Robert Rigney, Balkan traveller, music aficionado, part time American James Bond in the eyes of many Serbs and others, and most of all writer and journalist makes his comeback in Balkan Stories. It wouldn’t be Robert if it wasn’t with a story full of craziness, ups and downs and lots of Balkan music.
Balkanizacija – balkanization – is a term that came into vogue in the nineties with the Yugoslavian wars, meaning a kind of breaking apart of large national entities – à la Yugoslavia – into smaller religiously and ethnically distinct communities.
In the nineties all of a sudden journalists everywhere were talking about „balkanization“ to refer to all kinds of splinter groupings and independence movements, patchwork communities and multi-cultural hodge-podge, be it in politics, culture or demographics. „Balkanization“ almost always meant something negative.
And yet, ten years ago, at the height of the Balkan hype, I saw it as something positive; something worth striving for– in the sense of the importing and spread of the Balkan way of doing things, the Balkan mentality, the Balkan lifestyle, the Balkan way of celebrating, as when Westerners, through Balkan music, Balkan festivities, Balkan holidays learn to eat, drink, love, dance, behave the Balkan way; to become Balkan, to relieve oneself for the moment of one’s civilized hang-ups.
Hir Aj Kam Hir Aj Go
There is a song by the Slovene singer Magnifico, Hir Aj Kam Hir Aj Go, which used to be a standard hit in almost every Balkan party club night, and which the Berlin Balkan DJ Robert Soko popularized by featuring it as the first track on his first Balkan Beats sampler. In it Magnifico sings in Borat-style broken English about the emergence of a Yugo Diaspora around the world, bringing the Balkan way – balkanizacija – everywhere, to the far corners of the globe, from Germany to Africa, Brazil and Australia.
München, Frankfurt, Germania
Roma, Napoli via Italia
New York business America
all around the world my familia
Vodka, Russia, Transsibiria
Twenty-four hours to Australia
here and there and everywhere
all around the world my compania
Hir aj kom hir aj go
hir aj muv hir aj gruv
London, Paris, Skandinavia
marihuana, Tirana, Albania
export, import, diaspora
everybody now turbomania
Rio, Maracana, Brasilia
Africa, India al Arabia
here and there and everywhere
o Magnifico and compania
Balkanizacija. Balkanization: an underground phenomenon which was, and is still, taking place in the cities of the West: in Vienna, Paris, New York, Berlin….
But it is Berlin that I want to talk about.
The Gastarbeiters bring culture. And so did the refugees.
Balkanizacija began in West Germany in the ‘60s when waves of Yugo Gastarbeiter – guest-workers – fled poor underdeveloped and backwards parts of Yugoslavia and came to the cities of West Germany, along with Turks, Greeks, Italians, north Africans, to work in factories, in restaurants, on construction sites. From 1968 till 1989 Yugos constituted — at 12.5 percent — the second biggest number of foreigners after the Turks in Germany.
Unlike the Turks, though, who formed ethnically distinct ghettos in German cities, the Yugos blended in to German society remarkably well. Thus, their presence remained inconspicuous.
Then after 1991, with the outbreak of the Yugoslav wars, came a new wave of Yugos – now Ex-Yugos – from newly independent Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. They were refugees and many of them came from the larger cities of ex-Yugoslavia – from Sarajevo, Zenica, Zagreb…
There were backward farmers among them, but also intellectuals and artists who had very little in common with the concerns and preoccupations of the Yugo Gastarbeiter immigrants from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. They had different tastes, a different philosophy, liked different music.
Whereas the old Gastarbeiter preferred narodna, or folk, music, these new ex-Yugos had grown up with punk and new wave, and when they came to Berlin – for a lot of them ended up in refugee camps in and around Berlin – they immediately gravitated to the squatted houses and underground clubs of east Berlin.
Berlin struck a chord with these young ex-Yugo refugee rebels, and Berlin in turn became fascinated by them, and over the course of twenty years they changed the nightlife of Berlin.
I only know about those first crazy Yugo parties in the nineties by hearsay. At the time I was at university in the States and later in Prague, and upon returning to Berlin many of the Ex-Yugos I got to know, who came to Berlin in those heady post-Wall days, had become established figures in Berlin’s art, club and music scenes.
