars, as well as in front of the President, in the National Theatre, and in the Museum of Contemporary Art, always making sure that we do not compromise our message of acceptance and anti-oppression… not to mention subversion!
The recent launch of our first album, Hrvatske Budnice (Rousing Croatia), feels like solid physical evidence of all our years of work, a sort of coming-of-age for Le Zbor. It’s an amazing achievement for an independent choir of amateurs like ourselves. But it’s not a time for us to sit back and feel pleased with ourselves. We would like to take the message of our album further, to places that we haven’t been, such as smaller places in Croatia. As we are entirely self-funded, we have yet to work out how to make this happen.
You’ve also had quite a few performances outside Croatia. Tell us about a few of your favorites.
Since our first international trip three years ago, to London’s Various Voices Festival, we’ve done a lot of travelling – mostly to Germany and Austria but also to Belgrade and Sarajevo. Each trip is different and rewarding in its own way, but for me the Festival of Self-Organised Choirs in Belgrade last year was a big highlight, as we got to meet and work with other people from the region who do pretty much exactly what we do. It felt more like a conference for exchanging ideas and supporting each other than a festival where we were performing for a certain audience. We got a lot out of that weekend!
Other highlights include the Women’s Music Festival in Germany last summer, when, after two or three encores, the audience still hadn’t had enough, and started singing our version of Rammstein’s Engel themselves! That was pretty amazing. And then, of course, just last weekend we spent at the Festival of Political Songs in Austria, which was our first international festival that wasn’t an LGBT or women’s festival. The concert and audience were amazing, of course, but so was the beautiful lakeside location. Really, it was the first Le Zbor summer holiday!
I find that gay-friendly spots are really hard to find in Croatia. There still seems to be so much hush-hush about them. Would you share any tips and suggestions you have for gay visitors to Croatia?
Well, there’s always ZagrebGayGuide.com, which printed a brochure a year or two ago. It’s still mostly up to date! Most of the information you can find online is oriented towards gay men, as are the gay clubs, such as Rush. There are a few ‘gay-friendly’ cafes, such as KIC, Kolaž, and Booksa. Although sadly, even in our ‘friendly’ places, there are stories of people being hassled for being too ‘obvious’ or for kissing.
I recommend that queer women go to Vimpi, a cafe-bar in the alley next to Kino Europa, where you can usually find some like-minded women. There are also regular parties and festivals that you can find by looking for information about Zbeletron, Partycipacija, Queer Zagreb, Vox Feminae…
Would you share your three secret spots in Zagreb?
The first would probably be Vimpi, as mentioned before. It’s nice to sit outside there (inside is always too smoky for me), and often people I know are already there, or pass by and stop to talk.
The second spot that comes to mind (as today is so hot and sticky) are the beaches on the large-lagoon side of the islands at Jarun. The small lagoon and closer places are always so crowded on hot days, particulary on weekends, but there’s usually a good spot for a quietish swim if you’re willing to walk a little further.
The third place I would recommend is hardly a secret, but I love to sit in the green and shady courtyard at Bacchus, a cafe and jazz bar not far from the train station. They have good coffee and free wifi, and it’s a great spot when you want to be outside but it’s too hot to be anywhere else.
Describe the ultimate day in Zagreb.
My ultimate relaxing day in Zagreb starts with a good coffee with my partner somewhere at a shady outside table on the ‘Špitza’, the pedestrian zone in the centre – probably somewhere in Preradovićeva Street. On the way there we buy a cheese or spinach burek for breakfast.
After a Croatian coffee (which involves at least an hour of drinking coffee, chatting, reading newspapers), it’s time to buy some fresh fruit and vegetables at Dolac market, and maybe come home to make a good lunch (living in the centre is convenient!).
After lunch, I would love to meet some friends, maybe the rest of Le Zbor and our friends and partners, near Jarun, so that we can spend the afternoon swimming, relaxing, and, of course, singing!
In the evening, if we ever manage to stop singing and leave the lake, we might have dinner at Nokturno, which we like because it has a good range of vegetarian food and a nice outdoor terrace, and afterwards a drink somewhere – probably Vimpi.
After that, of course, a perfect day would have to have a Le Zbor performance somewhere interesting, and maybe some sort of queer party as well!