In the mid-'60s, Mexican mariachi music ruled the airwaves in Yugoslavia. Singers sported charro suits and sombreros, typical mariachi garb, with typically Slavic names.

The style was known as Yu-Mex, a mix of Mexican sounds with Serbo-Croatian lyrics and performers.

But how did this rather unlikely mixture of sounds and cultures happen? The origin of the genre is mixed up in the geopolitics of the Cold War.

In 1948, Yugoslavia, a socialist country under the command of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, broke with the USSR and its leader, Josef Stalin.

“This rupture left the country in a very difficult position, in the middle between the Eastern bloc and the West," says Miha Mazzini, the Slovenian author of the novel "Paloma Negra," set in the glory days of Yu-Mex. "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." 

Slavko Perovic performing in the mid-60s. Perovic, now 83, was one of the biggest stars of the Yu-Mex music scene.

Pablo Esparza

The government was forced to look for a third way to stock its cinemas. They found an alternative in Mexico.

Mexican cinema, which was experiencing its Golden Age at the time, had at least two advantages for socialist Yugoslavia. Movies were cheaper than those from other Western countries and they were filled with references to the Mexican Revolution. 

The “Viva la Revolución” themes matched perfectly with Tito’s message for the Balkan country.

“So that cinema arrived to our movie theatres. And everyone was surprised by its great success,” Mazzini explains.

"Un Día de Vida" (One Day of Life), directed by Emilio Fernández (also known as El Indio Fernández) was the greatest hit. 

Although Fernández was a well-known actor and film director in Mexico, "Un Día de Vida" went mostly unrecognized. However, in Yugoslavia, "Jedan dan Zivota," as it was known, became an instant classic. 

“For Yugoslavia, at that time, this was ‘the’ film. For many people of that generation it is perhaps the best movie ever done,” Mazzini says.

The popular Mexican tune “Las Mañanitas” is played in one of the central and most moving scenes of the film. As a result, the song became extremely popular in Yugoslavia. Other songs from Mexican films gained prominence and sparked an interest in Mexican music.

“Young people started forming music bands and singing in a Mexican style. There were even tailors sewing Mexican customs. All of a sudden, this Mexican movement was born,” Mazzini says.

Although Mexican film was recognized in the mid-'50s, it wasn't until the '60s that the Yu-Mex style reached its peak. Local radio stations helped push the song into mainstream popularity.

“People asked for those Yu-Mex songs: for my friend, for my wife, for my lover. ... They spread all over the country,” says Mazzini.

Slavko Perovic looking through his old hit Yu-Mex albums in a cafe in Belgrade. 

Pablo Esparza

Slavko Perovic, now 83, was one of the biggest stars of the Yu-Mex music scene. He sold more than one million records in a country with a population of just 16 million at the time.

“My heart is full of pride because I sang that music. For me, it is one of the most beautiful repertoires that exists. Spanish language is great to sing. ... It sounds so good!” he says.

Although he doesn't speak Spanish, Perovic believes he never really needed it to feel what the Mexican songs meant.

“Mexicans and Serbians are very similar. Just like us, they are temperamental. When they laugh, they truly laugh. When they cry, they truly cry,” he says in an effort to connect the two countries.

At first, Yugoslavian mariachis sang versions of Mexican songs. Little by little, they started producing their own in Serbo-Croatian. Bands popped up all over the country. Trío Jovanovic, Dukic, Tomljanovic, Ansambel Magnifico, Trío Paloma and Trío Tividi were among the most popular.

But by the end of the '60s, Yu-Mex music started a rapid decline. Rock and pop replaced it.

Almost 60 years later, there is very little Yu-Mex left. When asked about these old songs, younger generations raise an eyebrow in surprise. Most young people in the region have never heard of Yu-Mex. 

Older generations, however, remember these songs well. When Perovic’s hits play, they all react. Those songs bring them to a different time — to a country that no longer exists. 

From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI