First impressions of Belgrade from Avala train.
September’s melancholic mood with last few glimpses of sunshine offered a perfect backdrop to our first Balkan-bound journey in our project. It couldn’t have been more different to our preceding journey to the relatively clean-cut Poland where the music scene is dispersed into several cities from northern harbor town Gdansk to tourist-infested Krakow in the South, Serbia is more centralized with Belgrade and Novi Sad as the primary music and cultural hot-spots. What’s more, the Central European countries like Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland or even Romania don’t have to confront their fairly recent dark patch on their history as is the case with Serbia. The political and socio-economic context is tangible in every conversation we lead.
The war “monument”.
Belgrade is not a polished, shiny city like Prague, it still retains its rawness and Balkanic chaos. Theoretically, cities like these - as is/was the case with all your Berlins - are usually bustling with creativity and have a strong music scene. Somehow, this, admittedly cliched assumption, didn’t actualize with the Serbian capital.
On the first night, after an arduous 12-hour-train journey (the route of 530 km), completely wrecked but utterly determined, we headed to the promo party of the Dispatch Festival’s, the electronics festival which is set to commence as we speak. Funnily enough - and perhaps tellingly - most of the people we subsequently spoke to were present at this small party. We met Woo, one of the city’s successful musicians who under the auspices of Dispatch crisscrossed Northern America on a 30+ tour this year and frequently plays abroad.
Aside from his more ambient-flaired solo act, he is also part of the improv collective Belgrade Noise whose short gig we get to experience on our final night at KC Grad, Belgrade’s leading alternative arts venue, where they played alongside UK dream boy Chad Valley. As for Belgrade Noise, we also met the outspoken and very likable Dusan Zica who is also active in two other projects - Shining Shitbox and Temple of Stone.
We meet Luka Ivanovic, aka Lukatoyboy - another clubber present at the party - on Belgrade’s castle ruins. On the backdrop of river Danube, we speak about his sounds and inadvertently end up reminiscing of the 90ties, Serbia’s dark times. For music and nightlife, however, the political and international isolation that the Milosevic regime dragged the country into, proved to be one of those times - perhaps like Weimar in the twenties Germany - when hedonism was an act of resistance, or simply a necessity how to survive the abnormal conditions (no school for six months, etc). Nowadays, the local music scene seems to be in a sort of limbo with the political situation relatively stable - albeit still messed up, as we’ve repeatedly heard with the economy proving to be the major problem now. There’s a persistent lack of funds and support/interest for non-mainstream musical endeavors.
Another person in attendance at the Dispatch Night was the English transplant Toby, and former British Council music programmer, the proprietor of the bass-oriented imprint Svetlana Industries with an artist roster ranging from Serbian dubstep (Piece of Shhh.. through Slovenian glitch hop/techno Maya ‘8Bitch’ Medvesek. Interestingly, similarly to another British emigré whom we met in Romania, Eastern Europe despite its many drawbacks outshines their motherlands in the possibilities that it nurtures for their respective fields of interest - for Tom Wilson it’s journalism and for Toby label managing. Nevertheless, Toby and his associate Andrea remain fiercely internationalist and global and defer each of our questions about Serbia.
One of the most memorable encounters happened on a sunny morning in the vicinity of Belgrade’s National Theatre. We strolled in the labyrinthine streets in a leafy residential area to meet the Nigerian musician who works under the moniker K.O.F.Y. “Ahman started as a crack dealer in his home town Lagos, Nigeria in the late seventies, but soon got involved in politics: for engaging in various activities against the rule of General Obasanjo, he had reportedly spent a total of seven years in prison, where he once allegedly shared a cell with the great Fela Kuti. During the eighties, Ahman fled Nigeria and moved first to Kingston, Jamaica and then to Miami, Florida, where he got his moniker K.O.F.Y, working as a doorman in a Latino gay bar,” reads the biog on his Myspace page. A former Nigerian crack dealer and con-man living and producing dub-tinged tunes about Mugabe who chose Eastern Europe as his current home, hm, we were surely intrigued, to say the least.
Belgrade’s noise and experimental label is Ne-Ton. The name, a pun on *TON labels active in socialists Yugoslavia (Yugoton, Diskoton, etc), also expresses the music it presents - un-tone, non-music. Having been created as a label to put out releases of Klopka za Pionira, a band that many hail as Serbia’s only noise-rock project, it also started to release other projects as well. Its founder, Damian Brkic, a guitarist in Klopka za Pionira, and a noise producer under the name Brkic, is starting another project - a fictive quartet called BELI4.