One of the first Ex-Yugos I got to know was the photographer, Nino Nihad Pušija, who came to Berlin after the fall of the Wall, and who I was to see again and again at almost every Balkan party in Berlin I went to, where Yugos gathered with free-flowing šlivovitz and usually in the company of Gypsy musicians.
Nino was a Bosnian Muslim from Sarajevo, but if you asked him who he was and how he defined himself he would say, “Firstly I’m a Sarajevan. Secondly I’m from Yugoslavia.”
Nino was a photographer who grew up in the Old Town of Sarajevo, came to Berlin and then went back to Bosnia in the early nineties with the outbreak of the war to take photos for Reuters. At first he couldn’t bring himself to believe that things would take the turn they eventually did in Bosnia, and despite the warnings from his family, he felt he had to see the situation for himself to believe it.
He went to Sarajevo and took pictures of his city, his neighbors, his own “blood”, as he put it, figuratively and literally. He would see someone lying dead in the streets and immediately he thought: “Is this someone I know?” Should he help, or should he take a photograph? He studied the dead and found no one he knew. Then he took photographs, and the troubling images that stuck in his head remained with him when he came to Berlin.
Nino knew of Germany, though and he didn’t particularly like it. But Berlin was different. Everything in Berlin was close to him. In East Berlin, where he lived, the busses were the same Czech manufactured Škodas that he remembered from Sarajevo and the streetcars were the same that clanged around corners in the Baščaršija. Berlin, like Sarajevo, was a border-straddling city. There it was Occident and Orient. Here it was East and West block.
“It was perfect for a photographer,” says Nino “And then I decided definitively to live here. Okay, I also fell in love.”
Every day Nino wandered the streets of Berlin. The Wall was gone but somehow it was still there in people’s heads. There were people from the East who never went to the West, and there were people from West who never went to the East. After walking around for a while taking photos, Nino began to meet Bosnian refugees. In Berlin and Brandenburg during the time of the war in Yugoslavia there were 35,000 refugees from Bosnia. Nino would enter their houses and their rooms, listen to their stories and take photos of them.
“And it was very sad, very difficult. You would come to a family on a visit and they were traumatized. Maybe the woman had been raped, and she wouldn’t speak to me. The men were frustrated because they couldn’t be down there. They had lost family, someone had been killed, or no idea. And these stories were terribly difficult, and you’d sit there with them for an hour and they tell you their stories, and they are crying and you are crying and you drink a schnapps and then you cry some more. And then you leave this refugee home, or this house, or this camp, or container – you know, they were everywhere – and your head was so full and fucked up that you had to look for something else.”
That something else was the drag queens and lesbians and gays of Berlin, all these people that Nino didn’t know from Sarajevo. Nino befriended them and they invited him to their bars and their clubs.
“There was always a very good atmosphere in these clubs and cafes, always good music, the people looked very good, and they were friendly. And that was a very nice thing after these traumatizing stories, to drink with these queer people. And that was like a therapy for me during this war time.”
Enter the Roma
Around 1994, 1995 Nino started taking photos of Roma – mostly Roma from Bosnia – who, of all the refugees, Nino found had assimilated the quickest.
“They had this instinct; they had it for centuries. The others were living in dormitories and they already had apartments, because they simply bribed the officials. It was unbelievable that you could do that in Germany – but sure – you go to the welfare office, you give them a thousand marks and they give you the apartment: you don’t have to live in the refugee camp anymore. They made deals. They were much quicker. The poor Bosniaks, they were still thinking that the war would be over soon, but the Roma, they knew; they were one step ahead of the game.”
In 1991, during the first conflicts in Croatia, all the Gypsy men from Bosnia came to Germany, sensing that the conflagration would soon spread to their neck of the woods. And when this indeed came to pass then automatically the women and children came. The men had already been here for a year. They knew how the system worked. They had it down.
“And that’s why, I find it very intelligent how they operated; they had this instinct; they knew how long the war would last,” says Nino. “I saw how Bosnian Gypsy women after two or three weeks in Germany suddenly all had blond hair. And they looked just like East German women. You couldn’t tell the difference anymore. They had clothes just the same.”
