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Turbofolk As Brand

Only a day after my arrival from Belgrade to Sarajevo in January 1996 a Bosniak, just demobilized soldier of the army under Alija Izetbegovic's command, asked me to bring him from Belgrade Ceca's disc. During following days I received from his fellow fighters a pile of orders for the CDs of Arkan's wife [Ceca], Dragana Markovic, Miroslav Ilic and Sneki

by Zoran CIRJAKOVIC

NIN, Belgrade, Serbia, Serbia-Montenegro, October 21, 2004

The thirst for turbofolk was one of the biggest surprises for me in the still besieged city full of anti-Serb emotions. On several occasions during the war Muslim authorities in Sarajevo even refused clothing and blankets from the humanitarian assistance provided by international organizations only because they had been produced in Milosevic's Serbia. In the first post-war days the word Serb as a rule was synonymous with "Chetnik" and the word "Chetnik" was for many synonymous with the greatest evil imaginable. Most of my collocutors did not hide that they preferred that Serb refugees not return to Sarajevo. Turbofolk was the only Serb product that suffering and almost ethnically clean Sarajevo yearned for after the war.

To waste space on a precise definition of turbofolk, today the only authentic Serb pop music, has as much sense as to attempt to define much wider and even more controversial terms: world music and pop. It is enough to say that turbofolk was created by gradual insertion of electronic sound and popular western beats - from rock and disco music, over acid jazz and hip-hop to rap and dance - in the mold of the "newly composed folk" music.

It is not easy to define limits of this fluid Serb mixture. Some of the performers are more "turbo" while others are more "folk". Even many stars of the so called easy listening music have used turbofolk elements in their music. Over the last few years Zdravko Colic has flirted with turbofolk sound on his records. The author of Colic's big "turbofolksy" hit skillfully used locally little known Moroccan beats instead of traditional Serb turbofolk. Other authors borrowed from turbofolk coming from neighboring countries, most often from Greek skiladika - loosely translated as "dog music" (because of much "howling" in songs) - and Turkish pop. Turbofolk is for many performers a tempting and commercially successful, while at the same time risky and infamous label.

Its infamy is the consequence of the fact that numerous cultural critics totally mistakenly portrayed turbofolk as an invention of Milosevic's criminal regime. Milosevic drew obvious political benefits from turbofolk, but turbofolk lost much more because of Slobo than it won. If it were not for Milosevic's abuse and promotion in the media, if turbofolk did not appear and develop in the midst of the war and economic crisis this genre of music would be even more popular, even more tempting and of much higher quality.

Unfortunately, we elected president Milosevic on our own. On the other hand, turbofolk is our destiny, something that would have appeared and flourished in this region with or without Slobo. At the same time similar pop music genres appeared all over the world. From Casablanca to Jakarta and Tirana to Tijuana almost every third world country has come up over the last few decades with its own version of "turbofolk".

A year before the NATO bombardment of Serbia, Adelina Ismajli, "Kosovo Albanian Ceca", "howled" singing about the "liberation war" and "commander" Ibrahim Rugova wearing military trousers and military issue brassiere. Ceca's songs are lyric poetry in comparison with Adelina's war mongering hits. On the cover of her first CD Adelina, at the time still a teenager, looks like Ceca's double.

Arif Vladi was an even greater "patriot" than youthful Adelina. His cassette "Marshi UCK-se" - which sounds like a mix of "March on Drina", Miroslav Ilic and Slovenian Leibach "enriched" by the sound of cheap synthesizers - could be in the late nineties found in almost every household on the territory of "natural" (Albanians would never say "greater") Albania. During his first concert at a soccer stadium in "liberated" Pristina after the exodus of Serbs in 1999, thousands of fans who were unable to obtain tickets broke through the doors of the stadium. Albanian turbofolk can these days be heard almost everywhere in Pristina.

In parts of Bosnia-Hercegovina populated by Muslim-Bosniaks wide acceptance of turbofolk was facilitated by the fact that Muslim-Bosniaks lived for centuries with the inhabitants of Serbia in the same "Ottoman" cultural space. Bosnian Muslims, never truly accepted by Christian Europe, remain open to everything that resembles oriental or Asian sound. As far as inhabitants of Tuzla or Zenica are concerned the description of turbofolk as "dog howling from Teheran", scornfully offered by a member of the Serbian parliament in the nineties, would be yet another argument in favor of the acceptance of this musical mix.

