A Serbian pundit of the nineties once said if you want to get to know the Oriental mindset, you needn’t travel to Turkey and make the acquaintance of any exotic Mehmet or Ahmed. Rather you need look no further afield  than the Serbs themselves. 

This may come as a surprise to some Westerners, for whom the Serbs are supposed to be the guardians at the gate, last bulwark of western civilization against the Muslim East, a fiercely independent people who stubbornly clung to the their Christian traditions during 500 years of Ottoman oppression.

While they are all that and more, the Serbs are also thoroughly Turkified to the point that their native music (they are one of the last people in Europe to cling to their – however debased – native folk music traditions) is so orientalized, it wouldn’t seem out of place coming from a Turkish kebab house. 

In fact, Serbian music has 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 is another kind of music that greets your ears in Serbia and it doesn’t tally at all with anything that you expect; you hear it and you realize that Istanbul is not far now.

This is what one gleans from the music of  Milan Đurić, aka Neki,  who some may recognize  as the second half of Serbian ethno-electronica outfit Shazalakazoo. Some of the same preoccupations that characterize Shazalakazoo, also hold true for Neki (short for “Neki Stranac”, meaning “some foreigner” – a Belgrade inside joke from the nineties used to denote the rare foreign act in internationally isolated Belgrade).

The best tracks take their inspiration from what Đurić refers to in Serbian as “Muslim music” of the Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East. For instance the Gorani – a Slav Muslim minority in the mountainous south of Kosovo, whose microtonal keyboard based wedding music, itself inspired by earlier zurna and bagpipe playing, has long exerted an influence on Đurić, and which is the inspiration here in “Zulu Gora”, which pits South African electronic gqom music against Goran wedding music, rendered here by some maqam based EWI playing. 

As with Shazalakazoo, sometimes Neki veers away from known Balkan-Oriental territory, and verges dangerously on shallow World Music eclecticism, as is the case with the sing-song ditty “Gurni Me”, which resembles Shazalakazoo at its weakest.

Overall Neki offers up an, extremely palatable array of clubby, atmospheric, Orient-tinged tracks that sketch out an imaginary realm from Belgrade to Cairo and beyond. 

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What is the concept with Sky Islands?

Actually, the whole album was made without any concept. It was all made during these Corona lockdowns in my home studio. And actually I didn’t really plan to release any album with any concepts or anything. It was just one track after another. For instance, on “Simitwave” I wanted to merge the synth wave with Oriental, Turkish style synths, which I played on my EWI (abbrev. of Electronic Wind Instrument). So I thought, “How about making this really synthesizer eighties aesthetic with different scales, which is not only in half-tones, but there are some quarter-tones.” It’s not like the western chromatic scale. It’s maqam. It’s like the Turkish, Islamic scale, which they are using in Turkey and the Arab world. So I retuned my Moog synthesizer to maqam, and made a synth track with Oriental scales. I was like, wow, this sounds, really, really nice.  So I tried to merge those two worlds.  I didn’t really see someone doing it before me. 

One of my favorite tracks is “Simitwave”.

It has some quarter tones on two spots. But it’s really interesting to detune the synthesizers -the conventional western synthesizers to the Islamic scales. It sounds really, really cool to me. That’s what I was trying to do.

Yeah, sounds great. And the other track that I liked a lot was the “Zulu Gora”, which is sort of similar to “Simitwave”.

It’s similar, but it was not merged with synth wave. It was merged with the gqom, which is the South African electronic music.  It is South African style of house music. It evolved from South African house, but it’s a genre on its own now. I used that as a base with synth that resembles zurna or bagpipes.

And this is something that the Gorani in Kosovo play.

It’s really similar and I am really a big fan of Gorani music and I follow a couple of their youtube channels. So, it’s their style.

Is any of this available on Spotify?

I really don’t know. The Gorani are all uploading to Youtube for some reason. And I think it stays pretty much there. Maybe they have something, I really don’t know.

I’m curious about this Goran sound. You say it’s zurna and bagpipe based?

Well yes, but it’s made with synthesizers and drum machines. But it’s not really a drum machine. It’s a drum machine from the keyboard.  They also use a saz and some kind of instruments. Everything is in synthesizer now. It’s basically the music of weddings and celebrations. They use it for circumcisions and weddings. They do it like any other Oriental nation does it. Oriental is not the right word to use, of course.

I’ve been to a number of Turkish and Kurdish weddings in addition to a couple of Gypsy weddings in Berlin and it’s rare to find a wedding band that uses just a keyboard. They usually have in addition a clarinet or a saz.

Well, they have it as well. Sometimes it’s a keyboard, sometimes it’s more. It depends on how much money they have to organize the party. Because they actually invite a one-man band on the keyboard because it’s the cheapest. But if the family is wealthy, then they’re going to invite more musicians. 

