Croatia / History / Travel / Popular Culture / Music

Rijeka Rock City

It was the port city of Rijeka that led the way when it came to Croatia’s relationship with the electric guitar, and it is Rijeka that preserves most in terms of rock and roll heritage today.


Label boss Goran Lisica Fox famously described Rijeka as a ‘musical Galapagos’, a self-contained city that always stood apart from the main landmass of popular culture. Indeed the city’s position in Croatia can be compared to that of Manchester in the UK: a place whose mixture of provincial isolation and self-reliance paradoxically puts it at the centre of national creativity.

Long-time journalist and chronicler of the Rijeka music scene Velid Đekić was keen to take me to Dežmanova ulica, a typical street of grey-brown apartment blocs just below Rijeka’s Gubernatorial Palace. It is here that a discreet plaque marks the former site of Husar (1957-1964), Croatia’s first ever rock and roll club, and arguably the first such club in the whole of communist-controlled Europe. Husar didn’t initially host any live acts, but it did offer a chance to hear the latest vinyl records, brought into the city by visiting sailors. “After communist Yugoslavia’s 1948 split with Stalin’s USSR”, Đekić explains, “the port of Rijeka was open to all kinds of western ships; rock and roll came as the cultural baggage.”

The culture of rock and roll, punk and indie music is so ingrained in Croatian history that it has almost become part of the country’s identity. It’s a narrative that is usually presented as a story centred on the capital Zagreb. However it was the gritty port city of Rijeka that led the way when it came to Croatia’s relationship with the electric guitar, and it is arguably Rijeka that preserves most in terms of rebel heritage today.

It was certainly Rijeka that gave birth to Croatia’s first ever rock and roll band in 1960; an outfit named Uragani (“The Hurricanes”). According to Đekić, who has chronicled the Rijeka scene in books 91 Decibel and Red! River! Rock!, “Uragani leader Dario Ottaviani was the first Croatian to write a rock and roll song. Ottaviani’s schoolmate Ante Škrobonja was the first real rock photographer in Eastern Europe.”

Đekić goes on to reveal that Rijeka hosted some of the first ever gigs by British bands to tour in communist Europe. Colin Hicks and the Cabin Boys - a band that would have disappeared into anonymity were it not for the fact that Hicks was the brother of Tommy Steele - played at Rijeka’s historical Teatro Fenice (then known as Kino Partizan) in 1960. Appearing at the same venue six years later were British beat group The Rockin’ Vickers, a band that featured legend-in-the-making Ian Lemmy Kilmister on guitar.

Although the Husar disappeared long ago (the basement in question is now occupied by a table-tennis club), there is at least one Rijeka rock club that played a pivotal role in musical history and which still exists today. Hidden away in the graffiti-covered Kružna ulica just beyond the main Korzo, OKC Palach is one of the oldest continually-running rock clubs anywhere in Europe. Affectionately dubbed “Croatia’s answer to CBGBs” by Đekić, it was opened in 1966 as a student canteen, before being taken over by medical students with ambitions of holding dance evenings.

As co-founder Ivan Saftić once told local newspaper Novi List, the club didn’t own any proper DJ equipment in the early days, and disco entertainment was provided by repeatedly throwing coins into a jukebox. Palach quickly developed into a highly successful live-music club, however, attracting the biggest local names and generating enough money to retain a state of semi-independence from the student-union structures from which it first sprung.

Initially named Index, the club was re-christened Palach in 1969 in honour of Jan Palach, the Czech student who set himself alight in the centre of Prague in January 1969 in protest at his country’s occupation by forces of the Warsaw Pact. A group of civil engineering students from Rijeka had been on an excursion to Czechoslovakia at the time, and came up with the idea of changing the club’s name. It was a controversial move that underlined an aspect of Rijeka that was to grow in importance in the years that followed – a taste for the provocative gesture. Although Yugoslavia had been sharply critical of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the question of Yugoslav-Soviet relations was far too sensitive an area to be left to a bunch of students. It’s probably thanks to Rijeka’s provincial position that the name was allowed to stick – it’s doubtful whether a club called Palach would have been allowed in Zagreb or Belgrade.