Some Sarajevans are concerned about the triumph of turbofolk in the part of Bosnia populated by Bosniaks. Magazine "Walter" published this summer an article under headline "Death to turbofolk". The author accuses Serb music, introducing the term music genocide, of "cultural murder of traditional Bosniak song sevdalinka". The only competition to Serb turbofolk in Sarajevo these days is its "close relative", Turkish pop. According to the local media in Sarajevo, Turkish megastar Mustafa Sandal, Emina Jahovic's new boyfriend, charges 25,000 Euros for his concerts in Sarajevo night clubs.

For those who today in Belgrade advocate "decontamination" of Serb music and forced imposition of "higher quality" music, neighboring Croatia could be a proof of ineffectiveness of that idea. In Croatia, which since declaration of independence has been obsessed with pathological Balkanophobia, turbofolk is portrayed in the public as a dangerous, Byzantine and underhanded embodiment of the still menacing Serb evil. Citizens of Croatia have been for years daily instructed by the media that they should be "exemplary Europeans" and "eat fish and drink wine". Still most "ordinary" Croats still prefer Serb grill and brandy, while on the margins of impoverished cities inhabitants frequently openly listen to turbofolk.

Inhabitants of Slovenia are less obsessed by Balkanophobia, turbofolk and Serb grill. Young, "urbane" Slovenes today enjoy turbofolk as an exotic expression of oriental hedonism that is entirely lacking in their culture. Similarly, turbofolk sound has been, still shyly, making headway in the sophisticated nightclubs of New York, Vienna and Warsaw, where Rai, Al-jil and Bollywood music have for a while been favorites of hedonistic visitors unperturbed by concerns of the Serb and Croat "urbane" elites.

Turbofolk is today the most easily recognized and probably the most controversial Serb brand. The "author rights" of all other products that we recognize as our inventions - from plum brandy to pepper spread ajvar - are shared by at least one other nation in the region. Sins of turbofolk are nevertheless incomparably lesser than the huge stigma it bears.

Although recognized in relevant works published in the west as only one subgenre of increasingly popular "World music" sound, this Serb pop has a huge image problem that is most likely irreparable. Svetlana Raznatovic, the biggest star of turbofolk, according to London weekly Observer was for years banned from entering most countries of the European Union. CDs of our turbofolk stars cannot be found in even better music stores in the West, excluding, of course, those that cater to Balkan expatriates.

The success of turbofolk in former Yugoslav republics is especially notable if we take into account that lowest blows to this Serb brand with extreme export potential were inflicted by some local authors. "The system of value promoted by pink turbofolk culture... implies war profiteering, cult of crime and weapons, rule of force and violence, corruption, totalitarianism and conformism, as well as rejection of civic values, such as the rule of law, marriage, family, education, ethics, in favor of the strengthening of warrior patriarchal code and prostitution of women," claims Ivana Kronja, the author of the book "Deathly glitter" [Smrtonosni sjaj].

Kronja is one of the critics who often confuse cause with consequence and draw generalized conclusions from marginal trends in this diverse phenomenon. Even if we agree with Kronja's views about domination of turbofolk as "state sponsored art", it should be emphasized that numerous leftist American authors believe that popular art in the West always plays the same role in legitimizing dominant ideology as the one attributed to turbofolk by Kronja. Both in Serbia and the West during wars that role of pop music becomes more pronounced. Some of American media correspondents who criticized turbofolk and "Target" culture in their dispatches from Belgrade found themselves in the United States after terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. A handful of them confided to me that their homeland under attack reminded them a lot of Milosevic's Serbia.

Kronja in her book about turbofolk mentions "aggressive, sadistic and pornographically erotic turbofolk iconography". Here it should be emphasized that a good part of inflammatory generalizations offered by this Belgrade feminist would be with pleasure signed by every ideologist of militant Al Qaida cells. By the way, Al Qaida includes struggle against turbofolk all over the Islamic world as one of it stop priorities. In order to obtain Bin Laden's version of the above quoted description of turbofolk culture, replace the word "civic" with the word "Islamic" and omit "the strengthening of warrior patriarchal code" from Kronja's passage.