On the one hand it’s a shame that they don’t have the full-fledged orchestras anymore. But for someone like you who is doing keyboard-based music it is quite interesting, isn’t it?

Well it is. It’s interesting to see how the various ethnic groups receive the technology and embrace the new technology. It’s always interesting for me. And not just Shazalakazoo was exploring that way of music. And this is pretty much the same thing that I am doing with Neki. But it’s a different emphasis. Neki, when I do Oriental stuff, it’s different vibe than I get from Shazalakazoo.

How is that?

Because, I don’t know, its different. Shazalakazoo is not deep. Neki can go deep with the vibes. It can go deep, dark and stuff. Shazalakazoo is never dark. It’s always dancy music for the people. I think that’s the main difference. When I do the Oriental music. I also do South African and South American music and stuff with Neki.

Is the trubači a thing of the past pretty much?

Well, no, actually. We will have trubači on almost every track on the new album. Because we liked the sound. We liked it even before it was popular in the West. And now after that it’s a part -it somehow became a part of the Shazalakazoo sound. Yeah, there will be trubaci. 

What else can we expect on the new Shazalakazoo?

Well all tracks – there will be two instrumental tracks and six vocal tracks in different languages – in Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, even one in English. I really like this new stuff. It sort of reminds me of Karton City Boom in a way. It’s more like that. It’s not so EDM, but it’s really clubby, uplifting music, which is also good for live performance. It’s much more for the live performance than for a DJ set. 

What’s it going to be called?

We still don’t have a name.

It sounds very eclectic. Also Neki, with your forays from the Balkans to Africa, to South America, is very eclectic. Don’t you worry you may be getting too all-over-the-map there?

Yes, but it depends on what you want to do. I just wanted to get rid of all those tracks that were in my computer over the period of corona virus lockdowns.  So I said, fuck it, let’s release it in any possible way, just to get rid of that burden. Maybe it would be more clever to do one album that would be Oriental, and then the next album Latin American. But no, I look at it as some kind of period in my life. And it’s okay to be eclectic in a way. I really don’t feel problems with that. I actually have a problem with the DJs or record labels that want to release only Latin or only Oriental or vs a vs. I think that it’s too narrow a point of view that they are taking. And I understand that, because it is much easier to succeed that way. But it’s not the way I think.  I want to do how I want to do and not what the label wants. 

The thing is, do you know the other countries that you sample from as in depth as  you know the Balkans?

I don’t sample. I play.  And it’s really different when you find a sample. It’s not really in that. But if you learn to play then you spend a lot of time immersing yourself in the way. I think it’s okay. And I spent a lot of time exploring all those kind of stuff.

And you have travelled a lot. To South America…

I have traveled a lot. But with this corona stuff I couldn’t go to the places I wanted to. And so I started to reminisce and to recall all of the place that I missed. In Peru and Thailand and Malaysia and wherever I have been.  So it’s basically all those influences which I kind of put into this album. So you can really see there are Peruvian tracks. There is a Thai track. There is a Turkish track as well. A Moroccan style. All the places I traveled to before. 

Aside from the Balkans, where in the world made the biggest impression on you music-wise.

I really cannot say.  I don’t know how to answer that question. I really like ethnic music and I’m an ethnologist. I really connect to this music and culture and stuff. I cannot say that I prefer one over the other…I don’t know how to answer that question.

The name “Neki”, what is that all about?

Neki is short for Neki Stranac, which means, “some foreigner”.

That is a derogative term, yeah?

It’s not a derogative term. It’s actually a local joke from Belgrade from the nineties. Because back in the nineties we had international sanctions and wars and crises and stuff. Almost no foreign acts were coming to Serbia to perform.  So whenever some crazy guy came in the nineties to DJ or to play in a band and stuff, it was really something to us.  Even if no one knew who he or she is, everybody was there and it was full. It was pretty much common for us. We would be like, “Who is playing tonight?” “Oh, it’s some foreigner.” “Oh, nice, it’s going to be cool.” So it was some kind of motto. If some foreigner plays it’s going to be cool. So that’s my name, “some foreigner”.

So people in Belgrade will get the reference.

Yes, of course, people in Belgrade will get the reference. Because I didn’t plan an international career with Neki. Actually my idea was to play all that cumbia stuff in Belgrade. But the Belgrade audience didn’t get this whole cumbia stuff. But internationally it sold, just like with Shazalakazoo we have more followers outside Serbia than inside.

What are the Gypsies doing in Serbia?

Gypsies, I have no idea. I know the scene from Youtube, but when there are Gypsy weddings, if they are Muslim Gypsies then there is tallava. And younger ones also listen to that folk-trap. And if they are Christian then they are listening to these dvojka bands. So I don’t see anything particularly new except that they embrace trap music as well, especially the kids. 

Thanks for the interview.

Thank you.