The Roma totally accepted Nino because he respected their culture. He knew that if he was driving a car, then the wife of a Roma man couldn’t be sitting up next to him in the passenger seat. He went into their homes, accompanied them at their weddings, went to their funerals, drank with them cried with them, and in the end created a series of portraits called “Duldung”, which was the legal term for their status and the status of other Bosnian refugees in Germany – tolerated, allowed to live for a while in Germany, but not permitted to work.
Ultimately, many of the 35,000 Bosnian refugees who came to Berlin, were sent back home at war’s end. Some went to America. Some married and stayed. Others by hook or by crook and through long and complex wanderings made it back to Berlin. Some disappeared into the woodwork.
Alen makes it to Berlin
One of the Bosnian refugees who ended up in Brandenburg with a Duldung status and snuck off one day to become a part of the Berlin art scene was another young photographer by the name of Alen Hebilović. Alen and Nino were friends.
Alen lived in Prijedor, in Bosnia until 1993 when he was interned by the Serbs in Trnopolje concentration camp for two and a half months.
“All I can say is, lucky me that nobody touched me,” says Alen. “A guy who used to train full-contact with me was a guard there. Dušan was his name. And Dušan was standing there with his Kalashnikov, and I’ve been wearing the same trousers and the same shirt for two months, everything was rotting away and I smelled like cattle. And Dušan started to reminisce about how we used to train and to be friends. But the only friend I had was Djuro Aleksandar. He used to bring me food, because we had only a quarter of a loaf of bread each day.”
In 1993 Alen came to Germany. He lived in a refugee camp in Brandenburg on the outskirts of Berlin. Outside on the streets it was a depressing east German scene: some “faschos” – fascists – a couple of punks with mohicans, and the police keeping everyone apart. Alen got together with the punks, did lighting for their concerts.
“For these people from the GDR Yugoslavia was in socialist times a paradise. Yugoland was the only east block country with contact to the West. We were socialistic but we could have private businesses. It was a transition from Capitalism to Socialism. That meant openness to Warsaw Pact and NATO, although we were neutral. In addition, these guys knew a lot of bands from Yugoslavia, punk bands. Also new wave. Actually the relationship was super good. I was accepted very quickly. I knew a number of punk bands from Dresden. There were these fanzines. And actually it was good with these punks, although there was a lot of stress, me as a foreigner, with the Nazis.”
Alen took up photography at the suggestion of a man named Drago, who worked as a therapist for refugees. He invited Alen to Berlin. As a refugee he could only move within a radius of thirty kilometers of the camp. So Alen went to Berlin illegally to see Drago and Drago gave him the keys to his apartment and some cash and told him to do what he wanted. And so from one weekend Alen ended up in Berlin forever. At that time he met Nino and all the other Yugos in the Berlin underground. And he also got to know Robert.
Robert was a Croat from the Bosnian town of Zenica, who came to Berlin in 1989 shortly before the outbreak of war and started working as a taxi driver while organizing parties for ex-Yugo refugees at the Arcanoa, a punk club in Kreuzberg.
A new home on the left
The Arcanoa was founded by a left-wing commune and it was a popular meeting place of the alternative scene, squatters, unacclaimed artists, alkies, assorted lunatics and druggies. Robert and his ex-Yugo friends were urban Yugos with a penchant for punk, drugs and alcohol. They were Muslims (in name, more than in deed), Serbs and Croats who wanted to escape the nationalist vibe of the common Yugo refugee bars and stuffy Gastarbeiter hangouts. They just wanted to drink, smoke hashish, play music and as the war progressed to the German lefties and punks who they shared the tombstone-shaped bar with at the Arcanoa they became exotic and fascinating.
“They started to accept us,” says Robert. “We started to feel good there, because in a place like that you were safe from the rough nationalism which was very present in ‘our’ bars at that time. Before, these bars were Yugoslavian, but when it all blew up you had the Serbs here, the Croats there, the Muslims somewhere else, the old story. Personally, I was not really happy about his fact. The Arcanoa was a kind of refuge for everybody who was not clicking to that war feeling. And, shit, then we started to play our music there which many of our people liked. You’re sitting there in the Arcanoa and music played by Partibrejkers, Azra or Prljavo Kazalište is roaring…in the middle of Kreuzberg.”