Belgrade advocates of forced "Europeanization" of Serbs as far as turbofolk is concerned are not only unprincipled allies of the Islamic coalition. They share views with some representatives of the opposite pole on the Serb political scene even though they sharply disagree on almost all other issues. Both the impatient "Europhiles" and a small, extremely puritan part of the Serb right, dismiss turbofolk as a cultural pest that must be fought with all means available. Critics from the right claim that turbofolk endangers Serb national identity at the time when it has to be strengthened. On the other hand, the left blames turbofolk for the strengthening of nationalism at the time it has to be suppressed. Various radical strategies for fight against turbofolk proposed by both sides resemble Milosevic's "struggle against kitsch" during the pompously promoted "year of culture" and usually have a recognizable totalitarian or Stalinist tinge.

The problem with many among local critics and analysts of turbofolk and other similar phenomena is not in their as a rule negative valuation of this genre of music but in their clear cultural racists approach. The resistance of our right against Ottoman and other oriental influences easily recognizable in turbofolk stems from their traditional suspicion of everything that does not come to Serbia from the "Eastern Orthodox Commonwealth". In 1994 Ksenija Zecevic said that "turbofolk and its oriental musical influences transforms Serbs from a heroic, epic and warrior nation into a melancholic and maudlin nation".

More numerous and militant "supporters" of our paranoid traditionalists come from the left and arrogant self-declared "urbane" Serbia. They seem to be disgusted with everything coming to the Serb cultural scene south and east of the center of Belgrade. Anything coming from Guca [central Serbia] or Vranje [south Serbia], and frequently resembles products of distant Bombay, Algiers, and Cairo, is for them part of everything that prevents us from accepting the values of "the Western civilization". The true problem is not, as they claim, that turbofolk is bad (which it frequently is) or nationalist (which it usually isn't), but that turbofolk is too "Asian" and "Oriental" as far as they are concerned. Majority of these cultural racists are convinced that most of Serbia, Asia and "Orient" are actually ugly, dirty, primitive and incurably uneuropean places.

Consequently, turbofolk, its interpretation and valuation today is the reflection of the key political problem in Serbia. The Serb liberal elite - political and hysterically pro-Western part gathered in several non-governmental organizations - is still imprisoned by false stereotypes and incapable of communicating with a large portion of the nation it wants to lead or direct. It seems they forget that Zitorada and Mrcajevci [small provincial Serbian towns] are also in Europe and that "Hua Hua" and similar Sava rafts on which thousands enjoy turbofolk almost every night are actually in the midst of Belgrade.

Turbofolk is part of what Serbia - the land that is part East and part West - is and should not be ashamed of. Serbia can slowly approach membership in the European Union only if its pro-Western elite maintain contact with complex Serbian reality and in many ways oriental heritage. Naturally, if along the way it somehow manages to become less corrupt, arrogant and more united.

Even though that seems impossible as far as militant advocates of the idea of the need for forced denazification of Serbs are concerned, Ceca's fans on her most recent concert in Belgrade were not candidates for butchers, smugglers and prostitutes in some future wars. No, Ceca's fans are overwhelmingly nice kids and their parents who want to forget for a moment difficulties of their daily life. Until those who would like to "take Serbia to Europe" understand that, Seselj's Serb Radicals, Raka and Bidza [populist politicians from central Serbia] will continue to enjoy support of millions of Serb voters.

From India To Egypt

Algerian Rai, Indian Bhangra and Mexican Narcocorridos share many characteristics with Serbian turbofolk

Similarities range from abundance of kitsch in video spots in the image of greatest stars and scandals with illegal drugs to the role of disapora and emigrants. Some differences do exist, of course. "Turbofolk" can be anti-establishment, subversive, feminist and even avant-garde.

Stars of Rai music were chief targets of Islamic fundamentalists who in 1991 murdered Cheb Hasni, a popular Rai singer. All great Rai stars since then live in the West, mostly in Paris. Hedonistic texts of this tempting Algiers music genre dealing with charms of (extramarital) sex, alcohol and hashish are, as far as fighters of Algiers Islamic armed groups are concerned, more dangerous threat to their vision of pure Islamic state than the secular regime, Western democracy or free elections.

