The deeper I got into the Balkans the more I began to feel the magnetic pull of Istanbul. As of Novi Pazar, everything started to tilt towards the city on the Bosphorus. The food, the music, the language, the mannerisms, all began to assume a Turkish touch. I realized that if ever I were to unwind the knotty issue of the Balkans in my mind, I would have to seek the beginning (or the end) of the thread in Istanbul.
I wasn’t alone. Others had Istanbul on their minds as well: for instance, the film maker Fatih Akin, who, after his critically acclaimed Gegen die Wand (Head On) in 2004, went to Istanbul a year later to film Crossing the Bridge, what to my mind is one of the best music documentaries ever made, and the one film that Fatih Akin says, was, of all if his flicks, his personal favourite. In it he follows his protagonist, Alexander Hacke (bassist of Berlin industrial band Einstürtzende Neubauten) through Istanbul, as he makes sound recordings of an amazing array of artists, from greats like Orhan Gencebay and Sezan Aksu, rap star Ceza, street musicians Siya Siyabend and psychedelic underground band Baba Zula.
Not only does the film showcase great talent, but the cinematography is excellent, even considering the photogenic qualities of Istanbul. Through the film one really gets a sense of the city, from the teeming humanity on Istiklal Caddesi, the high octane nightlife of Taksim, the squalor of Tarlabaşı, the grandeur of the bridge-spanned Bosporus, and the sun-parched Thracian hinterlands.
I was so blown away by the film I watched it three times during its one year run at Kreuzberg’s Movimento cinema, and it is partially owing to the film that in 2006, after a short stint in Bulgaria, I took the midnight train from Plovdiv to Istanbul, for a frantic week of pounding the pavement. In a sense, it was just a preliminary foray; a getting the lay of the land, as it were, in preparation for a year spent in the city in 2012. And even then, after spending a year in Istanbul, and really making an effort to search out hidden nooks and crannies, I had the feeling that I only managed to scratch the surface of this amazing megalopolis.
But back to 2006. After drinking Bulgarian rakija (not to be confused with Turkish rakı) on the train with a Japanese tourist, I took a room at a B&B behind Topkapı palace and hit some of the biggest tourist attractions: the Blue Mosque, but also the Süleymaniye Camii and the Laleli Came, the narrow streets around the Kapalı Çarşı – the covered, or grand bazaar. Then Galata Bridge, crowded with fishermen, und up through Tünel to Istiklal Caddesi, where it was said between 3 to 4 million pedestrians strolled down weekends.
Six years later – though I would never have imagined it then – I would end up in Istanbul for a year, searching for material for stories, while teaching English at Berlitz. During this later stay I tracked down many of the protagonists of Fatih Akin’s Crossing the Bridge. I met with Murat Ertel from Baba Zula backstage at the Ghetto, who told me about the shamanic roots of his music. Ceza – said to be the fastest rapper in the world – I had already met in Berlin; I had smoked grass with him in the basement of a Turkish café on Oranienstrasse, together with his mate, fellow rapper, Killa Hakan. I talked with Alexander Hacke, who told me about his youth in Turkish flavored Neukölln, and how he had chosen to forsake Berlin for Detroit, as Berlin, in his opinion, was going through a profoundly uninteresting period at the moment. And I spoke with Brena Mac Crimmon who had recently chosen to leave Istanbul after some very intensive years in the city, during which she learned all manner of Turkish, Roma, Thracian and Bulgarian music. In the end the city had disappointed her, and many of the things she had grown to love were gone now, in Istanbulu’s mad rush to acquire for themselves western gimmicks, gizmos and luxuries. Sadly I did not have a chance to meet Roma clarinetist Selim Sesler. He had problems with his ticker and died two years after I left Istanbul.
Refik Suljić was a Yugo Gypsy, but from Bosnia, not Serbia. He was the owner of Hollywood, a trashy Yugo discotheque on Potsdamer Staße, a couple blocks up from the strich – the street-walkers territory, where, often underage, East European prostitutes walked the line day and night. Sometimes Refik came by Zoran’s – a Balkan mini-market in Neukölln, where I bought slivovitz and dubious “narodna” folk music. Refik would pop in to buy CDs and to drop off flyers advertising up coming concerts at Hollywood. Every Saturday some turbo folk or narodna muzika star from Serbia came to sing, usually late in the evening, around two o’clock or so. Bosnians, Serbs, Croatians came to the club, uneasily, warily, rubbing shoulders.
