Snow dusts the ground on Ada Ciganli, Gypsy Island, a popular get-away on the banks of the Sava river, a short taxi ride from the center of Belgrade, where, after a brief walk through darkened woods we reach a creaky wooden gangway leading to a rickety wooden houseboat with a sign in Cyrillic. Lighted windows blaze into the winter night and already you can hear the frenetic sound of Gypsy music and full-throated singing in Romanes.
“This is the best tavern in the Balkans, brother,” says Aca, a Belgrade artist, musician and my guide to one of Belgrade’s wildest nightspots in a city notorious for its wild and relentless nightlife.
We began the evening in the Znak Pitanje, or Question Mark, a traditional Serbian restaurant kafana across the street from Belgrade cathedral in the stari grad, or old town, where under wooden raftered ceilings, seated on low hand-carved stools, we ate delectable ćevapi washed down with shots of rakija served by old-school Serb waiters with traditional woolen sashes tied around their waists.
It had been getting on in the evening and Aca expressed a wish to show me a little bit of Balkan nightlife.
“A nice leetle kafana,” he said. “I bring you there.”
And so Aca threw a handful of crumpled dinar bills on the table, we got up and left and Aca hailed a cab to the Ada Ciganli, Gypsy Island.
The place Aca had in mind was called Crni Panteri, the Black Panthers, a splav, or raft, on the Sava river owned by a group of Gypsy musicians by the same name. The Crni Panteri have the reputation of being a very rowdy place and periodically there are punch-ups between patrons. Not long ago it had been reported in the Serbian Diaspora newspaper Vesti that a band of drunken football supporters of the club Red Star Belgrade kidnapped four members of the Crni Panteri from their boat on the Ada Ciganli and spirited them away to a bar in Novi Beograd, Belgrade’s Socialist tower block quarter, where they forced the musicians to satisfy their musical wishes under gunpoint until the police were informed and the Gypsy musicians were eventually freed. It was an incident that could only take place in Belgrade, and for my part I was very much looking forward to seeing the Crni Panteri.
Things were in full-swing when we arrived. There was a Gypsy on double bass, thrumming the beat, slapping a wooden handled bottle opener on the strings. The accordion player had a large denomination dinar note plastered to his sweaty bald head. There was a Gypsy on keyboards, a half empty pack of Marlboros on the instrument in front of him, sweat splashing on his keys and another Gypsy rapping out a rhythm on a darbuka. And everyone singing that famous Macedonian Gypsy song: Chaj Shukarija, Beautiful Girl, from the late great Macedonian Gypsy diva Esma Redžepova.
The tables were full of guests, rakija bottles and schnapps glasses stood in front of them. Couples were dancing. There were women, white and “black” (which is how Serbs denote Gypsies) with jangly, gold hoop earrings, arms raised high, clapping, Gypsy style. A girl in a leopard skin bodice was dancing on a table, kicking over shot glasses, while Toma, the bearded bandleader, dressed all in white, was standing on a chair doing a bellydance routine, undulating his big Gypsy paunch. The walls were hung with photos of musicians and celebrities who had come to the Crni Panteri. There was a kitschy picture of a black panther at sunset. Fishnets hung in a corner, and a waiter passed out wine bottles as the raft bobbed on the Sava river.
Then they started playing “Prokleta je Amerika” by Serbian Gypsy king Šaban Bajramović, and the crowd went wild, calling for more shots of rakija and wilder music.
There is nothing Serbs like more than Gypsy music. They don’t just like it moderately, reasonably, but rather hugely and wholeheartedly. It is a bit of an odd relationship the Serbs have with the Gypsies, who don’t mix as a rule, the one outstanding exception being the Gypsy kafana. Not only do Serbs go to the outer fringes of society to pay – and pay dearly – to hear Gypsy music, but once they have become completely drunk from rakija or wine they submit themselves totally to the musicians. The bećari, or drinkers, open their arms and hearts to the Gypsies, not to mention their pockets, making overtures of friendship, inviting the Gypsies to their table as their warmest comrades, slapping them on the back, kissing them, embracing them warmly, drunkenly, extravagantly doling out money on them, sticking banknotes to the sweaty forehead of the Gypsy musician, tucking them in pockets and collars.
