It was waiting to happen. Sooner or later it was bound to blow up in the clubs and concert halls of Berlin, Paris, London, and New York, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Mexico City, Tokyo, Tel Aviv…The sound of the Balkans. Gypsy music, brass bands, Roma crooners, and Balkan blues, created out of 500 years of cultural mingling of East and West, invading armies, Ottoman military music, and Austro-Hungarian marching bands. It simmered in the Balkans, undercover in Gypsy mahalas, or ghettos, and in rowdy Balkan kafanas (coffee houses), blocked off to Western pop-culture by more than 50 years of Communism and then a decade of Balkan wars.
In the 90’s there had been faint rumors of a new European music – Europe’s blues – brewing in Europe’s backyard. It came through the songs of Goran Bregović and the movies of Emir Kusterica, like Time of the Gypsies, Underground and Black Cat White Cat. A music that had the energy of punk, as danceable as ska, a music that made you want to love, to cry, to throw down shots of slivovitz and to break glasses – napraviti lom – as one says in Serbian, to wreak havoc.
Only when the Balkan wars had ceased and things had cooled down somewhat was it possible for young people from the West to make trips to the Balkans and see for themselves the source of this intoxicating, boisterous new-old music which seemed to offer an antidote to the blasé coolness of the Western dance-floor. Only with the clearing of mines in Bosnia and Kosovo and the demise of authoritarian regimes was it possible for Westerners to see for themselves what went on in Belgrade river-raft kafanas, in Guča, the raucous fifty-year old brass music blow-out in the Serbian countryside, where Gypsy brass bands from across Serbia flock to play for baksheesh, and where Serbs dance and drink with abandon, creating a mood of festivity that rivals Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls or Munich’s Octoberfest.
As borders opened up new music acts started showing up in Western cities like Berlin, Paris, London and New York. Acts like Boban Marković, the legendary Serbian king of brass, and Fanfare Ciocarlia – billed as “the fastest brass band in the world” – discovered by two East German Romanophils in a Romanian backwater and brought to Germany, America and Japan and world-wide fame.
Pretty soon these bands spawned homegrown West European and American acts like Shantel in Germany, Balkan Beat Box and Eugene Hütz in New York and his band of neo-Gypsies, Gogol Bordello, who was “discovered” by Madonna, who very quickly jumped on the Balkan Gypsy bandwagon around 2008.
At the same time Diaspora DJs in Berlin, Paris, London. Vienna and New York where spinning electric Balkan remixes in clubs like the Mudd Club in Berlin, Ost Klub in Vienna and Mehanata Bar in New York. “Balkan Beats” was born.
That I came to be present at the genesis of this new club phenomenon – and even came to be a player as a Balkan Beats DJ in my own right in Berlin and the cities of eastern Germany, Prague and Istanbul – owes itself to chance circumstances.
In 2003, an American writer and long-time expat, I was back in Berlin, my home town, after college in America and after having felt that I had sown enough wild oats in Prague. For three years I worked away in a blind tunnel, alone and disconnected, withdrawn into myself, seeking light and water in books. And then suddenly I felt the need to peg out and escape for a while, disappear some place wild and unknown, and so headed to Serbia.
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 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 kafanas, 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 kafanas 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 in their respective villages, had slept in their barns, eaten their funeral meats, 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).
And then 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 knew 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 art openings, drank with them, danced with them, loved with them
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.
Various newly burnt CDs started falling into my hands by musicians who were inspired by the same things I was, and had had their own epiphanies in Balkan mahalas – Balkan pop star Shantel, Eugene Hütz, multi-cultural Seattle based band Kulturshock and others. I realized then that I was at the forefront of a new trend that would sweep Germany, France, Italy and which would have repercussions in the cities of New York, San Francisco, Mexico City and Cape Town. Pretty soon there would be Balkan Beats parties all over the world.
This book recounts my travels to the Balkans. It is a book in which I try to convey the sights, smells and sounds of Europe’s least known region. It is an account of crisscrossing borders, which sadly there have become more of since the centrifugal break-up of Yugoslavia. The book also picks up the Balkan thread in Berlin and follows my adventures in the Balkan subcultures of the city and inquiries into the nascent Balkan Beats music scene.
In the end I can only say that I never intended to become obsessed with the Balkans. I was only passing through in the beginning. But the region hooked me. There were so many mysteries, so many unanswered questions that I had to find answers to. This book is in a sense an attempt to throw light on the things that amazed me and perplexed me during my eight year journey – during which the Balkans and the Balkans in Berlin was my “beat” in the journalistic sense.
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