Robert and his friends celebrated – just for taking the piss – the old Yugoslav holidays that nobody was celebrating any more, like the Day of the Republic, the Day of Youth and the 8th of March (International Women’s Day). It was a joke. They made posters with pictures of Tito and held deportation parties. It was just some kind of juvenile protest against all the negative things that were happening: refugees, fear, war.
Ljubljana and Berlin
At the same time – maybe a year earlier – something similar was going on in Slovenia, unbeknownst to Robert. As Yugoslavia was disintegrating and Slovenia was drifting from the orbit of Belgrade and from the Balkans, paradoxically right at the time that Slovenes were announcing their independence from the Balkans, a Slovene DJ by the name of Peter Barbarić was putting on his Balkanski Žur in Ljubljana – Balkan parties – similar to Robert’s in Berlin.
Down in Ljubljana youths were dancing to good old Yugo rock and pop hits from the 1970s and 1980s, experiencing nostalgia for a land they had never known, for typical sensations that would disappear as Slovenia declared itself independent of Yugoslavia, out of fear they would soon become “Austrians.”
At the Balkanski Žur kids would become “Balkan” for a night, screaming, yelling, singing to hits by Bjelo Dugme, Partibreakers, Azra and Rambo Amadeus, dancing improvised belly-dances, drinking šlivovitz and reveling in their own notions of what it was to “be a Balkanite”. The message was: “You can go mad with Balkan music, you can exorcise your soul, you can become a Gypsy.”
Back in Berlin, Nino, Alen, Robert and the rest of the ex-Yugos partied while at home the war was raging. They were torn between here and there and cut up about watching shells fired on the towns they knew. And once in a while someone would come up and say “Let’s go down there and fight with our brothers.” “Fuck that,” Alen would say. “I’m going somewhere where I can get a fuck. You go back to Bosnia, go back and fuck off.”
They were dancing on the edge of the volcano – Serbs, Muslims and Croats who were all against nationalism and all lost in a way. Lost because they were exiles abroad and lost because they refused to give in to the prevailing spirit of the times, which was hate and nationalism.
Drugs and Rock’n Roll. And Sex. Hopefully.
“The scene was very multi-ethnic,” says Alen. “And there were people who came from good families. People who moved in alternative circles, also in Yugoslavia, because there was a very interesting cultural, music scene there. People who had moved beyond nationalism. What I didn’t like was that the people had a lot of self-destruction in themselves, simply because of all what they experienced. Being forced to leave your country, leaving your friends behind, the search for new friends. This constant searching. That doesn’t mean that these people began to take drugs here in Germany. It was also in Yugoslavia. I also smoked dope there. I consumed a lot of stuff. Speed and the like. Drank a lot. Thank God a lot of people in my scene succeeded in doing something with culture. Many unfortunately got derailed. They just vegetated. As I said, this strong component of self-destruction was there.”
“One scene carved itself in my memory and I will never forget it,” says Robert’s Bosnian ex-wife Tatjana. “I’m standing there, looking at these people and I realize: Everybody here is young, between 17 and 25 and I’m thinking: He’s alone in Berlin, he’s alone in Berlin, he’s alone… They were all alone here, with their parents still down there or somewhere else. This cellar was simply an exile, a place to forget your problems with visas, money or accommodations – and all the emotions, everything you’re going through. You pretend that everything’s great, everything’s fine, but nothing’s great and nothing’s fine.”
If you wanna go Balkan, be Chinese
Meanwhile, in another district of Berlin another group of ex-Yugo exiles were gathering, this time around the person of Ero, a nominal Muslim from Croatia who drank alcohol, smoked dope, ate pork. He was a Yugo punk who used to shock the neighbors by parading his mohawk around the streets of suburban Zagreb. He also came to Berlin fleeing war and nationalism.
“On the day that war broke out in Bosnia one thing was clear to me,” says Ero. “Yugoslavia would disappear. Your country would disappear and you would have to go. You go! We Yugos went, because Yugo land disappeared from the atlas. Yugoslavia would never exist again in the same form that it once did. And the Yugos would never return. They would have children here and the children would grow up just like Germans.”
Ero opened a restaurant called Nosh in Prenzlauerberg, which became another meeting place for multi-ethnic Ex-Yugos. Nosh wasn’t a typical Yugo locale. It didn’t serve ćevapčići, burek and rakija, but Chinese cuisine. Periodically, however, the restaurant became a raging Balkan kafana when Ero and friends put on their “Zigeunergeschäfte”, played Gypsy music, danced, broke chairs and glasses and pretended as though the war in Yugoslavia didn’t exist.
