Turbo-folk music is the sound of Serbia feeling sorry for itself
A product of the criminal Milosevic era, its odd nostalgia is the soundtrack to a new wave of nationalism.
The women parade across the stage, stiletto heels clacking as they croon songs of love and loss – ballads of village girls and heroic battles, of unrequited love and faithless men.
"Wherever I go, I always end up in the same place," goes the final medley, sung by a squadron of buxom, scantily-clad women to the accompaniment of accordions and brass. "Who can tear Kosovo away from my soul?"
The crowd cheers, waves heart-shaped balloons, and joins in. "Serbia, Serbia!" they chant.
This is the beat of nationalism in Serbia, the mournful, pumped-up tunes of turbo-folk, a genre born in the dark days of Yugoslavia's disintegration. And as Serbia confronts a resurgent nationalism – fueled by economic troubles and anger over Kosovo's declaration of independence – the rhythms of the Milosevic era are again playing on the political stage.
Turbo-folk is a flippant – oxymoronic – term that stuck to a genre of traditionally inspired folk songs set to a techno-pop beat. Associated with the brutal nationalism of the 1990s when Serbia was under the sway of the late Slobodan Milosevic, it is as much an aesthetic as a sound, one that is aggressive, brazenly sexual, and dripping with patriotic pride and victimhood.
"Turbo-folk," explains Milos Trninic, a local singer who plays in turbo-folk clubs, "sells emotion."
At the Amsterdam, a popular boat-cafe on the Danube River, young women in six-inch heels totter in, with ever-so-short skirts over fishnet stockings. Plunging necklines are de rigueur and platinum-dyed hair glints in the blinking lights. The men are less flashily dressed; in this world of new-money ostentatiousness, it's the thickness of their wallets that matters most.
Turbo-folk, according to Serbian academic Ivana Kronja, who has written a book on the music, glorified a newly emergent criminal class in Serbia – tied to Mr. Milosevic – that rose to power and prominence in the 1990s. Svetlana Raznatovic – the most famous turbo-folk singer, nicknamed Ceca – is the widow of the notorious Serbian paramilitary leader "Arkan," who was indicted on genocide charges by The Hague tribunal for Bosnian war crimes. She herself was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003.
Once again, these are troubled times for Serbia, which is awash with rage over the Feb. 17 declaration of independence by Kosovo. After the traumatic 1990s – when Serbia lost four wars, was bombed by NATO, and faced international condemnation and isolation – the chastened country seemed to be slowly creeping toward a Western orbit.
But western support for Kosovo's independence has strained ties between Serbia and Western Europe and reopened old wounds.The fragile governing coalition collapsed in the wake of Kosovo's independence declaration.
Now, as the country heads into yet another round of elections on May 11, there's a strong possibility that Serbia's next government will be a coalition with a strongly nationalistic flavor, between the center-right Democratic Party of Serbia and the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, which wants closer ties to Russia.
So, licking its wounds again, Serbia is feeling the resurgence of the turbo-folk beat.
Modern politics here has always had a soundtrack. There was the '80s rock embraced by a generation shrugging off the shackles of communism. The turbo-folk of Serbian aggression in the 1990s gave way to more alternative pop fare – hip hop, electronica, indie rock – tied to the revolt against Milosevic, who was toppled by street protests in 2000.
But turbo-folk's popularity never completely waned, even during the years when Milosevic was on trial for crimes against humanity. The genre's younger generation of fans, who can sing along with the turbo-folk anthems of the 1990s, say the music has shed its nationalistic undertones and now worships only commercial success.
"When it appeared in the 1990s, maybe it was political," says Milos Vuksanovic, the handsome guitarist of a band that plays weekly at the Amsterdam. "Now it's more a way of dressing. The girls, especially, they want to be stylish and to dress and be seen in a certain way."
After a decade of cultural isolation, in the years since Milosevic's fall, new musical styles have flooded in, many associated with the youth revolt. There are now Serbian rappers, like Beogradski Sindikat (Belgrade Syndicate) – who have taken on corruption – and punk bands and rockers. The Exit Festival, an annual concert in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, has become one of the great alternative-music festivals in Europe, attracting people from across the continent.
But turbo-folk still outsells them all in Serbia. The most popular clubs in Belgrade play the music on their busiest nights. Street stalls sell bootleg CDs of popular turbo-folk (and little else).
Local media broadcast their political philosophies through music, too. You won't hear turbo-folk on B92, which started as an anti-Milosevic youth radio station with alternative music and independent news and now broadcasts nationally on radio and TV. Pink TV – a shamelessly commercial TV station – plays endless videos of scantily clad singers belting out the folk-inspired tunes. Its most popular show, "Grand Parade," is an American Idol-like program on which viewers vote for their favorite songs, mostly turbo-folk.
But despite turbo-folk's wide popularity, many Serbs are hesitant to admit they like it, perhaps because the taint of nationalism lingers.
"People try to distance themselves from folk," says Mr. Vuksanovic, who confesses he doesn't particularly like the turbo-folk he sings. (He prefers Phil Collins.) "They put on an act and say that they only listen to turbo-folk when they go out. They are ashamed of it."
For Serbia's politicians, though, in these deeply divided times, music remains a powerful way of channeling ideology. Rallies for nationalist political parties play to nostalgic ballads, and, in the presidential election in February, the differences between the two candidates could be heard as much as seen.
Western-oriented liberal Boris Tadic, who was narrowly reelected as president, campaigned to the tunes of 1980s Belgrade rock, associated with the dying days of communism and the country's opening to the West. But his ultranationalist opponent, Tomislav Nikolic, known as "Toma" to his supporters, was backed at rallies by provocatively dressed turbo-folk crooners who sang nationalistic anthems and love songs with his name inserted as the romantic hero: "This life is not worth living if Toma does not win."
For many liberal-leaning Serbs, the right's embrace of turbo-folk is enough to send them running.
"Those of us who are political and socially aware, we would never go listen to that type of music," insisted Maia Todorovic, a beautiful, dreadlocked 19-year-old at a get-out-the-vote concert before the February election.
"It's not even music," scoffed her friend Tamara Antonijevic.
"Besides," laughed Ms. Todorovic, assessing the crowd, among which there was not a stiletto heel in sight. "We don't have the right clothes."