BELGRADE — A few weeks ago, I checked my e-mail in an always-open Internet cafŽ in downtown Belgrade. Among the messages was an invitation from Thievery Corporation — the Washington, DC–based DJ combo — to a release party for their new record, The Richest Man in Babylon.
I missed the party, but I had heard the group’s record already — weeks before its official release. I plunked down 120 dinars ($2) for a bootleg copy of it at a Belgrade kiosk.
That a DC band’s record could be so easily accessed through bootlegging in Belgrade more than a month before its release is magnificently ironic, and underscores two vital characteristics of Serbia’s music scene. The first is that despite a decade of sanctions and isolation, young people in Serbia are au courant about the fine details of world music. When I tell younger Belgraders that I live in DC, right away they ask me about the Eighteenth Street Lounge — Thievery’s ultra-hip downtown bar. Then they ask me about DC’s most famous punk band, Fugazi.
The second, and more critical, point is that the bootlegging culture born during Serbia’s dark decade of war and privation still dominates here — two years after an election and a series of street demonstrations swept former president Slobodan Milosevic from power. In spite of that impressive assertion of political will, the country still lacks a robust economy, one strong enough to support not only musicians, but most everyone else. Further, basic legal mechanisms are simply not in place to prevent outright theft of intellectual property.
"Piracy is an integral part of [Serbia’s music scene]," says Vuksha Velickovic, who writes about music for two Belgrade magazines — Reporter and OK. "Everything is built on piracy here."
Piracy is part of the legacy of a decade of war and economic collapse. It has bred general cynicism, a mood exacerbated by stalled legal and media reforms. In musical terms, the result has been an all-too-understandable gravitation to the escapism of sappy pop music and rave culture, which reflect disappointed hopes for a post-Milosevic rebirth of Serbian culture.
The seeds for such a rebirth could be discerned in the music that helped fuel opposition to Milosevic. Despite massive emigration of young people in the 1990s, artists such as Rambo Amadeus, Partibrejkers, Darkwood Dub, and Ekaterina Velika stayed behind to make edgy rock music that employed satire and rage in its relentless agitation against war and for political change. Their songs were among the clearest symbols that Serbs — and especially young Serbs — did not embrace the wars of ethnic cleansing.
Many of these groups still make music today. They’ve been joined by a new generation of musicians expanding rock’s horizons into dub and techno — and by others who hope to re-ignite careers cut short by the fallout of the Milosevic regime.
Some tremendously exciting music is coming out of Belgrade today — crammed with powerful lyrics and massive but infectious beats. When you listen to the dirty throbbing nastiness of Sila’s anti-draft anthem "Government Call" or the slashing guitars and poetic bark of Presing’s "Ritam u kojem stojis" ("Rhythm That You Stay In"), you are soaking in a city with the feel of Midnight Cowboy–era New York City — seedy, filthy, and teeming with an energy sparked by the friction between flimflam and art.
It’s also a sound that many of Serbia’s musicians and music writers view as an endangered species. Presing’s lead singer, Zoran Radovic, is one such rock pessimist. "The people who decide what is going to be released or played in the media don’t think that what we do should be dominant — or even exposed very much in the media," Radovic says. "When they built a new Serbian culture over the last decade — and even after the political changes — they used an architecture to build a house that put us in the basement."
Just why this sound is "endangered" raises vital questions about how war-torn nations such as Serbia can lick their wounds, resume some semblance of stability, and integrate their shattered economies into regional and global markets — without eradicating their distinctive cultural elements.
In essence, what’s happening in Serbia raises questions of identity and survival. When the forces of repression that drove musical ideas underground finally retreat, can that music be resurrected? Or is it doomed to burial?
AMONG THE "cultural markers" that define Serbia — and other countries in the Balkan region — is the strong tug of history on its collective psyche. Almost any conversation past a casual greeting can turn into a history lesson of sorts. (During the recent elections, for instance, a query about whom a passerby would vote for turned into a half-hour at a coffee shop discussing the Yugoslavian collapse of 10 years ago.)
Serbia’s rock scene has a history as well, and when you hear musicians talk wistfully about the "good old days" of Yugo-rock, it is helpful to know just where that nostalgia is rooted.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, during the latter decades of Marshal Josip Broz Tito’s rule in Yugoslavia, the now-exploded country had a burgeoning rock scene that mirrored that in the US and Western Europe — moving from "classic" rock to punk and new wave in roughly the same arc. Bands such as Sarajevo’s Bijelo Dugme ("White Button") and Belgrade’s Elektricni Orgazm ("Electric Orgasm") sold thousands of records and played concerts in cities from Ljubljana to Skopje.