Zoran, the owner of the mini-market I sometimes hung out at, said he never went to Hollywood. It was a dangerous place, he said. “The Serbs sit at one end of the room and the Bosnians at the other and the Croatians in the middle. As soon as someone looks at someone else askance there’s trouble.”
During the time of the Yugoslav wars there were notorious fights at Hollywood on a regular basis. There were shootings, knifings, brawls. Refik himself was stabbed by a fellow Gypsy.
When I showed up at Hollywood one day to speak with Refik, though, he played down the violence at his club. Naturally. “I haven’t had a big fight here in three years,” said Refik, who wore a nice knife scar on his left cheek. And then he qualified his statement. “I mean I haven’t had a fight between nationalities. Okay, sometimes there are fights between Serbs and Serbs or Bosnians and Bosnians. But not Serbs and Bosnians or Serbs and Croats. Never.”
No Germans ever came to Hollywood. It was a purely Yugo scene. When you entered, you ran a gauntlet of dark suited, shaven headed bouncers who frisked you for weapons at the door. Inside the space was decked out with mirrors, potted palms and kitschy portraits of Hollywood stars – the stars Refik’s patrons no doubt aspired to. Girls with high hair, loads of makeup and jewelry, knock-off Versace and fake Gucci, faux-diamond studded belt buckles inset with the name of their favorite turbo-folk star sat at tables sipping vodka lemons. The men wore white suits, gold chains and leather jackets, hair shaved on the sides and short on top.
The night I was there, the place filled up around midnight and around one o’clock people began to take to the dance floor, dancing oriental fashion to turbo-folk – a kind of bad taste pop-folk mélange that was the specialty of the Balkans, played by Slavs and Gypsies alike, characterized by maniacal keyboards and yowling oriental vocals.
Turbo-folk is a musical smorgasbord of musical traditions, including popular music of Serbian and Gypsy brass bands, Middle Eastern beats, Turkish and Greek pop music on the one side and rock and roll and contemporary electronic dance music on the other. Turbo-folk was derived from contemporary Balkan folk, but it used electronic instruments instead of the traditional accordion.
At two o’clock a popular Yugo singer named Seka Aleksić, dolled up till you could go no more, took the stage, and the girls climbed on the tables and belly danced, mouthing the words to her inane texts, while guys whipped out their handies and took pictures. After the show I tried to get back stage to interview “Seka”, as her adoring fans called her. Her manager turned me down. I was too small fish, apparently. Not flash enough.
The next morning I met with the Bosnian Balkan Beats DJ, Robert Soko, at Atlantic, a bar on Bergmann Straße in Kreuzberg, a tastefully appointed locale, that was a far cry from the kitschy environs I had spent the previous night in, drinking overpriced vodka lemons while trying to get at the mystique of Seka Aleksić.
When I told Soko how I had spent the last night, he laughed scornfully.
“Yugos are divided between those who like this narodna shit and those who don’t. I personally am one who doesn’t,” he said.
Back in Bosnia in the late eighties, when the narodnajcis and folkers had started to come out of the woodwork, Soko had felt endlessly hassled by this kind of music and people who listened to it – bad taste grobians, primitives, peasants, they were.
“At the end of the eighties this sonic kitsch started penetrating into the cities like Sarajevo,” said Robert. “Before it was just in the poor rural regions, but now we were getting it too – this cheesy mix of Balkan folk music and Western disco. Pretty soon turbo-folk was the hottest selling music in Yugoslavia. Everyone was getting into this diskoteka shit. The people that wanted to be big Hollywood stars, wanted to look like they were rich, successful playboys when actually they were just peasants. The men who shaved their heads and put on gold chains, the women who dressed up like prostitutes, all of them riding around in Mercedes with a lot of ammunition in their pockets.”
When Robert moved to Berlin in 1990, there was no question of hanging out with the Gastarbeiter, who were cut from the same cloth as the narodnjaci he had so despised in Bosnia.
“The Gastarbeiter were truck drivers and barbers,” said Robert. “They drove big BMWs and liked to show off. When they went out nights they drank whisky. Just to prove a point. Our group drank beer or slivovitz. We were modest and reserved, didn’t drive flashy cars, didn’t wear super chic clothing, rather kept both feet on the ground.”
The refugee scene Robert fell into upon coming to Berlin was the opposite of the Hollywood scene. “It was partly also an intellectual scene,” said Soko. “Many of these guys spoke a number of languages, made music, took photos, made films or painted. We were punks, counterposed to the narodnjacis.”
And I see Robert’s point. I see where he is coming from. Seen from the most obvious perspective, the people who hung out at Hollywood and the music they listened to, were horrible, grotesque even. And yet, and yet, I couldn’t help but feel drawn to the scene, in some inexplicable way, like a moth before the flame.