Ero, like Robert, like Nino, like Alen was an urban Yugo, who grew up listening to punk and ska and new wave, loved grunge and idolized Curt Cobain. But the curious thing was that the longer these guys remained in exile and the more they began to miss Yugoslavia, the more they began to listen to and play the old pathos-drenched and emotional Balkan folk songs, the same stuff their parents would have listened to in Yugoslavia and the stuff they hated growing up.
“In the past folk music meant nothing to me,” says Ero. “It was on the TV every day in Yugoslavia and my parents listened to it. That was reason enough for not liking it. I mean, I liked a couple of things, especially the old, sad Bosnian love songs, the sevdalinke – but not enough that I went out and bought a cassette. I was 18, 19 then and I wanted to hear punk rock and then electro, something with a riff. That was my sound. I wasn’t interested in deep emotions. The whole ethno stuff that I listen to today, that didn’t come into question for me then.”
“But then I came to Berlin. And when you are a little older then you get a little nostalgic and then a CD falls into your hands. You are 28 or maybe 30. You’ve smoked countless cartons of Marlboros, drank thousands of bottles of Hefeweizen, tried out all drugs you could get your hands on and been to every techno party and you’ve graduated from this whole artificial world – and then you get this feeling for old songs from where you come from; this feeling as though something primordial was coming back to you. And then you start to dig into your past.”
How the hype started
Central to this feeling for Ero was the music of the Gypsies. For Ero, who had fought with the Yugoslavian army in Kosovo and had nightmares of flattening Albanians with his tank, had been through hell. He suffered and he was angry.
“And then came the Roma music. So what do the Gypsies do? They sing about love, about death, about happiness and misfortune, and all these things are known to us. I partied for years until I finally realized that these songs were actually attempts to forget; to forget this sadness, this pain.”
And so at Nosh the Gypsies played and they brought their special atmosphere and all the old Yugo rock and rollers, new wavers and punk rockers danced like fools and waved their hands in the air, broke glasses and broke chairs and tried though music and alcohol to forget. And the Germans looked at them with open mouths and wonder.
The same thing was happening at Robert’s parties. Robert had a fixed line-up of punk and ska and new wave songs but more and more – whether it was out of nostalgia, or because he was beginning to pick up on what a certain Goran Bregović was doing back home – he began to throw in a folk song, something brass, something Gypsy, something full of emocija. Gradually he began to play more and more of these things and he saw how people were reacting to it: the Yugos, but the Germans as well. And he saw that women liked it especially. And if the women danced, then so did the men.
The decisive event was a party that Robert and Ero put on at the Club der Visionäre in Kreuzberg in 2003. 500 people showed up and right then Robert knew that he was on to something. Ero, too, could see that something was happening, and Robert remembers Ero standing in the background, “surveying everything like a fox.”
Ero wanted to bring the Balkan parties to bigger venues with Robert, but Robert, who knew that he was on to something big and felt that this ‘Balkan Beats’ thing – for that was what he dubbed his parties – was his own invention, wanted to go it alone.
Robert ditched his old Yugo friends, ditched Ero and Nino, and when Steve Maas, a New York nightclub impresario, who had come to Berlin with the idea of opening up a new club in the city, proposed he play at his new Mudd club in Berlin-Mitte twice a month, Robert decided to go with it. Around this time he signed a three CD deal with Eastblok records in Berlin for a series of Balkan Beats samplers, and the rest is history.
Robert’s new passion
2003, the year of that famous party at Club der Visionäre, was also the year of my first trip to Serbia. Up until then Balkan music had meant nothing to me. The trip would change my life, and when I came back to Berlin my ears were attuned to the sound of the Balkans.
I had only intended to make one trip to the Balkans, but so many questions had cropped up on that first journey that it was a torment to leave them unsolved. And so I made further trips to the Balkans every year, sometimes twice a year, by foot, by bike, by bus and by train, from Serbia to Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania and Bulgaria and ultimately to Istanbul – to try to get to the bottom of things. I discovered a new side of Europe – an untamed Europe, a Europe of the wild. I also discovered Balkan Gypsy music, for music played a leading part in all of my journeys; it came from bus radios, farmhouse verandas, Balkan kafane, and nightclubs, wedding bands, religious processions, and solitary buskers.