Yugoslavia’s large size was one factor in this blossoming of rock culture, but its "non-aligned" status under Tito’s rule was another. Unlike more repressive countries closed off in the Soviet Union’s grip, such as East Germany and Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and its rock scene were open to Western influences — and it showed. The bombastic sounds of Ljubljana’s Laibach, for instance, were influential enough to make waves in Western music circles in the late 1980s — when their high theater and artistic manipulation of political symbolism had many critics misinterpreting their message as "fascist."
The cross-pollination of influences among various Yugoslav republics — many of which would be at war with one another by 1991 — also added to Yugo-rock’s vitality. "Belgrade bands were always more popular in [Croatia’s capital] Zagreb, and vice versa," says Vladimir Markovic, guitarist and songwriter for Presing. "Almost every important record by Belgrade bands was first released in Zagreb."
Such exchanges were extinguished by the ascent of nationalists such as Milosevic — and the bloody wars that followed in their wake. As Yugoslavia imploded in a spasm of blood and fire, the market that made Yugo-rock a success was choked off. In the cultural isolation created by war and stiff international sanctions, Serbian rock went underground and took on a new role — political agitation. What replaced it on the charts was "turbofolk" — a kitschy mŽlange of folk music and techno that celebrated the crime-fueled, vulgar materialism of that period.
In the Milosevic era, the private media were not exempt from the murky and dubious legality of bootleg culture. With no reliable legal mechanisms for privatizing lawfully, entrepreneurs simply powered up their stations and carried on at the sufferance of the regime. Stations that ran afoul of the powers that be were shut down or "transferred" to broadcasters preferred by the regime. TV stations that toed the line were left in peace — and even rewarded with stronger signals. It was a fiction, of course, one that implied that "free media" were in place while providing the regime a "legal" means to shut down stations it disapproved.
TV Pink was firmly placed in the favored category. The station was the unofficial headquarters of turbofolk, and played the genre’s videos incessantly. In Serbia during the Milosevic era, Pink had the power and reach of MTV — it defined taste and obliterated all other forms of music. "[Pink] committed a kind of cultural genocide," says Glas Javnosti writer Ivana Semerad. "And ruined a few generations raised in [Milosevic’s] time."
Among the victims of that "cultural genocide" were rock bands such as Presing. The band was garnering accolades for its streetwise, muscular rock in the early 1990s when the war began. Presing released their first album on a Zagreb label just as the shooting started. You couldn’t have asked for worse timing.
But Presing’s problems went beyond mere economics. Like most young men of the era, the band’s members spent time dodging the draft — not always successfully. Radovic took ill and spent years convalescing. Markovic started up a more-poppy band called Tornado Birds, which also crashed and burned. Illness and failure, in other words, piled onto the initial catastrophe.
Such stories are all too common among underground Serbian bands of that era. And then, another catastrophe befell Serbia’s music scene: piracy. As Serbia’s economy collapsed, privation and privateering took hold — and the market went black.
On a practical level, the bootlegs that flooded the country’s market during the economic sanctions were Serbia’s only lifeline to the outside musical world. "Over the last decade or so," says Glas Javnosti’s Semerad, "I have to admit that, practically, piracy was the sole source of the connection with trends on the world-music scene."
Yet two years after Milosevic was overthrown and sanctions ended, bootlegging continues apace. In Belgrade, bootlegging’s epicenter is a string of flimsy metal kiosks that line Resavska Street, outside the Student Cultural Center (better known as "SKC"). There’s a vast array of sounds on offer here — from MP3 compilations and vintage funk to advance copies of new releases. Burned onto cheap compact discs, these bootlegs cost 120 dinars — exactly $2.
Piracy continues to distort reality — and to discriminate against Serbian musicians’ efforts to gain a foothold in the market for their own music. Well-intentioned efforts by shops and kiosks to sell "legitimate" CDs by Serbian bands such as rap collective Beogradski Sindikat ("Belgrade Syndicate") or the moody electronica duo Erogenius pushed the price of those discs to 350 dinars ($5.83), or triple the cost of that Thievery Corporation bootleg.
Pedja Nedic — who is a member of the band Erogenius and the publisher of the Belgrade rock publication OK magazine — says that the price differential is a big concern. "Domestic labels here have big problems with piracy," says Nedic.
In fact, Belgrade’s skull-and-crossbones piracy culture is so pervasive that it leaves almost no one untouched, and breeds an acute survivalist cynicism. Everyone — musicians included — still heads to the kiosks to join what they cannot beat. "We can’t complain about bootlegs," says rapper Dorde Jovanovic of the group Belgrade Syndicate. "Musicians buy pirate CDs as well."
Nedic and his fellow Erogenius member Dusan Godjevac chuckle about their predicament as we talk about the effects of piracy on their own recording careers. As it turns out, they made the spooky sounds of their record, Send and Receive, at the height of 1999’s NATO bombing. To do so, they dodged electricity blackouts, martial law, and economic sanctions to record songs digitally on a computer they’d rigged up. With pirated software, of course.