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Feature 16 Feb 17

Balkan Kafana Plants Slice of Belgrade in Berlin

Ex-Yugoslavs and Germans are flocking to Vlado Kostic’s ‘Kafana Berlin’, which brings the sights, scents, tastes and sounds of a regular Belgrade ‘kafana’ to the heart of the German capital.

Robert Rigney
BIRN
Berlin
Kostic came to Berlin three years ago. Photo: Courtesy of Vlado Kostic.

Frosted windows look out through metal lattices onto a cold February Berlin street, covered in snow and ice. Hidden inside is a cosy slice of Serbia.

The guests, a mixture of people from the former Yugoslavia and Germans, sit under vaulted ceilings on turn-of-the-century wooden furniture, digging into hearty Serbian cuisine and washing it down with abundant quantities of rakija brandy and beer.

Gradually, musicians trickle in, toting accordions and violins and a jam session begins.

Italian-American Balkan violinist Raffaele Cataldo jabs and swoops at his fiddle, producing a range of melodies, from rousing Thracian, heart-breaking gipsy sounds to playful Western-style swing. In the background, the double bass player plucks deep, resonant notes.

The Serbian accordion-player seated beside a party of drinking Serbs starts in on the Italian Partisan song, “Ciao Bella”, and Raffaele takes up the tune, mutating it into the Turkish classic, “Üsküdar'a Gider İken.”

It isn’t long before Brana, who works as a kind of maitre d’, takes the floor and belts out an ear-ringing rendition of the old hit “Da Zna Zora” [“If the dawn only knew”].

For a moment it is as if both guests and musicians were magically transported from their chilly German surroundings to a Belgrade kafana [tavern] with all its multifarious charms.

This was exactly what the owner, Vlado Kostic wanted to achieve when he opened his joint in Berlin nearly a month ago, aiming to bring the Belgrade kafana culture to Berlin, so that people can eat, drink and make merry, Belgrade-style.

Vlado came to Berlin three years ago and claims to have become a Berliner since then.

“Ich bin ein Berliner,” [“I am a Berliner,”] he says, repeating the famous phrase spoken by US President John F Kennedy during his visit to Berlin at the height of the crisis with the USSR in 1963.

“I’m not a gastarbeiter [foreign worker]. I didn’t come here to work, make some money and go back to Serbia and Montenegro and buy a Mercedes.  No, I’m living this life here. I’m a Berliner and I enjoy life in this city and will stay here, I think, until my end.”

Born in Montenegro, Vlado lived in Belgrade for 22 years. There, he owned Underground, a famous Belgrade subterranean club from 1997 to 2009. Recalling those times of hyperinflation and rampant crime, which gave Belgrade the same reputation as Chicago in the 1930s, Vlado concedes that Belgrade in the 1990s was “pretty crazy, but also pretty interesting”.

“The 1990s were of course the years of the war. It brought many bad things. Those ten years were difficult for all of us.  But we also found a way to enjoy life. There were plenty of nice parties and we had many very famous DJs guesting in the club. We didn’t have too much money in our pockets; probably we spent everything that we had on life.”

Despite the wars and the political, economic and social crisis, the nightlife across the Balkans was vivacious as ever, or even more so, and much of it relied on kafanas.

In the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the kafana stands as a kind of hybrid between bar and restaurant that serves alcohol, coffee and meze – aperitifs, finger food, fast food and especially grilled meat.

The concept originated from Ottoman kahvehanes, or coffeehouses, that spread to the Balkans during the centuries of Ottoman rule. Most kafanas feature live music and are known for their wild nights.  

“Kafana is a very old name that comes in history from the Turkish time,” explains Vlado. “It’s old slang, like the way in Berlin they say kneipe, or something like that. But it’s actually a place that is not only for food and drink, it’s a social place where the people meet.”

Over time, Western Europe has gotten to know the Balkan famous joie-de-vivre, and Belgrade is now one of the top destinations in the region for party tourists.

“Belgrade is the new Berlin ... because Belgrade is like Berlin, a city with a soul,” Vlado says, adding that after many years, he decided to try to bring a slice of Belgrade to Berlin.

His first venture in the German capital was a fish restaurant called Lesendro in the district of Prenzlauerberg. The restaurant was a hit from the start, offering a taste of the Adriatic in Berlin.

“One day I got the idea of a kafana,” Vlado said, adding that he immediately called Lukas Ertl, an Austrian in Berlin who was putting on special evenings in a Berlin bar, kafana-style, with jazz music and swing.

Vlado took over the location, which was formerly a famous old-style Berlin restaurant in the Sixties and Seventies called Zwiwwel, whose selling point – aside from its hearty German cuisine – was its antique Kaiserzeit furnishings, which suited the kafana concept perfectly.

“That’s the catch.  Because when you look at the décor, that is the original décor of all the famous kafanas in Belgrade. You go to Belgrade to visit famous old kafanas and they look like this. It’s the same. And this kafana is a hundred years old, an old Berlin kafana.”

Normally, young people in Berlin – Vlado’s target audience – don’t go in for traditional Berlin “brown bars”, as they are called, preferring a more modern ambience. Not so young Serbs.

“Young people in Belgrade like that. They like that style because they enjoy something traditional, the old songs that we call starogradska muzika, which have a history and very nice melodies. My friends tell me there is a trend in Belgrade towards big parties in the big kafanas for a hundred, two hundred young people with some big bands and singers.”

The typical kafana is a smoky, noisy place, where the consumption of alcohol increases as the night gets wilder. Musical requests are made and the bećari [revellers] try to outdo each other in the tips they offer for the songs they call out.

One of kafana’s great clichés includes spending a small fortune on tipping musicians, squeezing banknotes into their instruments and listening and dancing to Gypsy music till dawn.

The kafana is a place where barriers are broken down and transgressed, a free zone and a stage for unfettered behaviour and surrender.

These are noisy and vibrant places, where old songs are sung with sentimental texts and pathos-drenched melodies. Sometimes the songs are raunchy and obscene, sometimes fired with nationalist sentiment, usually to the frantic accompaniment of an accordion.

On Wednesday evening, like on any other night, Vlado did not care much about the quality of musicians playing in his tavern.

“Money isn’t everything,” he says. “It’s like Serbia. Everyone who is here tonight is happy.”

Yet the atmosphere in Kafana Berlin on Wednesday remained more civilized, more German, then the usual Balkan taverns at the peak of their evening entertainment.

There was no giving baksheesh to musicians, no spitting on large denomination banknotes and sticking them to foreheads. Money was not flying around like confetti.

The guests did not lift their hands high in the air, linking hands and dancing together in circles, in an intoxicated haze. Instead, the atmosphere was warm but discreet, entertaining but restrained.

Maybe it was because this is still Berlin, or maybe it was because there were no Roma musicians here – at least not on that Wednesday night.

Vlado says that for the time being Kafana Berlin will feature jam sessions on Wednesday and proper gigs on Saturday.

Vlado himself works in the kitchen, concocting dishes with a modern accent but featuring traditional elements like ajvar [paprika and eggplant spread] and kajmak [cream cheese].

There are many “Yugo” restaurants in Berlin that were founded in the Seventies and Eighties, which offer large quantities of grilled meat and French fries. Vlado aims to distinguish himself from these places, emphasizing quality over quantity.

“Our philosophy is the Balkan style,” says Vlado. “To be full of joy and enjoy life, because tomorrow maybe will be too late. That’s the Balkan philosophy.

“We do not save much. We spend what we have. Some people think we are crazy because our bank accounts are not so full. But in the end, you cannot bring money into the grave,” he concludes.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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