Kitsch, criminality and high heels: that’s not all (turbo) folks!
A mix of traditional Balkan music and high-energy pop, with a hint of oriental melodies; scantily dressed performers with heavy make up, accompanied by ugly mugs; explicit lyrics about passion, death and money: this is what a distracted observer would say about turbo-folk…but there is much more to say about this phenomenon that has marked the Balkan history of the past three decades.
Once upon a time, in a land called Yugoslavia, the NCFM reverberated from the mountains to the sea…
My eyes are Adriatic Sea
My hair is Pannonian wheat
Wistful is my Slovene soul
(from Jugoslovenka, 1989)
NCFM, aka newly composed folk music: the forerunner of turbo folk.
Everything started in the ‘70s and the ‘80s with Lepa Brena, Dragana Mirkovic & Co., the uncontested queens of Yugoslav pop music, pioneers in the mix of folk and dance and proud “Jugoslovenka” (Yugoslavian women), singing for the long life of Yugoslavia.
The era of “sponsored girls” and “Diesel boys”
Coca Cola, Marlboro, Suzuki
Discotheques, guitars, bouzouki
That’s life, it’s not a commercial
No one lives better than us
(From CocaCola, Marlboro, Suzuki, 1992)
Serbia of the ‘90s. It was the time of the collapse of Yugoslavia, the rise of nationalism, the celebration of kitsch; it was the golden era of turbo-folk, broadcasted no stop by the newly founded Pink Tv. It was the time of glorification of the excess, luxury and lust, in sharp contrast with the hardship of the bordering war. Turbo-folk became, for many detractors, synonymous of backwardness, nationalism and rural primitivism.
Ivan Gavrilovic “200 MPH”, 1994: an allusive song about sport cars and speed:
Viki Miljkovic “CocaCola, Marlboro, Suzuki”, 1992
“The lady or the tiger?”
Music is playing, everything is crushing
Chaos in my head, chaos in my soul
and everything appeals to you
(From Nije monotonija, 1995)
Svetlana Ražnatović “Ceca” is one of the most iconic figures of turbo-folk. While performing for Serbian troops during the war, she met Željko Ražnatović “Arkan”, leader of the Serb Volunteer Guard, known as the “Arkan’s Tiger”. They married in 1995, in a ceremony publicly broadcast on Pink Tv. Ceca became the beloved “mother of Serbs”.
Nije monotonija (1995) (It’s Not Monotony). In the video, Ceca plays with a little tiger.
Beograd (1995): a song dedicated to Belgrade
From the bombshell to the Grand Stars
During the NATO air strikes of 1999 on Serbia, turbo-folk stars were singing against the bombings. This passionate patriotism spread beyond Serbia’s borders: turbo-folk became a pan-Balkan expression of resistance to the perceived threat of cultural globalization and neoliberalism. From symbol of backwardness, turbo-folk turned into a self-exoticizing emblem of passion, antithetical to the cold West. Zvezde Granda (Grand Stars) is the embodiment of this shift: a popular turbo-folk contest, broadcast since 2004 by Pink TV, in Serbia, BiH and Montenegro, in which young performers from several former Yugoslavian countries and the diaspora are competing to gain a spot in the turbo-folk firmament.
Ibro Bublin, winner of Zvezde Granda 2016, performing “Bolujem ti od sevdaha”
The lady or the tiger? A polished version…
You were my support and fall,
that name that I called
when the whole world forgets about me
(From Lepi grome moj, 2006)
Ceca’s transformation from “mother of the Serbs” to pop-culture commodity, in early 2000s, is emblematic of the mood of the time, that saw the prosecution of war criminals, the prospect of EU candidacies and the unstoppable spread of neoliberal values. Ceca melancholically (and implicitly) sang for her murdered husband Arkan, killed in Belgrade in 2000, evoking also a torn collective soul.
