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15 Jun 11

Turbo-folk Keeps Pace with New Rivals

The musical genre that defined the 1990s still has a strong following in Serbia.

Gordana Andric
Belgrade

Turbo-folk singers will take on the combined box-office might of Moby and Amy Winehouse this month, parading the resilience of a musical genre best known abroad as the soundtrack to Serbia’s wars.

The foreign performers are the top acts at the Tuborg Ultimate Summer festival, held on 18 June in the grounds of the Kalemegdan fortress.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the city and of the musical spectrum, fans of the TV talent show, Zvezde Granda, will crowd into the Belgrade Arena for the coronation of the new star of the Serbian folk scene.

Organisers for each event say they expect to sell about 20,000 tickets.

The decision to schedule both concerts on the same night is testament to the pulling power of turbo-folk, and to a widening gap between musical tastes in Serbia.

Zika Jaksic, the manager of the record label behind Zvezde Granda, said he did not expect the show at Kalemegdan to affect his ticket sales.

“These two events are not in competition,” he said, pointing out that the folk night was billed as a contest rather than a concert. “Belgrade is a big city, there is room for everyone.”

Though turbo folk is scorned by many Serbs for its crass lyrics and its association with the war-torn 1990s, it retains massive commercial appeal.

A single by the genre’s diva, Ceca, sold more than 100,000 copies online within hours of its release in late May. The Zvezde Granda show, a variation of the Idol format, is on TV several times every week and has broken ratings records.

Over the last decade, the genre’s popularity has survived the rise of a vibrant alternative music scene in Belgrade, as well as Serbia’s growing exposure to famous international acts who once avoided the region.

Turbo folk’s lingering appeal might in part be a sign that many Serbs do not support the political direction their country has taken since Milosevic left office.

“The audience in Serbia is split between two opposing sides,” says Jasmina Milojevic, an expert on music and culture.

“One is pro-Western and identifies with European culture, while the other is nationalist.”
The turbo-folk sound fuses traditional musical influences from the Balkans with elements of modern dance and pop. Its popularity peaked during the 1990s, when it came to represent a lifestyle that many envied but few could attain.

“Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Suzuki / Discotheques, guitars, bouzouki / That’s life, it’s not a commercial / No one lives better than us,” went the lyrics of one song that became an unofficial anthem for the time.

Amid conflict, inflation and international sanctions, turbo-folk gave Serbs a vision of untainted love and unbridled luxury.

Media outlets linked to the wartime leader, Slobodan Milosevic, made stars of the young women who appeared in the music videos.

Female singers wore heavy makeup and tight clothes and had their looks further altered by cosmetic procedures and implants. They dated racketeers, warlords and wealthy businessmen, who were regarded as role models by young men with few employment prospects.

At a time when Serbia’s role in the Balkan conflict deterred foreign musicians from playing in Belgrade, the popularity of turbo-folk seemed limitless.

In the decade after Milosevic, Serbia has become a major destination for globally famous musicians on tour. Belgrade has held concerts by Madonna and the Rolling Stones. In the coming months, the city’s residents can look forward to performances by Sting, Santana, Judas Priest, The Cult, Whitesnake and Arrested Development.

Music critic Dragan Kremer believes big-name artists are drawn to Belgrade because the size of the market is bigger than in neighbouring countries. Serbs, he says, do not see relatively low earnings as a bar to enjoying an expensive concert.

“The manager of the Gypsy Kings was surprised when 10,000 people came to their concert, as their album had not been selling particularly well,” he says.

“Serbs like going out more than their purchasing power indicates.”

The alternative music scene has also flourished, with local acts gaining acclaim as punk, rock and electronic performers.

Lazar Sakan, host of TV’s Jelen Top 10, which promotes Serbian rock and pop music, says interest in domestic music has rarely been higher: “We have a lot of fresh new bands and the scene has not been stronger for decades,” he says. His show recently graduated from a midnight slot on B92, an independent TV station, to become primetime viewing with RTS, the national public service broadcaster.

Serbian bands have found an international audience at the well-established Exit festival, which draws tens of thousands of foreign visitors every year.

The annual Belgrade Beer Fest, which showcases domestic rock bands, has also been attracting growing crowds every year, with nearly a million people attending last year’s five-day event.

Serbian acts such as SARS, Darkwood Dub and Goblini are well known throughout the region and play some of their most memorable concerts in neighbouring countries that were once at war with Serbia.

Yet turbo-folk has kept up with the times, borrowing fresh influences from mainstream Western genres while retaining much of its original flavour.

The music has recovered from its lowest ebb immediately after Milosevic was driven from office, when the genre’s stars fell briefly out of favour and were shunned by the media that had once championed them.

Right-wing Serbs today may well be drawn to turbo folk as a reminder of their political heyday during the 1990s.

However, beyond Serbia’s borders, an enthusiasm for the genre sometimes overrides national loyalties. The singer Ceca is immensely popular in Croatia, despite being the widow of a warlord who persecuted non-Serbs.

The promoters of Zvezde Granda downplay the political aspect to the genre’s popularity. They say the music has endured because it has evolved and improved over the years.

“Folk music is healing itself,” says Jaksic, describing the Nineties as an “unfortunate time” when anyone with adequate funds could break into the field.

“It was enough to sell a cow to finance your talent, or lack of talent,” he says, referring to the rural origins of many turbo-folk singers of that period.

“This is not the case anymore. We are trying to promote people who have talent.”

What happened to the stars of turbo-folk?

Ceca

Svetlana Raznatovic, known universally as Ceca, first appeared in public at the age of 16 with a song called Cvetak Zanovetak (Nagging flower).

Today, the mother of two is still the biggest star of turbo folk. Her husband, the alleged gangster and warlord, Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic, was murdered in 2000.

In early April, the singer pleaded guilty to charges of misappropriating funds from the transfer of footballers from the club, FC Obilic.

She also pleaded guilty to a charge of illegal possession of firearms. She was sentenced to one year of house arrest, and ordered to pay €1.5 million in fines.

She still performs and is expected to release a new album in June.

Jelena Karleusa

The daughter of a Serbian army general, Karleusa started her career in the mid-Nineties and recently released a new single.

She had a relationship with Zoran Davidovic “Canda”, who was murdered in a suspected gangland killing in 2000. She was briefly married to Bojan Karic, the son of the controversial businessman Bogoljub Karic.

She is now married to the football player Dusko Tosic. The couple have two daughters.

In May 2010, Karleusa packed out the Belgrade Arena with a solo concert. After last year’s gay Pride parade in the capital, Karleusa wrote a column supporting gay rights.

Ivan Gavrilovic

Ivan Gavrilovic gained huge popularity in 1994 with the turbo-folk anthem, 200 na sat (200 kilometres per hour).

Although he recorded four albums since 2000, these have not made much of an impact. He has been married and fathered two sons, and has worked for a pest-control company and in a garage run by his family.

Gavrilovic returned to the public eye in March 2010 as one of participants in a reality TV show. This year, he and his wife competed in another reality show, Parovi (Couples).  

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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