Toilet bowl

Unsurprisingly Palach was one of the main incubators of the Croatian punk scene in the late Seventies, a scene in which Rijeka occupied a central position. The first punk concert in ex-Yugoslavia is believed to have been the impromptu performance by Rijeka band Paraf, held at Vladimir Nazor Park on December 31 1976. Paraf’s thunder was subsequently stolen by Slovenian punk band Pankrti, who played in Ljubljana and Zagreb in the months that followed – Pankrti’s concert at Zagreb’s SC Gallery in December 1977 is frequently described as the concert that kick-started the Yugoslav new wave.

Inner sleeve of Paraf’s debut album A dan je tako lijepo počeo; 1980 (private archive of Kornel Šeper)

However Paraf were crucial in providing Croatian punk with its irreverent, anti-establishment flavour, ironically praising the police force in Narodna Pjesma, and making oblique references to the searing sunshine of Goli otok (Bare Island) - the first ever popular-culture reference to the island prison camp established by Tito’s communists in 1948.

Rijeka was home to a generous handful of post-Paraf punk bands, most memorable of which was arguably Termiti (The Termites), led by a singer who indulged in on-stage self-mutilation and famously performed with a toilet bowl on his head. The Termiti song Vjeran Pas (Faithful Dog) still features in the repertoire of Let 3, the band built around former Termiti bassist Damir Martinović Mrle and the one that most reflects the continuity of the Rijeka scene.

Termiti, 1980 (private archive of Velid Đekić; photo Nikola Petković)

Rijeka’s punk wave coincided with the launch of the Ri-Rock Festival, a showcase for unsigned bands that still exists – indeed it’s thought to be the longest continually running such festival in Croatia.

Rijeka’s youth magazine Val (“Wave”), although officially published by the Rijeka branch of the League of Socialist Youth, took its lead from the New Musical Express rather than Marx and Engels, and nurtured a stable of talented rock writers: Velid Đekić was one, future record-company mogul Goran Lisica Fox (founder of Dallas Records) was another. Val even invented its own post-punk noise band Viktor Kunst in an attempt to show how far punk-era media manipulation could go. “There was a sense of community between musicians and public” Đekić remembers, “and an awareness that the people in the audience today could well be up on stage themselves tomorrow.”

Front cover of Val, April 1982 (private archive of Velid Đekić)


Rijeka didn’t just define Croatian punk but also much of the new wave scene of the 1980s. The city produced leading synthipop duo Denis i Denis (the one Eighties group whose hits are guaranteed to fill a Croatian dance-floor even today) as well as edgy pop outfit Xenia and all-female band Cacadou Look. More recently, the Rijeka singer-songwriter Damir Urban has explored the borderlands between rock, pop and electronica, territories rarely trodden by his Zagreb-based contemporaries. The Croatian scene was always dependent on Rijeka for providing its avant-garde edge; a situation that in many ways hasn’t changed today.

It was Goran Lisica Fox who famously described Rijeka as a ‘musical Galapagos’, a self-contained city that always stood apart from the main landmass of popular culture. Indeed Rijeka’s geographical position was crucial; a port city that was subject to the cultural influences of Ljubljana and Zagreb but which never fully belonged to the media industries of either. Rijeka’s position in Croatia can be compared to that of Manchester in the UK: a city whose mixture of provincial isolation and self-reliance paradoxically put it at the centre of national creativity.

Rijeka’s particular aptitude for producing punk, electronica and wilder excursions into the world of noise is something that Velid Đekić also connects with the city’s industrial heritage. The fact that so many musicians worked in Rijeka’s factories and shipyards exerted an undeniable influence on the abrasive aesthetics of the scene. Đekić points to legendary alternative band Grč as the most eloquent example of this; an uncompromising band whose live performances (featuring severed animal heads and lots of blood) were a celebration of primal energy.

Grč was one of the bands featured on the key 1987 compilation album Rijeka-Paris-Texas (others were Let 3 and Grad), produced by Goral Lisica Fox for the Ljubljana label Helidon/FV. A classic of late post-punk/early indie rock, the album is nowadays considered to be something of a city-defining artifact. Let 3 are a particular case in point, having spent thirty years at the cutting edge of Croatian rock and becoming a Rijeka trademark in the process. Their theatrical, mischievously vulgar performances (frequently featuring nudity, carnivalesque costumes and fruity language) fit in perfectly with their home city’s reputation for social disobedience. They are also one of the few Croatian bands who manage to be totally convincing as a live rock act.