In the hot summers in ex-Yugoslavia I walked the dusty roads under towering white clouds and watched wily-eyed Gypsies on horse-drawn wagons come suddenly from out behind dilapidated shacks as beat as a hovel in Rajasthan, their limbs lithe and brown, their clothes ragged and dashing, talking animatedly with full arm gestures, unable to keep still, poised to break into song. I had seen spontaneous sessions in rural stations and heard the Gypsy zurna and pom-pom of the davul under the hot sun in some fly-blown town under high Balkan mountains. I had tasted aromatic plum rakija in one-horse-town kafane where country boys loudly hailed passers-by, talking loud as was the custom of country people who had to shout to be heard from field to field. In the Muslim outbacks of the Sandžak, Kosovo and Macedonia I had stumbled into dusty towns smelling of grilled ćevapčići and freshly baked burek where the sound of the muezzin mingled with half-Oriental folk music and men in romantical headgear smiled under the heat. I had slept under tottering haystacks, among grazing sheep and cows, heard the tinkle of the sheep bells in the evening when isolated sounds of singing carried long distances and everything was big and full-gestured and full-spirited and not cowered, cramped and neurotic like life in the cities of the north. I had met Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, Albanians, Turks in their respective villages, had slept in their barns, eaten their funeral meals, partaken in their breakfast spreads before they headed out to the fields to reap. I had drunk their rakija, visited their dark monastery churches and mosques, pondered their eerie cemeteries. I had met the inhabitants of the Balkans under huge skies which tilted away from Berlin and Vienna to Istanbul (I suddenly felt the pull of a new magnetic force on the Bosporus).
Coming back to Berlin I discovered that city was a different place than I had known before I left for the Balkans, as all of my old friends had left the city and were replaced by new friends from the Balkans mostly. Old Gastarbeiter (guest-workers), war refugees, draft-dodgers, artists, DJs and petty small caliber criminals. I went to Bosnian and Albanian restaurants, discotheques and bars looking for the people I got to know in the Balkans. I discovered that the city was full of Ex-Yugos and I fell into their sub-cultures and parallel worlds, went to their parties and vernisages, drank with them, danced with them, loved with them, became implicated in their schemes and scams.
Back in Berlin and seeking a taste of the food and the music of the Balkans, I ended up in Berlin’s immigrant quarters like Neukölln and Wedding, frequented immigrant music shops, patronized Albanian cafes and started going to Bosnian DJ Robert Soko’s Balkan Beats parties, which were just then starting to pick up steam.
In a record shop in Berlin-Mitte I came across Robert’s first Balkan Beats samplers. There was Magnifico with that ultimate Yugo Diaspora anthem Hir Aj Kam Hir Aj Go, Bregović and Fanfare Ciocărlia and Boban Marković and the whole racket of Balkan brass madness I was by now familiar with from the movies of Emir Kusturica. One night I was teaching English at a community college in Schöneberg when a Croatian student of mine, a Bruce Lee-idolizing son of Yugo Gastarbeiter, who had grown up in Kreuzberg throwing stones at the cops on the 1st of May, invited me along to one of Robert’s parties at the Mudd club.
The invisible party
I remember vividly the dank, sweaty underground space 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 till then, 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 watched how as the nights progressed Robert would get drunker and drunker and proceed to slug people and break things.
There were some memorable nights at the Mudd Club when the whole Balkan Beats thing was beginning to gather pace and one began to become aware of a whole secret, trans-underground, global Balkan village stretching from Moscow to Istanbul to New York and even down to Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and Tel Aviv, linked together by a kind of irresistible electro-magnetic field, invisible to most people who only skimmed through the mainstream media, but a hot tip for those in the know.
In 2003 Shantel, a German DJ with Romanian roots had just come out with his much-acclaimed Bukovina Club sampler of Balkan Gypsy songs, and one night he DJ-ed for us during the annual Balkan Black Box festival in Berlin. Then Eugene Hütz, the Ukrainian Gypsy punk from New York, who was making waves with his band Gogol Bordello, showed up and spun records one sweaty night in the Mudd Club when I danced wildly with a šlivovitz in one hand and a girl of ambiguous Eastern origin in the other.