The Gypsy kafana is a place of wildness, excess and intoxication, celebration of the here and now, a place where the bećari feel they have nothing to lose. Gypsy music sets loose high spirits – emocija – rapture and at the same time melancholy, a melancholy that is not only a spiritual state but a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating. And tonight was no exception. The audience was intoxicated with pleasure and nostalgia as the roarings and explosions of the band rose higher and higher, becoming wilder and wilder, fiercer and fiercer.
Then all of a sudden began the smashing of glasses. Smash! Smash!
“Napraviti lom,” explained Aca. Creating havoc. Breaking into pieces. It may be a slivovitz glass, the bar furniture or another person.
Aca too, wanted to smash, to destroy, to annihilate.
“Gypsies rend my soul asunder!” cried Aca, suddenly flushed and riotous, “Kill me with your majestic music!”
Aca rolled up his shirt to his arm-pits, exposing arms inked in several places with crude tattoos of woman’s faces (lost loves perhaps?). He proudly showed me the scar on the palm of his hand – he had stubbed out lit cigarettes on his flesh during a binge soon after a breakup with his wife. It seemed a fond memory.
The first time I became witness to this peculiar kafana behaviour was at Robert Sokos’s Balkan Beats parties in Berlin in 2005. Not knowing much about Balkan music and struggling for an analogy, I wanted to say the mood struck me then as almost Latin. Latin and Balkan music are both highly danceable and life-affirming. But the style is different. It was a different sort of happiness that was being expressed at the Black Panthers; a different mentality. Latinos are a hot-tempered people; they love dancing and celebrating. But their happiness is not Balkan happiness. The Latin lacks the pathos of the Balkanite, who – like Aca – could cry and laugh and dance and mourn at the same time. Balkan bećari were always sad about something; they always had troubles, and they were proud to be afflicted. They smashed glasses and wept. And this, perversely, made them happy. Thus the Balkan kafana is a stage for a whole gamut of emotions not tapped into normally in the West.
The Balkan style of partying that I was witnessing at the Black Panthers that night was maybe closer to that of the Turks, whose presence in the Balkans was felt closely for five hundred some years. But here again the Balkan style was different. In Bosnia, the Muslim, Turkified inhabitants of Sarajevo created something called sevdah (oriental love songs). When listening to these slow sevdalinke love-complaints the listener cries, grieves. But Turkish grief is not the same as the grief that came through at the Black Panthers, which was wilder, less restrained. Maybe it was the alcohol.
Emotions are what counts in the Belgrade kafana – emocija. To be satisfied, to be happy, and on the other hand not to be happy, and to have the need to express this duality somehow. Usually this condition related to a relationship with a woman, or a man, which is somehow paid more attention to in the Balkans – and in Turkey – than in Western Europe. Of course, Western pop music is full of love songs, but love and relations between man and woman, infidelity and broken hearts, are taken more seriously by the Balkanite.
“We love to have a broken heart,” Balkan Beats DJ Robert Soko had explained to me. “Everyone is having a broken heart in the Balkans. We delude ourselves also, but we love it. We are used to suffering, even though it’s not worth the pain. I recognise it in myself also. How many times I ask myself, ‘What kind of fucking idiot are you? You got separated from your wife, so what? You don’t have to drink two years and kill yourself”. But it’s something in my genes.”
Somehow the Gypsies did it best. Ninety percent of Gypsy songs are about problems. Yet, how could they be so happy in their telling, in their singing? As Robert saw it, this was the talent of the Gypsies. They could have problems, but at the same time remain aloof from them. And this attitude was what the Gypsies were teaching the whole world, Serbia, Europe especially: Be happy. Nothing is really that important. How important is it to have a big house, a big car? Somehow it was built into their brains: Just do it. Live, live, live. Tomorrow maybe it’s going to be too late. Don’t make big plans. That was the philosophy behind the music.