Najat Aatabou, Moroccan turbofolk star, was not the first critic of discrimination of women. Her cassette was sold in conservative Morocco - in which women are until today expected to enter marriage as virgins - under a highly subversive name "find a different lover" and sold millions. In his songs Amr Diab - in his video spots frequently dressed like our Andrija-Era Ojdanic - celebrates heretical "love without obligations". Egyptian Al-jil music, thanks to Diab - whose nickname is "rebel" - in the nineties became the sound of resistance of tens of millions of sexually frustrated and unemployed Arab youths in their twenties whose lives are still tightly controlled by tradition. His fans mostly live in countries where marriage is usually agreed without consulting future spouses. Diab's seemingly na´ve chorus "my life chose you" is nothing less than a call to rebellion.

Only with appearance of music and entertainment satellite channels that are broadcast in Arabic from Western centers, millions of Arabs got a chance to enjoy forbidden fruit. Music video spots broadcast by these TV stations look like a copy of video spots that were in the nineties in Serbia described as a powerful tool in service of an authoritarian regime. But in the Arabic world wide availability of erotic, escapist and kitschy video spots with clear "turbofolk" choreography and aesthetic was received as a herald of new freedom and the first step on the path towards democracy.

Just like Qatar Al-Jazzira did in the domain of news, these TV stations destroyed the monopoly of state-controlled and censored entertainment media in Arab countries. The decision of the Egyptian parliament from July of this year to ban showing of female bellybutton on TV thereby became totally absurd. Although it removed more than 700 music video spots from the state-controlled TV, it merely increased the audience of satellite TV channels.

Music video spots broadcast by these channels are essentially the same as those we had a chance to see on TV Palma or TV Pink. SMS messages that viewers send to the program do not advertise phone numbers of erotic hot lines. Arabs mostly send SMS messages about Muslim victims and humiliation in Palestine and Iraq and "Satan Bush". These messages, frequently the only channels for free expression, call for unification of Muslims and resistance to the only superpower and Israel.

One of first big stars whose music closely resembles our turbofolk comes from Israel. Recently passed away Ofra Haza was remembered in her homeland as the Israeli Ksenija Cicvaric. Born in Israel as a child of Jewish immigrants from Yemen, she published the seminal CD of Jewish Yemeni folk music. Somewhat later this talented singer added "turbo" elements to the music composed in the 16th century, added oodles of kitsch to her image and became a global pop sensation.

Shakira, a Lebanese Columbian singer, took a different road. She inserted into her mainstream and fairly boring pop hits elements of Arabic folk music and landed on MTV. For tens of millions of Americans loaded with anti-Arab sentiment after September 11 attacks Shakira's music was the only chance to feel the aroma of the Arabian Peninsula. Somewhat earlier, Sting managed to resuscitate his laggard career only with assistance of Cheb Mamie, some sort of Algerian Aco Lukas, recording a duet "Desert rose", a very turbofolkish global hit.

Nevertheless, the most popular genres in the west are diluted and westernized versions of "oriental" turbofolk mixtures. Nigerian afrobeat became known to the western audiences in the westernized version offered by Femi Kuti. Femi will have a concert on September 25 in Belgrade. I warmly recommend the concert to fans of Keba and Darkwood Dub. Unlike handsome and charismatic Femi Kuti who is selling out concerts in the West, most stars of Nigerian turbofolk earn money by playing for rich Nigerians and diaspora in the big cities of Western and Central Africa.

The poor in Nigerian villages as well as other parts of Africa and central Asia increasingly frequently get their visual entertainment from video-projections of Bollywood movies. These Indian movies with international distribution are probably the essence of escapism from cruel reality into a rosy world of riches, kitsch and eroticism. The most important and most expensive part of every Bollywood movie, the "spice" that can turn it into a highly profitable hit, are music numbers. During the movies the story is suddenly interrupted seven of eight times by long music numbers with incredible choreographies and opulent costumes performed by hundreds of dancers and actors at various exotic locations.

The illusion offered by Bollywood movies to the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent where almost a half of population suffers from hunger is total. In the merciless Indian film market Bollywood authors with music and video spots that represent a veritable explosion of sugary kitsch achieve precisely the effect Milosevic hoped for when imposing turbofolk on Serbia during the lean years. Bollywood music is the only turbofolk that lacks its "folk" music. Unlike other similar movies the Bollywood sound was not created by insertion of western influences in some traditional music genre.


Translated on August 22, 2006


NIN