The guy that worked the hotel reception desk looked at me, as if to make sure he had heard correctly. “Tallava? You want tallava?” he said, like I wanted a dose of the clap. “Are you sure you really want to hear this shit? I know of a place on the edge of town. But I’m warning you, it is a hang-out of gangsters”.

Long and lingering, trancy and psychedelic, without beginning or end — tallava, the real sound of the Balkans.  While brass continues to be a big money spinner in southern Serbia and Macedonia, the days of the big brass wedding bands in the Balkans are mostly over. Today what dominates are wedding acts which feature a singer, drums, clarinet – and of course,  one or two keyboards playing tallava

Some critics  say its the bane of Balkan music.  Others say it’s a wonderfully trancy and improvisational music, played often with great virtuosity and verve.  Popular among the Roma from Kosovo and Macedonia,  it has been picked up and incorporated in tracks by Belgrade Balkan DJ duo, Shazalakazoo. The Kosovo-Roma keyboard player of  the mostly gadjo band, Antwerp Gipsyska Orkester also plays in a loose tallava style. But now here I was in the south Kosovo town of Prizren under the foothills of the Sharr mountains, said to be a cradle of this musical style and I wanted to see it performed in situ.

I couldn’t find the club based on the directions the receptionist gave me, so I asked a cab driver to take me there. He took a long circuitous ride through Prizren, speaking along the way about tallava. “It is Gypsy music,” he said derisively, “not naši musika,” he said in Serbian – not “our music”.

The locale the cabbie took me to was a kind of road-house –  a honky-tonk – on the outskirts of Prizren, populated by isolated groups of men sipping bottles of Peja beer. On a stage, next to the well-stocked bar stood a man on keyboards, in front if the stage  a party of girls dolled up in high-heels, serious make-up, push-up bras, and lots of glitter. Every now and then one would take up the mic and sing to the by turns  droning and trance-like and thumping, improvised keyboard riffs, full of quaverings and trills. The keyboard player would hold a chordal tonal center, and the girls would sing a melismatic melody against the drone. Then all the girls got up at once, trying to engage the men. I took a photo of one of them in a clinging lizard-green bodice. “If you post that on Facebook, I’ll have you beaten  up,”  said the singer. She put her fist to her face just so I got the picture.

It was here in Kosovo that tallava had its beginnings. According to Slovenian ethnomusicologist and Balkan music expert Svanibor Petan, the word  comes from “tel o vas”, which means “turning under the arm” the kind of Oriental, çiftetelli style belly-dance way of manipulating the hands during solo dancing.

The music in its acoustic form involved improvisatory singing at segregated Roma weddings, where the women would have their own musicians. Usually these were homosexual men playing the daire – a kind of tambourine.

The singers sang to the patrons of the wedding in improvisatory verses about the family, the wedding, the gifts, praising  the bride, improvising the melody, and singing off-the-cuff texts.

“It’s usually sung to a drone, “ says University of Oregon professor and cultural anthropologist Carol Silverman. “And the drone can be one person singing. Later on when it was taken into wedding music in Kosovo the instruments do the drone. Usually the dancing gets more exciting. People are listening, they know it’s this intense improvisatory moment.”

As time went on, singers didn’t have to be homosexual any more and the daire was replaced by synthesizers, which played in a  minimalistic, “dirty” style, featuring lightning quick solos resembling the sound of the zurna (a turkified, trumpeted clarinet with stops instead of keys), but primarily characterized by slow rhythms that resembled darbuka loops. Wedding guests danced alone,  lifting their arms up high, just grooving with friends. Or else they danced it folkloristic in a circle. 

According to Belgrade musician from the group Shazalakazoo and ethnomusicologist Milan Đurić, the sound as we know it today originated in the ‘90s when musicians switched from saz, darbuka and zurna to synths with sequencers and samplers.  

