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Feature 28 Oct 16

‘Balkan Beats’ Guru Has World in his Sights

The Bosnia-born DJ now rocking the music scene in Berlin and beyond pays tribute to the Gypsy sounds - and Balkan ‘broken hearts’ - that inspire him.

Robert Rigney
Robert Soko. Photo: Balkan Beats

Robert Soko, a 46-year-old Berliner from Bosnia, took Europe’s cool and blasé club music culture by storm with his spicy-hot dance tracks, rich in pathos, blending the old and the new, East and West, sadness and ecstasy.

After taking over Berlin, Soko and his music - dubbed “Balkan Beats” - are taking on the rest of the world.

He just published his latest CD and is getting gigs around Europe and beyond while contemplating a movie and other projects.

Soko’s origins and his past were not so cool, however. He grew up in the industrial town of Zenica in central Bosnia, listening in his Socialist-era high-rise to hard-core punk such as Rage Against The Machine, Pantera, Sepulchara, but also to Yugoslav bands like Ekaterina Velika, Partibrejkers, Azra, Bijelo Dugme.

In 1990, as Yugoslavia began falling apart, two years before the war started in Bosnia, he moved to Berlin at the age of 19.

He became a cab driver while hanging out with other ex-Yugoslavs in a Kreuzberg punk bar, a popular haunt of leftists, squatters, unacclaimed artists, alcoholics, assorted lunatics and druggies.

Here he played cassettes of Yugo punk and new wave in exchange for spliffs and beer.

His fame picked up around 1995, with the end of the war in Bosnia, following the emergence of Bosnia-born, Serbia-based movie director Emir Kusturica on the global scene.

Kusturica's seminal film “Underground” introduced Gypsy music and Balkan brass to the world and the trend spread like wildfire in the clubs of Western Europe, peaking around 2010.

Soko came to personify the movement, which came to be known as “Balkan Beats”.

When Dragan Ristic, frontman for Belgrade rock ‘n Roma outfit Kal, put out his song “Gadjo DJ” - about a non-Roma Balkan Dj who had gained popularity spinning Gypsy music - he had Soko in mind.

“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,“ Soko says of those times.

“Before, these bars were Yugoslav, but when it all blew up you had the Serbs here, the Croats there, the Muslims somewhere else, the old story.

“I was not really happy about this. The Arcanoa was a kind of refuge for everybody who was not clicking to that war feeling.”

Soko and his friends celebrated – just for fun – the old Socialist holidays: Tito’s birthday, the Day of Women, Mayday.

The parties were a mix of irony and nostalgia, and Soko was surprised at how many people came, because nostalgia for Yugoslav socialism was not “in” in those days of growing Balkan nationalism. And yet the parties grew.

“Gradually, I began to realize that many of us liked the idea of not belonging to a nationalistic group,” Soko says, “being nothing, being a Berliner.”

Somewhere around 1997 Soko started listing to Goran Bregovic, and playing some of his songs - such as “Kalashnikov” and Mesecina [“Moonshine”]. He was “flabbergasted” at the reaction.

“People were freaking out. I thought they were going to abandon me. Because what is this? Normally I played rock, punk, guitar music, Western guitar music in Yugoslavia with Yugo lyrics – rock, punk rock. And then we would put this on.

“Out of curiosity. Out of irony. Let’s see what happens. And what happened was amazing. And then I started thinking, maybe it’s not so bad. And obviously it goes down really well, people love it.”

Germans started frequenting Soko’s parties in awe of the no-holds-barred style of Yugo partying.

Sensing that Soko was onto something, New York club impresario Steve Maas hired Soko to head a monthly “Balkan Beats” party at his new basement club in Berlin’s Mitte district, the Mudd Club.

The first time I visited Soko’s Balkan Beats party in Berlin, the mood struck me as almost Latin. Latin and Balkan music are both highly danceable, infectious, life-affirming. But the style is different; a different sort of happiness and mentality was being expressed at these parties.

People seemed to be crying and laughing, dancing and mourning at the same time. They smashed glasses and wept. And this, perversely, made them happy.

Soko’s parties became a stage for a whole range of emotions not normally expressed on the Western dance-floor, where people are usually preoccupied with looking cool.

Emotions were what counted; 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.

This condition, usually related to a relationship with a woman or a man, somehow gets more attention to in the Balkans than in Western Europe.

While Western pop music is full of love songs, love and relations between men and women, infidelity and broken hearts seem to be taken more seriously by Balkanites. “We love to have a broken heart,” Soko explains.

“Everyone has 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 recognize it in myself.

“How many times I ask myself: ‘What kind of idiot are you? You got separated from your wife, so what? You don’t have to drink for two years and kill yourself.’ But it’s something in my genes.”

For Soko, love meant also unhappy love, with its misunderstandings and separations.

One of Soko’s frequent guests was Joe Jackson, five-time Grammy nominee and now a Berlin expat from London via New York, who had come to Berlin to be a part of the new bohemia and had stumbled on Soko’s Balkan parties.

“I didn’t know anything about Balkan music before I came to Berlin,” Jackson says.

“I’d heard 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.

“I think what attracted me to Balkan music was the raw feeling in it, the mixture of pathos and humour,” Jackson adds.

“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.

“Balkan music 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!”

In the meantime Soko has moved his parties to Lido in Kreuzberg, where he regularly pulls in around 700 people for his monthly parties.

He flies around the world from Mexico to Japan spinning records, has a new record label and a Balkan Beats film is in the works.

Asked what accounts for his steady rise as a DJ and the success of Balkan Beats, Soko says: “We all profited – and when I saw ‘we’ I mean Balkan Djs – from the war and from all this bad news happening.”

“Somehow, we had this yo-yo effect. Like, normally these Balkan guys are known for murder, rape, you know. [Slobodan] Milošević, killings, blood. Now, all of a sudden you have something sexy and interesting. And it might have been a factor to make it more attractive to these Western crowds.”

Ninety per cent of Gypsy songs are about problems. Yet, how could they be so happy in their telling, in their singing, in their dancing? Soko sees this as the talent of the Gypsies, which is central to the music he plays.

The Gypsies have problems but at the same time remain aloof from them. And this was what the Gypsies were teaching the whole world: 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. Tomorrow may 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,” Soko says.

“In Western Europe, everything has to be correct, especially in Germany. Paperwork, paperwork. Everything has to be confirmed.  This 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.”

While we in the West live in a society filled with fear, the Gypsies simply don’t care. They don’t let themselves be cowed.

“This is what fascinates me with Gypsies, and so I am always telling myself: to hell with all this shit,” Soko says.

“There are always some problems and we always take it too seriously. And it makes us unhappy.  And Gypsies, they don’t care about this stuff. They just don’t care.”

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