By now the Ex-Yugos had begun to deal with and overcome their war traumas, and they felt – regardless of whether they were Serbs, Muslims or Croats (even Albanians came and danced) – that there was something in this music that brought back their love for a home which no longer existed.
And there were the Germans and Wester Europeans and Americans like myself who had been to the Balkans and had fallen in love with this passionate, boisterous, rakija soaked way of celebrating life through music. In short, there were people from all over the world, who had no connection to the Balkans, but were beginning to get turned on to it and tangled up in it through Robert’s music, his samplers, Goran Bregović, Shantel and Eugene Hütz, as well as bands like Balkan Beat Box, Magnifico and the movies of Emir Kusturica – people who were eager for a festive way of celebrating on the dancefloor, and wanted music that was hot and passionate, not cool, ironic and blasé.
The Australian gone Yugo
Balkan aficionados from everywhere began showing up at the Mudd Club – guys like Brian May, who somehow represented the whole international set that was just then beginning to establish itself in Berlin. May was a DJ from Melbourne who had come to Berlin because something energetic was happening here, something which Balkan Beats was playing a very decisive role in.
May grew up in England and then moved to Australia in 1989 and as a kid he played trumpet in a swing band. Sometime around 2000 he heard the Romanian Gypsy band Taraf de Hajduks for the first time. He had never heard anything like it before.
“It was like, ‘Holy shit! This is awesome!’ I was hooked instantly. You played for a long time and you only know one way of playing it, and then you suddenly hear this extremely well-developed style of playing that’s hundreds of years old for the first time and it’s bound to knock you flying.”
May’s introduction to Balkan music was a Serbian shop in Melbourne called „Beograd“. “I went in there and I was talking to the guy. And the whole shop is just full of videos, books, CDs. It’s like a foreign world. I had no idea about anything. And everything’s in Cyrillic anyway – can’t read it. And I was asking the guy about Rambo Amadeus, and he was like, ‘Why do you want this?’ ‘Because it’s good. I’ve heard it. And I like it.’ ‘Where did you hear this?’ The guy wanted to know. He just couldn’t grasp that anyone outside of the Serb community would be interested in this stuff. Over there it’s just really isolated; culturally the music is just within the community. So it’s difficult for a Serb to understand why anyone would like traditional music who isn’t Serbian. But that’s the best way to do it. Because you go into a place like ‚Beograd‘ and you’re bound to find something that’s outside of the norm. Everyone can consume Balkan music through Eastblok, through Piranha, through Essay, through Crammed. And they do release great stuff. But as you know, it’s just this tiny, tiny, tiny tip of the iceberg.”
May started going to concerts by Esma Redžepova, Goran Bregović and Boban Marković and was shocked to find that you could only get tickets for these shows in a couple of Melbourne burek shops. Despite the unequaled power of this music, the shows went completely unnoticed by the whitebread Melbourne media, and the audience remained almost exclusively Yugo. Finally, he started DJ-ing this music himself, putting on his own Balkan parties in Melbourne.
“And the Balkan guys who came, they couldn’t get over how a white Australian of all people, was doing this sort of thing.”
And now May, inspired by Robert’s Balkan Beats parties was here in Berlin trying to get gigs and ultimately make it to Serbia to learn from the Gypsies how to play trumpet like a child of the mahala.
There were other guys who started showing up in Berlin at Balkan venues and gigs – guys like Valentino Valente, the Serbian Donauschwabe (from the atomized German minority in the Vojvodina), who grew up partly in Germany and partly in Serbia, where he learned to play Gypsy songs on his guitar, but left in the mid-nineties when things started heating up and the mangups – the Balkan toughs – started to get the upper-hand. He remembered, in particular, one well-known Belgrade mafioso who took out a pistol and threatened to shoot Valentino if he didn’t play his favorite song.
And so Valentino denounced Serbia, vowing never again in his life to cross its borders, and if he was forced to, then well-armed.
Valentino went to Spain, changed his name and learned flamenco guitar. And now he was in Berlin, busking bars in Neukölln and Kreuzberg, dreaming big Balkan rock-star dreams but at the same time dissing the city’s passivity and complaisance, complaining that Berlin hated him, cast him out, shat on him, denied his genius.