After my conversation with Robert, I went to Zoran’s mini-market and guiltily bought myself a Seki Aleksić CD. It was the kind of thing that was so terrible you just couldn’t help but get into it. If Robert had known, I would have lost all credibility in his eyes. I guess there are just some things Robert and I will never see eye to eye on.
One night I was teaching English at a community college in Schöneberg when a Croatian student of mine, a kick-boxing Bruce Lee-idolizing son of Yugo gastarbeiter, who had grown up in Kreuzberg throwing stones on the 1st of May, invited me along to one of Robert Soko’s Balkan Beats parties at the Mudd club in Mitte.
I remember vividly the dank, sweaty underground space with a drunken half Yugo crowd dancing to Gypsy brass with abandon, holding hands and singing along – Yugos and Germans alike – to Mesečina, Kalashnikov and Bubamara. It was a world in itself, different from anything I had seen in Berlin up to that point, and I thought to myself: here I am, in the Balkans again, with everything I grew to love down there swimming around me.
Robert’s beginnings were the stuff of legend. He had come up from Zenica, a middling industrial town in Bosnia in 1990, right before the outbreak of war in Yugoslavia, gotten a job as taxi driver in Berlin just as Berlin became swamped with ex-Yugo refugees fleeing the war in Bosnia. At some point Robert hears about the Arcanoa, a German punk bar on Zossener Straße in Kreuzberg, which Bosnian refugees have made their Stammkneipe – their home away from home, playing their own music in environs that encourage coexistence between nationalities – Muslim, Croat and Serb – unlike the tough ethnically segregated nationalist bars that the gastarbeiter ex-Yugos tend to gravitate towards. Robert shows up and eventually prevails upon the proprietress to let him play Yugo punk and new wave for fifty Deutschmarks a pop and all the beer he can drink. Soko starts celebrating Yugo holidays, like Day of Youth, Tito’s birthday, tongue lodged firmly in cheek. The parties quickly snowball, drawing Germans, enchanted at the no-holds-barred Yugo way of partying.
At some point in the mid nineties Soko picks up on the music of Goran Bregović. Gradually the punk and new wave fall more and more to the wayside and Gypsy brass and ethno music come more to the forefront. Soko quickly outgrows the narrow confines of the Arcanoa, is offered a bimonthly slot at the cellar club in Berlin’s old Jewish quarter, by New York nightclub impresario Steve Maas. The first media reports start to circulate. Balkan Beats is born and Soko rides the Balkan Wave from Berlin to Prague, Paris, London, New York, Hollywood and Japan, earning himself the sobriquet, “Gadjo DJ”, by Rock n’ Roma Kal frontman Dragan Ristić – a reference to the Toni Gatlif film Gadjo Dilo – Crazy Gadjo . Academics start studying his parties, films are made about him.
In a record shop in Berlin-Mitte I came across Robert Soko’s first Balkan Beats sampler, put out by Berlin label Eastblok Music, then with their offices still on Friedelstrasse, in the heart of what would become the hipster domain of “Kreuzkölln” some three years later. The sampler featured Magnifico with that ultimate Yugo Diaspora anthem Hir Aj Kam Hir Aj Go, Bregović and Mahala Rai Banda and Boban Marković and the whole mass of Balkan brass madness I was by now familiar with from the movies of Emir Kusturica. Soko would eventually come out with four more Balkan Beats samplers, but this remains the best to this day.
Guča, as many of us know, is a four-day long brass music folksfest in a small village in western Serbia around four hours south of Belgrade. The village of Guča in 2004, when I went there for the first time, had only three thousand inhabitants, two main streets, a couple of simple street cafes, one soccer stadium, one hotel, made its money mainly from harvesting raspberries in the summer, but for four frenetic days in the beginning of August the place became a Balkan brass summit reminiscent in spirit to Pamplona’s San Fermin or Munich’s Octoberfest, except in place of bulls and beer there was blasting Gypsy trumpets and rich Serbian plum brandy.
