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From the Countryside to the Club

Shazalakazoo [1] from Belgrade transform traditional serbian music into electronic dance music – and reach mainly audiences in western Europe.

Balkan Beats has become a European phenomenon, popular in the clubs of Berlin, Vienna, Paris, London and New York. To a large degree it is the result of Balkan immigrants in the West taking the folk music from the Balkans and blending it with Western club beats. Balkan star Shantel has spoken about a new immigrant sound equivalent to the sound that originated in the hands of West Indian immigrants in England in the sixties and seventies.

The phenomenon of Balkan Beats has not gone unnoticed in the Balkans itself. In Belgrade Shazalakazoo [1] are busy manufacturing electronic brass Balkan Beats and they have taken their show on the road in the West, particularly in Germany to great success. The two musicians Uros and Milan took time out from their German tour to meet over a couple of beers in a Berlin bar.

Belgrade in the Nineties

Milan and Uros are native Belgraders. They have grown up with war, international sanctions, NATO bombs, mass confusion. They grew up in dark times, in a situation where daily life was a constant fight for survival. Looking back on those times they now see that, for all the hardships they had to endure, the fight for survival made life interesting. Like all Belgraders, they made do as best they could. Faced with isolation from the West instead of resigning themselves to a condition of ignorance, they availed themselves of what unofficial, underground, illegal resources there were. Belgrade had something unique back then: an open air market of pirate CDs pirated from all over the world. «You could find everything at Belgrade’s pirate market, and everything for the price of a euro or two» says Milan.

There was world music, metal, break-beats. All the latest stuff offered up for sale and tolerated by authorities for the simple reason that Serbia was under sanctions, with the result that the politicians shrugged their shoulders at the pirates, refusing to lift a finger at this illicit trade. «It was the same thing with TV» says Milan. «Before the world premier of The Matrix we had it on TV.» It was bombing time then and Serbia raised a collective middle finger to all international laws. It may seem at first paradoxical, but precisely because of international sanctions people in Belgrade had access to all the latest music and films to an extent unknown in the West. «So we were pretty lucky in Belgrade» says Milan. «There was censorship. But if you wanted to be informed you could be. Who wanted to could be informed for a really low money about everything going on in every part of the world. It was not like that in Moldavia. It was not like that in eastern Germany. It was nowhere like that. Just in Belgrade. And I think there was nothing wrong about it.»

Growing Up with Turbo Folk

During the nineties, during the time of war, nationalism and international sanctions, the music scene in Belgrade was marked by one thing in particular: turbo folk. Turbo folk is a style of music unique to Serbia, but with equivalents in almost every developing country in the world, that blends elements of folk music with Western pop and is characteristic of societies in transition. Turbo folk is relentlessly upbeat, oriental, marked by maniacal keyboards and wailing Turkish style vocals with artists singing by turns of love and nationalism. The most famous practitioner at the time was Ceca, wife of murdered mafia boss and paramilitary leader Arkan. Concerts packed stadiums and television viewers were subjected to a constant stream of low budget, mass produced, kitschy videos full of big busted singers celebrating the materialistic values of Serbia’s mafia dons who were then the real rulers of the country. Turbo folk so dominated the music scene in Serbia that it completely eradicated Belgrade’s rock scene, jazz scene and alternative scene. It was the only game in town. The presence of turbo folk has grown somewhat more moderate in Belgrade since Milosevic fell from power, but it is still a force to be reckoned with and a source of irritation for Uros and Milan. «It’s pure bad taste» says Uros. «Bad taste and overproduction.»

One of the peculiar things about turbo folk and its fans is that while many of its listeners are extremely chauvinistic and strident in their abhorrence of anything non Serb, and outspoken in their hate of Muslims, the music is marked by a distinctive oriental air characteristic of the Muslim music of say Turkey or Iran. «It’s really strange», says Uros. «If you take a guy who listens to Saban Saulic, whose sound is really oriental and you play him some Arabic music, he will say, ‘What is this Muslim shit? We’re going to kill all them.’ It’s crazy. Because all the time they are listening to turbo folk which is eighty percent oriental. But they are like big Serbians who are hating Muslims. There’s this duality.»

Trubaci

What Uros and Milan turned to instead of turbo folk was trubaci, Serbian brass music, which had been traditional in Serbia since the nineteenth century when it was introduced to the country by Austrian military bands. «We know that music by heart» says Milan. «We are from the Balkans and you can hear it virtually on every corner.» «It is good music» adds Uros. «On my street you have here a brass band, there a brass band, there’s a brass band, there’s two brass bands. And every day is like that. I can never remember when there were no brass bands playing in front of the building.»

Trubaci has since become a hit in the West with bands like the Boban Marković Orchestra [2] and Kocani Orkestar [3]from Macedonia playing to packed houses in Western capitals. Western Djs have incorporated Serbian trumpet riffs in club remixes and year by year more foreigners flock to Guca, [4] the annual summer brass music festival in the Serbian countryside.

It’s an odd thing. While brass music is largely popular only with elderly people in central Europe, where the music originated from, Serbian trubaci has a youthful following in Serbia and the West. Part of what accounts for this, says Milan is its «loudness». «When I was at high school, at every high school party they played all kind of stuff, but at midnight Gypsies with brass came into it, and a band of Gypsies with six or seven musicians come into the discotheque without any microphones and start to play and it is so fucking loud. They just blow into your face. Also on the street. It’s so fucking loud that they don’t need any amplifiers.» And so the two Djs started incorporating trubaci riffs into their electronic tracks. «We made a promo with five tracks on it,» says Milan. «One was kind of jazzy breakbeat, one was housey breakbeat, and the fifth track we didn’t know what to do, so we put this trubaci. And the only response we got from the European agencies was, ‘what was that crazy stuff with the trumpets?»

The Reception in Belgrade

For the time being Uros and Milan of Shzalakazoo are in an odd position in Belgrade. «Some people like what we are doing, but they are afraid to say that they like it, because in the so-called ‹urban› young population in Belgrade which makes ten to twenty percent of the young population of Belgrade, trubaci music and folk music is considered as peasant music. As low-life music. Even if they like it they don’t like to admit that they like the music.» Uros adds that the mood in clubs where they play their trubaci beats can often be hostile. «This is the music that boils their blood. So after five or six trubaci songs the emotions begin to rise. And we have problems with that also because we mix the Muslim and Albanian music. It has happened to me that after playing a couple of Muslim songs people come up to me and say, ‹Cut that crap, man. Cut that crap›. So it is pretty dangerous.»

«We very rarely do the whole set of Balkan stuff», says Milan. «We mix Balkan with Brazilian, with African, with normal break-beats. We have to mix it all up. Then they can dance to it. If there is more than half an hour of trubaci it is not for Belgrade. It’s not for urban and it’s not for the other Belgrade. It is not for Balkan and it is not for Beats.»

The reception in the West

For the time being Shazalakazoo’s main audience is in the West. The duo tours Germany on a regular basis and are often in Berlin. Paradoxically, while the trubaci is often what is not appreciated in Serbia, the heavily electronic aspect of Shazalakazoo is what irks some people in the West. «In Cologne when they said Balkan Beats from Serbia nobody expected that amount of electronics», says Milan. «It was the same thing in Amsterdam. They expected a couple of Gypsies doing stuff with violins. But they got two white guys with laptops and only equipment and little knobs playing electronic. So they were a bit disappointed.»