A new venue emerges and Robert sobers up
As for Robert, he was doing a lot of hard drinking and I remember one night at his apartment in Kreuzberg when we talked for hours about the late great Saban Bajramović and Zvonko Bogdan, the old-guard Pannonian kafana singer of the tamburaši style and avid horse racer. That was how it was with many Balkan DJs: in their free time when they weren’t playing frenetic club hits with heavy bass lines and knob-twiddling sound effects, they listened to soulful and mellow Gypsy singers of a rural cast as a way of letting their hair down and just relaxing.
As the night progressed Robert started talking about the new book by Garth Cartwright, Princes Amongst Men, in which the New Zealand poet and music critic travels to the Balkans and hooks up with such Gypsy greats as Šaban Bajramović – “the Black Panther” – Boban Marković and Esma Redžepova, “Queen of the Gypsies” and friend of dictators. I liked the book – it was one of the few contemporary titles I could read then – but Robert was disparaging, saying it was intellectual and effete.
“Why write? Just stick your dick in it!” said Robert. “Don’t write about Gypsies! Fuck a Gypsy!”
And then as if trying to prove how above it all he was, he smashed his shot glass against the wall, sending shards all over his record collection.
“Chicks like me because I’m crazy!” said Robert.
At two in the morning Robert had distanced himself from and had insulted all the other Yugos who he had ever been together with in the old Arcanoa days – people like Nino and Ero. Even his friend Alen he was complaining was turning into a pain in the ass, displaying bad free-loading habits to feed his avidity for any form of kicks.
Ultimately the gig at the Mudd club closed. The club shut and after looking around for a new venue, Robert started putting on parties at Lido, a really big club in Kreuzberg, in what would become a neighborhood completely overrun with foreign tourists a couple of years later.
With a lot of advertising and simply by word of mouth (Robert’s Balkan Beats parties were now a Berlin legend), Robert started pulling in around a thousand people. He featured Magnifico, Boban Marković and the Serbian Gypsy band Kal. He had regular gigs in Budapest, Paris, London, New York, LA, and had taken trips to Mexico and Brazil. He was working on a film.
Balkan Beats was now big business. Robert ultimately quit drinking – at least for a while. He was raking in the money now.
Balkanizacija is happening
It used to be that in Mitte you would have a few stray tourists wandering in who had no idea what this whole Balkan Beats thing was all about. Now in Lido you had Spanish tourists who had come over to Berlin especially to hear Robert play.
There were guys like Joe Jackson, five-time Grammy nominee and present Berlin expat from London via New York who had come to Berlin to be a part of the new bohemia and had somehow stumbled on Robert’s Balkan parties and become a regular.
“I didn’t know anything about Balkan music before I came to Berlin,” said Joe. “I’d heard some recordings of Romanian Gypsy music and was fascinated by them, they were so raw and yet beautiful in a way. But I didn’t know that people were mixing this kind of thing up with modern electronic beats, etc.
“I think what attracted me to Balkan music was the raw feeling in it, the mixture of pathos and humor. The other big thing in Berlin, musically, is techno, which I have nothing against – I like some of it. But it often gives the impression of being created by scientists, or even robots. It’s clean and cold. The Balkan music, though, seems to smell of sweat and onions and gasoline. We live in an increasingly puritanical, sanitized world, but Balkan music seems to be saying: fuck you, we’re not too cool to have fun, we’re going to drink, smoke, eat greasy food, dress like slobs, dance like idiots, and not give a damn. Thank God!”
By this time Balkan parties – like the kind of thing that Robert was doing – were being put on in almost every burg in Germany, not to mention Vienna, Paris, London, New York. There were reports of a Balkan scene in Brazil and Mexico. Istanbul was crazy for Balkan. So was Cape Town. The whole western world – and then some – was going Balkan. Balkanizacija was happening – and soon we would all become Gypsies….
Those were the days! The hype has died off now, but the parties are still going full steam ahead. I don’t drink anymore, and neither does Robert. But for my money Balkan Beats is still the best party in Berlin. Long live the Balkans!
by Robert Rigney.
Read more of Robert’s pieces on Balkan Stories.
Title photo: Duldung. (c) Alen Hebilović