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Feature 09 Nov 17

Feeling the Beat of the Balkan Refugee Route

Serbian electronic dance music duo Tapan have turned their impressions of living in Belgrade at the height of the Balkan refugee crisis into a powerful new record.

Matthew Collin

Tapan duo Goran Simonoski (left) and Nebojsa ‘Schwabe’ Bogdanovic. Photo courtesy of Tapan.

When a global crisis came to town, it was inevitable that it would eventually spark a reaction culturally as well as politically.

What might have seemed less likely was that this would come from that most carefree and hedonistic sector of popular culture, electronic dance music.

But that would be to overlook the contemporary Belgrade dance music scene’s roots in the city’s politically-progressive counterculture of the 1990s and early 2000s - turbulent years that exerted a lasting influence on participants like Nebojsa ‘Schwabe’ Bogdanovic and Goran Simonoski, who make up the duo Tapan.

Tapan’s latest release, a haunting, evocative soundscape called Europa, and their debut album, which shares the same name and will be released next month, were inspired by the period when the Serbian capital suddenly became a hub on the ‘Balkan route’ from the Middle East to the European Union.

In 2015, some 600,000 refugees and migrants are estimated by the Belgrade authorities to have passed through the country on their way to what they hoped would be better lives in the EU. This sudden and unprecedented influx of foreigners from the east came as a huge, unexpected shock to the city’s consciousness.

“Nobody was talking about it at first. I was going every week to a place near the train station and I saw so many people there, and I was thinking, who are these people, what are they doing here? I thought that maybe some bus was broken down,” Bogdanovic recalls.

“Then you see how these people are living - sleeping outside, living in tents, with a lot of kids. It’s hard to ignore it, and of course it affects everybody. Some people were afraid of them, these strangers in the city; they don’t know who they are and they don’t want them here. But other people started to organise to do something to help them, bringing them food and clothes,” he says.

The Serbian capital distinguished itself with its warmly humanitarian response to the refugee influx - particularly the non-governmental initiatives that channelled Belgraders’ empathy for the new arrivals.

“I think it’s normal, when you see people who are hungry, who have no place to sleep, who have small kids, to react to that. I would prefer to think this is a normal human reaction,” Bogdanovic says.

With its ominous horn effects, sweeping electronics, rattling percussion and squeals of saxophone, Europa is a powerful, impressionistic soundscape.

Its feeling of foreboding also captures what Bogdanovic says was the “dark and gloomy” atmosphere in central Belgrade when some migrants were living in squalid, almost medieval conditions in abandoned buildings behind the central railway station without sanitation or heating as temperatures dropped well below zero.

“The borders are closed so they cannot go any further to Hungary or Croatia because nobody wants them, and they are stuck in Serbia. People are freezing in the cold winter, they have no place to live after they came here to get away from all that danger and madness and find some security,” recalls Simonoski.

“All of this had a very strong influence on the album. You can hear it like a full journey, from Syria to Europe. Everything is there - the fear, the hope, the whole story,” he adds.

Rock musicians like PJ Harvey, Maximo Park and even Coldplay have also tried to address the refugee crisis in songs over the past couple of years. As British musician Nadine Shah told The Guardian newspaper: “Every day, there were more harrowing stories and images, and it was impossible to write about anything else.”

But electronic music isn’t known for tackling social issues, as Simonoski acknowledges.

“We had one comment [about Europa], and the guy said, this is a really good track and I would love dancing to it, but when I read your story about what it represents, I felt sad and it’s not working for me as a dance tune anymore,” he says.

“But we wanted to send a message. The refugee crisis was really affecting our lives when we were making these tracks and we just needed to say something,” he adds.

Simonovski used to be a member of the Belgradeyard Sound System collective, which had an eclectic radio show on the celebrated but now defunct independent station Radio B92, playing post-punk, avant-garde jazz and electronic sounds. He also recorded dance music under the name Piece of Shh.

Under his alias Schwabe, Bogdanovic has long been a resident DJ at the Disco Not Disco parties at 20/44, the tiny floating nightclub on the river Sava near Branko’s Bridge which has become a haven for more creatively adventurous forms of electronic dance music.

“The boat is small, 100 to 150 people, but we had the possibility to make this kind of community of people. It’s special,” Bogdanovic says.

“Belgrade now is recognised as a place that DJs want to play, and it’s not about the money, it’s because they want to come here. This is something that we should be proud of, that we can make things happen here in a good way,” he adds.

Tapan’s music is rooted in that culturally progressive club environment but is not shackled to its orthodoxies.

“Our idea was always to bring in some of the people who are playing music here but are not in the dance music scene - a guitar player, a saxophone player, a percussionist - and the album is not classic 4/4 beats like you would hear in the clubs,” says Bogdanovic.

“But it still has the massive bass, which is characteristic for our music,” adds Simonoski. “And a message that we think needs to be heard.”

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

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