Let 3’s bassist Mrle was one of the first cultural activists to spot the potential of Hartera, the former paper factory whose mooted redevelopment into an alternative cultural centre has been a constant theme of discussion in Rijeka for the last ten years. Tucked into a ravine formed by the Riječina River, Hartera comprises an extensive complex of disused factory spaces and warehouses, with the dramatic arches of a red-brick aqueduct framing the scene. One of the Hartera factory halls, Marganovo, has been the scene of the Hartera Festival since 2005, an event designed to draw attention to the site’s potential for regeneration.

Adriatic shamans: Let 3 frontmen Damir Martinović Mrle and Zoran Prodanović Prlja (photo Tomislav Jagar)

In addition to the festival, regular club events under the ‘Heartera’ banner are held in one of the factory’s smaller halls. As Heartera’s Davor Popdankovski explained, plans are currently afoot to turn a large part of the Hartera complex into a self-sustaining alternative social centre complete with hostel, craft brewery, recycling centre and health-food production facility. The project will connect Marganovo, the factory hall on the eastern side of the ravine, with Parafinka, the part-privately-owned warehouse on the western bank.

Still in his mid twenties, Popdankovski is a prime example of how Rijeka’s alternative-culture baton gets passed on from one generation to the next. “Rijeka has this reputation of being a rock-and-roll city but rock has always been just one part of a much bigger scene” Popdankovski says. “There’s electronica and a whole lot of other things; you’ll see electric parties, gay parties, metal parties, all kinds of stuff.”


The cultural organizations responsible for running events at the Hartera have teamed up with other non-governmental organizations to form Molekula, an umbrella alliance of alternative groups that is increasingly influential in driving cultural change. Either collectively or individually, Molekula organizations are currently responsible for coordinating the Hartera regeneration projects, running the programme at the Filodrammatica cultural centre, and organizing gigs at the legendary Palach club.

The Molekula member responsible for the concert programme at Palach is Distune Promotion, a concert booking agency co-founded by punk fan and social activist Željko Pendić. “Rijeka is so near Ljubljana and Zagreb and yet touring bands didn’t stop off here that often” Pendić explains. “And it wasn’t due to the lack of infrastructure or lack of a public, but due to the lack of effective concert bookers prepared to build up a tradition of year-to-year activity.“

Since then Distune have organized a huge number of live events and also initiated the annual Impulse Festival, which incorporates gigs, art exhibitions and round-table discussions. This year’s edition will feature electro art-punk hipsters Liima (June 6) and ex-Sonic Youth guitar noise legend Lee Ranaldo (June 14).

American dark-country rockers Wovenhand performing at Impulse Festival in 2015 (photo Distune/Kristina Barišić)

As both Pendić and Popdankovski are keen to point out, there is a lot more to Rijeka than just Hartera and Palach, with a healthy fistful of both privately-run and semi-underground venues hosting gigs and DJ events – many of which feature the involvement or support of Molekula and its members.

“Rijeka still has a lot of potential not just because of its rock heritage but because it is becoming more and more of a student city thanks to the growth of the university” Pendić concludes. “There are 10,000 students already, and when the university campus is finished we will see a whole new energy emerging.”

In the meantime, it’s Let 3’s irrepressible Damir Martinović Mrle who continues to play a defining role in Rijeka’s (and indeed in Croatia’s) musical future. Let 3 themselves have a new album in the shops - the energetic, punkish and provocatively-entitled Angela Merkel Sere or ‘Angela Merkel is Shitting’. Mrle is also the musical helmsman behind Colors by Mister Lee and Ivane Sky, an album of innovative, experimental but seductively lyrical songs delivered (mostly in English) by former Stampedo frontwoman and Mrle’s real-life partner Ivanka Mazurkijević. Sixty years after rock and roll and forty years after punk, Rijeka can still rule the waves.

Mr Lee and Ivane Sky

© Jonathan Bousfield