I went to Guča before the festival went international; before the commercialism; before the crowds; before it got cleaned up and sanitized to suit outside tastes. Who was there to be offended by the busts of Četnik leader Draže Mihalović, hand- crafted schnapps flasks with iconic representations of Slobodan Milošević, the avenger of Kosovo, Četnik hats and T-shirts with the visages of indicted war criminals, and flags bearing the grinning mug of Ratko Maldić surrounded by the words, “What are you afraid of, general? – Aside from God, no one!”? Before the prices skyrocketed I remember the great scenes of indulgence in waste (potrošiti), and squandering money (razbacati pare) as parties of Serb bećar (drinkers on a spree) threw away a month’s salary on Gypsy music. “This is real rokenrol,” a Serb kid named Slobodan told me, wanting to impress my by analogy to what he felt I knew. “Serbian bluz”. “This is Serbia!” he slurred at me. “Guča! The trumpet! Not the wars! Not Bosnia! Not Kosovo! NotMilošević!” I nodded, not quite believing him. Before I left, I bought a Guča souvenir at the recommendation of one of the music venders. “16 biggest Guča hits” the cassette proclaimed in Cyrillic. I then moved on to Montenegro with the idea of hiking over the mountains – the famous Prokletija Planina – into Kosovo. On the lonely mountain road to Kosovo I stuck my Guča cassette into my portable cassette recorder and blasted the sounds of the shrieking Serbian trumpet, relentless tuba and pounding davul into the landscape, exalting in the Balkan mood.
I discovered music as a subject matter late in the journalistic game. Previously (from about the age of 15 to 21) I had wanted to be a painter. At university I studied art for two years, but then a class on romantic poetry put the writing bug in me. “Write about what you know,” the old adage went. So I decided to write about art. Like many Americans of my generation, I moved to Prague in the early nineties. It was there I struck out on a career writing art reviews for ArtNews.
By chance towards the end of my stay in Prague, a group of Serb students from Belgrade had moved into the house I was living in on the outskirts of the city in Prague 10. This was 1999 and bombing time in Serbia. CNN was filled with images of long columns of Kosovar Albanian refugees pouring into Albania and of tracer fire over night-time Belgrade. The four Serbs couldn’t believe what was happening to their country. They were finding all certainties about who they were and the kind of world they inhabited pulled out from under their feet. They had a special point to make to me – an American – and told me about the famous Serbian monasteries in Kosovo, with their magnificent Byzantine frescos, and what would happen to them if the Albanians took over. I decided then and there to make a trip to Serbia and Kosovo to write about Serbian Byzantine frescos.
I knew nothing about Goran Bregović at the time. I knew that a pretty amazing film had been made called Underground. That it was by a chap called Emir Kusturica, and that it had won awards at the film festival in Cannes in 1995. I had not seen the film myself, and so knew nothing about its famous soundtrack.
I was interested in music then, but it was mainly classical music, in particular Janacek, Bartok, Schönberg – the early moderns. But somehow listening to classical music depressed me, because it said nothing to me about the world I lived in.
I made my first trip to Serbia in the summer of 2003, an inopportune time, perhaps. Zoran Đinđić, Serbia’s pro-West premier, had just been assassinated and the government had ordered a manhunt to clear the country of paramilitary mafiosi. The war in Kosovo was fresh in many people’s minds. Resentment against the West was still boiling, and the country was still in turmoil. And then there was the way I intended to see the country: alone, without a knowledge of the language, with a tent, traveling by foot, hiking from village to village through the Serbian countryside, making my way from Belgrade to Montenegro and the Adriatic, visiting old monasteries in the mountains full of the luminescent Byzantine frescoes I had heard about back in Prague, aware all the time that for most in the West, Serbia meant genocide and war crimes, its inhabitants regarded asbandits and semi-civilized hooligans.
Avoiding traffic, I opted for off-beat country roads, where I passed wild-looking, lithe, sinewy Gypsies in mud-splattered horse drawn carriages sitting on bales of hay, the women slung with babies. I walked alone past farmsteads where farmers sat on verandas drinking their morning rakija (plum brandy) and coffee while accordion accompanied folk music with wailing, melismatic Oriental vocals wafted from radios. I fell in love with this half-Turkish Serbian music instantly.
The Serbs liked to portray their country as a bulwark of Western culture against the Muslim East and the Turks. During the wars they liked to style themselves as guardians at the gates, proud of holding out against the Muslim tide. Yet sometimes they forget how influenced they really were by the Turks. For centuries they wore half-Turkish dress, furnished their houses in Turkish fashion, (still) sprinkled their language with Turkish words (“sat”: time, “para”: money, “budala”: fool….). They danced in Oriental style, arms held high.
Listening to their songs, I couldn’t help but feel that their orientalized music wouldn’t have been out of place in a Turkish kebab house in Berlin. In fact, Serbian music had had an Oriental tinge ever since the days of the Crusades when the ecclesiastical melodies of the Serbian Church were brought from Syria, introduced to the Balkans along pilgrim routes which by-passed Constantinople. It was another kind of music that greeted your ears in Serbia and it didn’t tally at all with anything that I expected; you heard it and you realized that Istanbul wasn’t far now.