Suddenly the keyboard could play an entire orchestra, and for rural, or semi-urban Albanian Gypsies it was an amazing instrument, an amazing technological gizmo which wedding organizers wanted to wow all their guests with. 

“The keyboard was the absolute hit,” says Henry Ernst of Asphalt Tango records in Berlin. “It was as if you showed up in a Porsche.  People were like: Wow. Then it was ramped up a bit, and they stuck a trumpet in there, vocals, a saxophone.  Then you had small bands, with three four band members.  Little orchestras. Brass music bands were out! A, it was expensive, and B, it was no longer en vogue. It wasn’t in line with zeitgeist, the opening of the borders.”

To the casual listener with a fleeting knowledge of world music, the sound of tallava recalls Syrian and Lebanese dabke, popularized by Omar Souleyman’s keyboard player Rizan Said.  This may be of no coincidence as the Ashkali Roma of Kosovo are said to have come from Egypt or Palestine, and although Silverman says the music has no connection with religion at all, Đurić posits a similarity between tallava and the music of Muslims in general in the Balkans and the Middle East. For Đurić, tallava is a “Muslim music”.

German Popov, otherwise known as OMFO, an electronic musician, who plays electrified versions of Balkan and Central Asian traditional folk music, says tallava players like dabke players work with the Arabic scale and a microtonal system.

“It’s basically a taksim, what they are working with,” says Popov. “In Romania it is called doina. It’s non-rhythmical instrumentation.” 

With the war in Kosovo many Roma – who were seen as collaborating with the Serbs – fled to Macadonia, settling in Šutka, sometimes called “the biggest Gypsy town in the world”.

Šutka, a vast Roma suburb 45 minutes by bus to the south-west of Skopje, is  an ethnically distinct mahala, built in 1963 after the country’s devastating earthquake. It achieved fame in Emir Kusterica’s film Time of the Gypsies, in which it is presented as a free-wheeling Gypsy slum. Inhabitants earn  300 euro a month, which is for us nothing, but for them it’s a reasonable enough sum. 

60 percent of the inhabitants are Muslim, the rest are Orthodox Christian.  

In the past the music of Šutka was  brass. This became démodé in the nineties, and was replaced, in the words of Petar Barbarić by „electric wedding music”, featuring sax, clarinet, accordion or keyboards, electric guitar, bass guitar and drums, and a singer.  Later, with the influx of refugees from Kosovo, tallava came to the fore.

Today one of the biggest stars in the tallava scene is a Šutka native with the droll name of Klinton (think Bill Clinton, savior of Kosovo). Klinton plays keyboard in several bands (Gazoza and Mladi Kristali Orkestra) that also feature clarinet, darbukas, and saxophones. When he was eight years old Klinton taught himself to play keyboards. Early on he developed a love of Hollywood film music, a kitsch element which Klinton brings to bear in his playing, coupled with a marked influence of Turkish pop, Arabic, and Indian music. 

“Tallava is for us what ragaton is Germany. Or hip-hop music, or dance music, “ says Klinton. “For us tallava is too much power.  For our people.  Tallava is good music but I don’t know how German people can get into it.”

It remains to be seen to what extent gadjos also can appreciate tallava. So far the interest in Balkan music has encompassed brass and sevdah music to name a couple of genres, while only a couple of Western oriented acts have appropriated the tallava sound.

Denis Saliov , aka Denorecords, is a musician and producer of Roma origin with Macedonian roots, who has taken tallava to Germany, where he puts on a monthly tallava party for Roma and Balkanites in the Ruhgebiet, featuring popular tallava artists, who are veritable stars in their own scene but unknown quantities to the public at large.

Saliov is Roma, playing for Roma, and spinning what Roma actually listen to. He  mixes traditional tallava sounds with modern beats, and is representative of a new generation of Western-weaned young people, who, in many cases, know more of the old songs than their counterparts back home in Kosovo or Macedonia, where Saliov’s parents are from.

