The Rebels, the Dreamers and the Escapists of Belgrade’s Alternative Music Scene
Serbia. A little piece of paradise when it comes to natural wealth, food, weather, hospitality and layered culture. But its’ place on a border between the West and the East had set it for a lifetime of trouble. The bloody history and the unstable present prove that well. And through all the good and all the rough times, music was always around Serbian people – whether in a tavern, in a field, or on a battlefield. Most of the Serbian contemporary music – independent or commercial – has almost no connection to any older musical tradition. But the importance of music itself has remained.
Commercial music in Serbia can hardly be recognized as “music”, in a sense of artistic, creative sound output. Like in many other places on Earth, commercial music is simply – business. And running a big business in a small and poor country often gets nasty.
But beyond our sleazy pop, degrading “turbo-folk” and overrated major rock bands, there is real music in Serbia – and it always remains in the underground.
The fact is that today’s Serbian reality is harsh. A majority of young people are unemployed, with solid education but no career perspective. Nepotism and political connections are almost the only means of getting by, but artist usually falls into the category of people who resist, holding their principles above it. Of course, this is reflected in their work.
In the country’s capital – Belgrade, in small clubs which hot-shots, fortunately, never visit, in studios in monumental worn-out buildings such as BIGZ, in the semi-legal pubs, real and raw music is being created or played every day. In line with that, there is a whole new generation of very promising independent bands. They’re here to keep our senses tingling and to help people channel their mourning for cultural and economic decay this country is going through propelled by “economic transition” – or alternatively, to help us forget about it all.
We will take a look at some established and some emerging Belgrade independent rock bands, not by dividing them into boring genre categories, but grouping them according to their attitude, and the way they deal with reality in their work.
Let’s imagine three categories: the Rebels, the Dreamers and the Escapists, represented by two bands each.
The Rebels: BIG(Z) Rough Faith – Repetitor & Crvi
BIGZ used to be one of the largest printing and publishing operations in former Yugoslavia. All that remains of it are thousands of published books and the BIGZ building – one of the most famous Yugoslavian modernist architectural creations.
In the 2000s, art studios and music studios had started nesting in this grotesquely beautiful building. This has created a whole generation of BIGZ bands, also known as the “New Serbian Scene”.
From a long list of bands, several of them stood out. One of them is Repetitor (“Repeater”), a post-punk noise trio which earned its status mostly through it’s furious and euphoric live shows. With music between The Fall and The Oblivians, they appeared at the moment their generation needed a loud voice to express anger and dissatisfaction that continues to this day. Repetitor has played all over the world, including a very interesting show in China.
Voicing the same generation as Repetitor, Crvi (“Worms”) are led by Damjan Babic, a son of a famous Yugoslavian journalist who had become heavily disappointed and openly critical towards society at the end of his life. One could say that this is at least partially reflected in their music. In a way sprouted from, but still different from Repetitor, the music of Crvi is more melancholic and sometimes even more chaotic, transcending the feelings of struggle and dysphoria.
The Dreamers’ color pallets: Autopark & Triko
One can get tired of constant rebellion, and people need a place to rest – even if it’s an imaginary place. No wonder that dream pop, shoegaze, and post-rock are popular genres in Belgrade.
Autopark is Belgrade’s modern dream-pop/shoegaze pioneers. Formed around 2001, with their melancholic guitars, keyboards and airy vocals of Ognjenka Lakicevic, they bring British-style dreamy mood into Belgrade’s alternative scene. No wonder their artwork is usually in grays and blues.
But some dream in more vivid colors. Lyrics of a young post-rock/shoegaze trio Triko are often related to childhood and elementary school years (“Triko” means “Leotard”, and wearing one used to be a common requirement for gymnastics classes in Serbian schools). This adds to the reminiscent atmosphere, but is also in tune with the often hopeful and upbeat mood of their songs, which is quite unlike their other shoegazing counterparts. In a place in which dreams are often heavy and nightmarish, Triko manages to bring in some light; for the most part, their music feels like those dreams where you’re flying without wings.
Escapism in the Americana tent: Ana Ćurčin & Dukat Stray
“They live in this little Americana tent, with a Do Not Disturb sign hanging on the front“. A friend of mine used this metaphor while we were trying to describe the mentality of the phenomenon of Belgrade’s Americana scene, represented by singer-songwriters such as Ana Ćurčin and Dukat, with his band Stray Dogg.
Their musical expression is intimate and emotional, usually singing about personal hardships and relationships. They define themselves as playing (mostly) acoustic music, with lyrics written exclusively in English. The public proclamation of this exclusivity created a sort of a stir among local music critics and fans since Balkan scene already has singer-songwriters and bands that play Americana-style music with lyrics in their native languages.
While acoustic music with lyrics in obviously-non-native-English might not sound very exciting, it currently has a large following. The core motivation of this movement seems to be escapism, a strong desire to be somewhere else.
It is to be expected that when reality is hard, trust and awe for own heritage is lost, and other places are glanced at through rose-colored glasses. Many young people of Belgrade do take the faithful leap and really leave the country; those who stay like to lose themselves in daydreams of different worlds. The new „Serbian Americana“ seems to catalyze this type of imagination.
Belgrade’s independent music scene is a proof that difficult circumstances have a capacity to give birth to engaging art. And time will tell if it also has a power to deeply transform us, and if we’ll rebel, keep dreaming, or try to escape.
Contributor: Katarina Samurovic
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