One morning in the Šumadija I saw something which revealed to me the true character of the Serbs. I was waiting in a rural bus station for my bus to the historical town of Topola. The station was crowded and among those waiting was a group of Gypsy musicians. They sat on a wooden bench, their brass instruments at their feet. The Gypsies were either going to a wedding or a funeral or had just come from one. Suddenly they grew bored of waiting for their bus – either that or they thought they could earn some extra baksheesh – picked up their instruments and began to play. The Gypsies strolled up and down the bus station platform, playing to the travelers, and before you knew it people were getting up to dance. They linked hands, placed arms on each other’s shoulders and danced a long, snaking kolo behind the musicians, their feet shuffling in an intricate rhythm.
The band moved across the parking lot, leading the bobbing centipede of dancers behind them; a bottle of slivovitz materialized and was passed from hand to hand; a woman at the head of the line waved a scarf; busses pulled into the lot and were trying to park, but the revelers blocked the way. Bus drivers honked and shouted oaths, but the musicians and dancers remained impervious. It was a crazy, impromptu party which had materialized out of nothing and was conceivable only in Serbia.
Some years later and back in Berlin, I was teaching English to a German professor of comparative literature in Potsdam and I managed to convey on him something of my passion and obsession for Balkan music. He decided he would devote a semester at his university in Potsdam to Balkan Beats, and had Robert Soko – originator of the term – and me talk before his students on the phenomenon of Balkan dance music. I for my part told the students about the spontaneous Balkan brass party in a provincial bus station, and how it impressed me as somehow evocative of the freewheeling Balkan mindset. At the end of the seminar the students were to devise their own project. Inspired by my bus station story, putting brass and bus together, they decided to hire out an open-topped double decker Berlin bus and drive though Berlin Mitte partying with the band (The Baksheesh Brass Band, as it turned out), and stopping along the way, inviting passerby to come aboard (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmFjjP4Kl7c). At the end of it all there was a party at a venue in Mitte, where a reading was given and Robert Soko spun some records.
In an age prior to You Tube and Spotify, when you had to do a lot of footsore footwork to discover new music, I had uncovered – for myself – a new world of Balkan brass and Serbian crooners. Suddenly I had a new subject to write about. Back in Berlin I scoured the world music sections of record stores in search of the music that had so touched me in the Balkans. It was before Shantel, before the Balkan boom and the offerings were paltry. I found a CD by Šaban Bajramović and another by Liljana Buttler. Both appealed to me vastly, but still, it was not it.
To find out what I was looking for in Berlin I had pound the pavement in the immigrant districts of West Berlin like Neukölln, Kreuzberg and Wedding, where I found an underground network of Serbian, Bosnian and Albanian Balkan mini-markets that specialized in selling smoked meat, slivovitz and folk music to homesick Balkanites from the diaspora. No one could quite fathom my interest, as in American, in the folk music of Serbia, and the feeling was initially that I was some kind of American spy. Gradually, however, I was invited into back rooms, where after rakija shots, suspicions dissipated and I was able to listen to a fantastic array of Balkan folk, from narodna to turbo-folk to Gypsy brass. My collection grew.
Pretty soon the Balkan wave happened. Shantel came out with his samplers, and Robert Soko would gain popularity with his Balkan Beat nights in Berlin and across Europe. I remember vividly the dank, sweaty underground space of Robert’s first club in Berlin, with the bathroom doors falling from their hinges, and a drunken half Yugo crowd dancing to Gypsy brass with abandon, holding hands and singing along – Yugos and Germans alike – to Mesečina, Kalashnikov and Bubamara so that I became in awe of these people with their hot heads and free spirits.
It was a world in itself, different from anything I had seen in Berlin up to that point, and I thought to myself: here I am, in the Balkans again, with everything I grew to love down there swimming around me. From then on I became a regular and I followed Robert’s rise to fame as a DJ.
And then the rest is pretty much history, you could say. The Balkan wave swept me up. I started to DJ a bit, playing small bars in Berlin, Prague and Istanbul. There were some amazing nights, and for the first time in my life I found myself in tune with the zeitgeist.
Well, now, the Balkan wave has passed. Gentrification has wiped out my beloved Berlin Balkan mini-markets. And I am left with a collection of tapes and CDs that are not always appreciated by my intellectual ex-Yugo friends, many of whom felt hassled by this kind of stuff in the Balkans. But I will say this much – my collection is probably unique.