 “The kids get the music here in Germany,” says Saliov.  “They go to weddings. They learn the music.  And today it is the case that there are a lot of young people who are interested in these old dances.  Before, one thought, eh, that’s something for older people.  But now the young people are really into it. Because the singer really does a great job in conveying the sound that  it creates a feeling. And for the kids it’s not a problem at all.  They know more songs than people down there, at times.  I’ve made note of  that, of course.  People’ come to us because they want the traditional. And the feeling is: party, enjoy and be proud.”

Tallava has also made it to Belgrade, establishing itself on the fringes of the city, where it whines and shrieks from the Gypsy favelas, home to Kosovo Roma driven from their homes by the Albanians.

One night on a recent visit to Belgrade a Serbian girl I was with announced her intention of showing me some tallava in the Serbian capital.

We had been sitting in the civilized environs of  an old-style restaurant in Skadarlija – a cobbled lane lined with terraced restaurants where summer crowds sat listening to Gypsy bands. There we had taken seats at a local called Dva Jelen and  ordered wine and ćevapčići for which the establishment was renown, while under the awning Gypsy musicians – a couple violinists, a guitar player, an accordion player and a man on double bass, all in pin-striped suits and immaculate white shirts, polished shoes, brilliantined hair and the leader in a chic trilby – serenaded guests with intoxicating, rousing melodies, which ranged from soft pathos to sudden fury; everybody sang.

“We’ll play you songs,” the lead Gypsy said. “We’ll play you songs in the Old Town fashion which will drive your worries away in this whirlpool of grief that is our world. We’ll play you such songs as will make your mouth water.”

We nodded  and the Gypsies began serenading us with their violins and guitars, accordion, sinking into a swooning languor, only to revive with an abrupt syncope, the accordionist’s  plump fingers dancing over the keys.

“This is the  tamburaši music,” said Dragana. “It is something like a Belgrade specialty. They are playing old songs, our songs, the old songs of Belgrade. You like? They’ll play a song for you if you want. But you will have to pay.”

And so I asked them to play Kerta Mange Daje for me, by Šaban Bajramović, Serbian king of the Gypsies. It was the only Serbian song I could think of.

“An expensive song,” said the lead Gypsy.

I gave the man two hundred dinar – about two dollars –  which he took disdainfully.

 After they were finished, Dragana announced her plan of showing me something a little bit wilder, a little bit more undergound, and we paid up and left Skadarlija and took a cab to Novi Belgrade, Belgrade’s sprawling district of socialist high-rises, to a small, ambiguous shack on the jungly banks of the Sava, where I was frisked at the door for weapons before we were let into a red-lit room where a Gypsy chantreuse held the floor, belting out wailing Oriental lyrics with lilting arabesques to the accompaniment of maniacal keyboards emitting a quavering, almost middle Eastern tallava sound, while close-shorn,  bull-necked, black-leather-jacketed Serb knuckleheads reeled enraptured to the music, holding their arms up high to the firmament as if embracing heaven.

Everyone was very drunk and very jolly. We took a seat on a black leather sofa in the corner and Dragana told me everything that this style of music conjured up in her, everything gushing out pell-mell in awful English that made you cringe, her monologue flowing on like the swelling Sava. 

Here in Serbia, the nationalists liked to portray her country as a bulwark of Western culture against the East and the Turks, muttering about subjection to the Ottomans and yet proud of holding out against the Muslim tide. Yet 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….), danced in Oriental style. And today Turkey was the preferred summer holiday destination for Serbs who viewed the West with intense suspicion.

Indeed, listening to this tallava in this Novi Belgrade tavern, I couldn’t help but feel that their orientalized music wouldn’t have been out of place in a Turkish kebap house in Istanbul. In fact, Serbian music has had  an Oriental tinge ever since the days of the Crusades when the 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 you expected; you heard it and you realized you were no longer in “Europe”.

But then again this wasn’t really Europe. It was a transitionary zone, an interzone, between East and West. And here tallava is the sound that expresses the Balkans best.