Lepi grome moj (My beautiful thunder), 2006
Pile (Chick), 2006, live performance 2014
The stiletto debate
In 2006, the Croatian singer Severina, “Seve nacionale”, represented Croatia at the Eurovision Song Contest with the song Moja štikla (my stiletto). A huge debate took place about the song, disputing its “Croatianess”; according to some critics it was more representative of “Serbian folklore” or, even worst, of the turbo-folk genre. So, the rediscovered pan-Balkan spirit of the early 2000s not necessarily deleted nationalist stands, but it rather displaced and “commodified” them enough to create a common cultural space, across borders. Severina herself, among the first stars to perform throughout the countries of former Yugoslavia, consciously and ironically presented herself as an “Hrvatica” [Croatian Woman], as she sings in the hit of 2004, dancing in front of Croatian flag.
Hrvatica (Croatian woman) 2004
Moja štikla (my stiletto), 2006
The healing power of turbo-folk
The weekend is reserved for people like me
Tonight, I’m not interested in anything,
Pour me a glass and let the sadness go away.
(From Dara Bubamara “Noć za nas” (This Night is for Us))
The scholar Uros Čvoro talks about the “thundering exalted melancholy” of turbo-folk to describe the potential of transcendence, catharsis and empowerment contained in these lyrics, making them so appealing to whoever feels as an outcast. Turbo-folk stars as Jelena Karleuša and Seka Aleksić have publicly supported LGBT rights, women’s rights and contested the patriarchal structure of Balkan society, giving to turbo-folk performers a new light.
Krimi rad (Criminal activities), 2012
Archer R. (2012) ‘Western, eastern and modern: Balkan pop-folk music and (trans)nationalism’, in
Leccardi C., Feixa C., Kovacheva S., Reiter H., Sekulić T. (eds), 1989 – Young people and social change after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Council of Europe Publishing
Baker C. (2008), ‘When Seve Met Bregović: Folklore, Turbofolk and the Boundaries of Croatian Musical Identity, Nationalities Papers’, Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, vol. 36, issue 4, pp. 741-764
Baker C. (2007), ‘The Concept of Turbofolk in Croatia: Inclusion/Exclusion in the Construction of National Musical Identity’, in Baker C., Gerry C. J., Madaj B., Mellish L., Nahodilova N. (eds.) Nation in Formation: Inclusion and Exclusion in Central and Eastern Europe, pp. 139–58, University College London
Cvoro U. (2012), ‘Remember the Nineties? Turbo-Folk as the Vanishing Mediator of Nationalism’, Cultural Politics, vol. 8, issue 1, pp. 121-137
Cvoro U. (2014), Turbo-folk Music and Cultural Representations of National Identity in Former Yugoslavia, Routledge
Eurovicious (2017), Turbofolk: how Serbia’s weird and wonderful pop music came in from the cold’, http://calvertjournal.com/articles/show/7805/turbofolk-serbias-weird-wonderful-pop-music
Gordy, E. (1999), The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives, University Park
Greenberg J. (2006), ‘Goodbye Serbian Kennedy: Zoran Ðjindjic ́ and the New Democratic Masculinity in Serbia’, East European Politics and Societies, vol. 20, issue 1, pp. 126–51
Lena J. C. (2012), Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music, Princeton University Press
Rasmussen L. (2002), Newly Composed Folk Music of Yugoslavia, Routledge.
All That Folk. Directed by Bojan Vuletic ́. Belgrade: B92 network, TV, 2004.
Giulia Casartelli (b. 1986 in Lecco, Italy) worked in art galleries and non-governmental organizations in Milan, New Delhi and Cape Town. She has been the associate coordinator of the Pavilion of the Republic of Armenia at the 56. Venice Biennale (2015) and she is the co-author with the artist Eva Marathaki of the ongoing project “Clementina”, a collaboration between visual art and literature. She holds a BS in Management for Arts and Culture (Bocconi University, Milan) and a MS in Anthropology and Ethnological Science (Bicocca Univeristy, Milan). She is currently based in Athens where she attends the MA in Southeast European Studies at the National and Kapodistrian University.