“This is what we, and when I say ‘we’ I mean we white people from Europe don’t understand,” said Soko. “In Western Europe, everything has to be correct, especially in Germany. Paperwork, paperwork. Everything has to be pre-arranged, confirmed. This also has an advantage. This is how the society works. But on the other hand we are just sick of it all; all of this controlling, all of this way of thinking and brooding; discipline, being worried.”
We in the West were living in a society filled with fear. Wherever you turned in Germany a kind of fear haunted you. Every day you woke up and went to the mail box, afraid of something evil waiting for you. Why did one have to be so bloody afraid of anything? One wasn’t a criminal. But there it was. Society instilled it in you. But the Gypsies – they simply didn’t care. They didn’t let themselves be cowered.
“This is what fascinates me about Gypsies, and so I am always telling myself fuck all this shit,” said Soko “There are always some problems and we always take it too seriously. And it makes us unhappy. Gypsies, they don’t care about this stuff. They just don’t care.”
It was ironic, though, that at the Black Panthers, Serbs came and pretended for a couple hours to be a Gypsy, and in doing so, to celebrate the Gypsy, the romantic role of the Gypsy, applauding and craving their uninhibited, free-wheeling lifestyle, while at the same time probably believing, like most gadjos, that Gypsies were all thieves at heart, unreliable, dangerous to get too close to. When they were drunk and in a festive mood, Serbs professed to love the Gypsies. At the same time their racism was so ingrained that they never batted an eyelid when using their old sayings about Gypsies: “When the Gypsy was made king the first man he hanged was his father.” Or, “Work a little, steal a little, are the rules of the Gypsy life”. Or, “Drinking woman, Gypsy woman.” Or, “Where the Jew doesn’t go the Gypsy crawls.”
The Serbs there that night at the Black Panthers wanted something very specific from the Gypsies. They wanted their happiness. And they were willing to pay large sums for it. At the same time their attitude towards them was a bit patronising and imperialist. But somehow wasn’t it worse in the West? With Balkan record producers, Balkan DJs and Balkan party-goers taking what they needed from the Gypsies, exploiting them, and in the end ditching them, spitting them out, throwing them away in favor of the next flavour of the month, the next sensation.
But not tonight. Not here at the Black Panthers as the party mood was nearing its crescendo and the rakija was rising to Aca’s head
“This is the meaning of existence,” said Aca. “Break something! Destroy something! Fuck it up! And when you spend all of the money you have made in a month in one night in a Gypsy kafana this is something real. It is not a story. It is not a dream. It is something you can feel. It is truth! What good are your books Mr. Amerikanac? This is something you can not get from books. This is life!”
And the Panthers sang the old song, Niška Banja.
The baths near Niš, hot water, for naughty boys a real convenience.
I will get her, I will love her, and in Niš I will leave her.
We Gypsies love a good time, we can’t make it without plum brandy;
Without grape brandy, plum brandy, without a young Gypsy girl.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
I will kiss her on the face. I will get her, and I will love her, and in Niš I will leave her.
And Aca sang his song, tears in his eyes, tears of ecstasy, tears of nostalgia, re-suffering past torments. Drunk as he was he was incredibly overriding; he beat his fist on the table and told me to “shut up, Amerikanac! You must not talk. No talking!”
And so I shut up. I only looked around the room at what was going on around me.
A woman brings her head close to the accordion player. Sweat beads on the faces of the dancers. Toma grabs a girl and twirls her on his fingers. He gestures at the woman’s body. “Aaaaahhhh!” he cries, and kisses her hand. “This is little America,” he tells her. The woman smiles. He grabs her hand and twirls her around once more. Aca and I drink an enormous amount of rakija, while Aca calls repeatedly for Serbian patriotic songs. The calls go largely unheeded.
The last song died out at around three-thirty. Toma was obviously at the end of his tether and the musicians had concluded their session with a final high-octane, rollicking kolo to make clear that this was the end. Then, taking everyone by surprise, the accordion player started playing another song.
And there it was. The message of the evening: there is always, always, always more.