Belgrade sits on the confluence of two large rivers, the Sava and the Danube, the mighty waterway which connects Germany to Ukraine. It's a valley that has helped connect the West with the Middle East, part of the route the Turks used when they began their incursions into Europe in the 13th century. Because of its strategic location, Belgrade has been invaded more than 40 times in its history.
Despite this troubled recent history, Belgrade has always had a reputation as a great clubbing town. Serbs are at pains to point out they were never part of The Warsaw Pact, and while their neighbours in Romania or Albania were almost imprisoned within their borders, Yugoslavs were happily popping into Italy for a bit of shopping or down to Greece for a holiday during The Cold War.
This freedom gave people much greater exposure to Western music and fashion than other Communist countries, and the government-owned record labels even happily issued albums by acts like David Bowie and Boy George. Indeed, punk was around by 1979, and eventually evolved into a high fashion electro/new wave scene often regarded as the golden era of Yugoslav music. If you manage to get up early enough on Sunday morning, you can visit the record fair at the Studentski Kulturni Centar and pick up classic '80s Yugoton LPs from the likes of the high-heels-and-make-up-wearing Oliver Mandic, Slovenian pretty boys Videosex or electropop duo Denis-i-Denis.
All this fell apart, though, when the Yugoslav war started and the Communist federation that included Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Montenegro slowly and painfully fell apart. It was also the moment that clubbing arrived in Belgrade, and is still seen as a glorious era by many. Ewox, a popular electro-cum-disco DJ and now programme manager of new alternative venue KC Grad explains: "When I started to go out at the end of the '90s I was 15, and I caught the last wave of '90s clubbing. In the middle of this big political shit, the scene was the best—young people who wanted to make some kind of rising against the Serbian cultural scene, the way people were living and the values that were presented in the mass media.
"Then you had well organised young people that wanted to make an alternative to that, and picked up some good vibrations from European scenes like London, Paris, Berlin and started to do illegal raves and to replicate what was happening in Europe. We were an alternative underground scene fighting for a better life, and that brought us together."
During the NATO bombing in 1999, Industria used to run from 3:00 PM until 10:00 AM, a classic Belgrade response to the crisis, the intensity and the danger only enriching the experience. Shortly afterward, a series of huge popular protests led to the burning of parliament and the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic's regime, a time many look back on with nostalgia as the apex of their lives.
By the early 2000s the scene was sustaining large open air shows and larger scale parties, a flourishing of clubs promoting different underground sounds to a thirsty audience, but perhaps inevitably the scene solidified within a few years, and what was an underground movement became an industry; with the exception of B92, the early pioneering radio stations folded and were replaced by sustainable commercial stations funded by advertising revenue and were correspondingly more mainstream in their output.
That the '90s was a highlight and that the scene is currently both weak and fragmented is a common refrain among DJs and producers who were around at that point. Vlada Janjic believes that Serbia now has a "poor pop culture...the cool people left Serbia—the ones who spoke English, who were the most educated." It's an attitude echoed by Ewox: "Isolation is a handicap and harmed the country a lot. It has encouraged people to occupy their own little spaces and they haven't had the opportunity to experience something different."
But inevitably a new generation is on the rise, a generation more optimistic and surprisingly well informed. The internet has reduced the time it takes for music to communicate across borders, Novi Sad's EXIT festival introduces new styles (this year saw a bass-heavy programme including Sinden, Rusko and Rush Hour's Cinnaman) and although it always takes time for audiences to adjust to a new sound, the smallness and immediacy of Belgrade's club scene means committed crews can get a new night up and running in a week.
It's hard to write about a scene that shifts as quickly as Belgrade's. But there are some constant features, like the division of clubbing into summer and winter seasons, which are two entirely different worlds. During winter the city is full of small hard-to-find clubs, basements with black walls and crackly soundsystems sheltering all kinds of subcultures. In summer everything moves outdoors, primarily to floating pontoons and moored ships on the banks of the Danube and Sava rivers, and the broody basement dives give way to huge white spaces where thousands happily groove to commercial house. Then, in August, things almost grind to a halt completely as a large part of the population flees the heat to the Adriatic coasts of Croatia and Montenegro, before gradually drifting back again for the next winter season.
Money money money
Until this year when they were beaten by Zimbabwe, Serbia/Yugoslavia could boast the most zeros of any banknote ever issued anywhere in the world. The 500 Billion Dinar banknote was issued on December 23, 1993, at the height of a runaway inflation rate that exceeded 313 million percent per month at its peak.
In Serbia, money is a subject often lurking just outside the conversation. The Serbian economy is a tough one. With unemployment reputedly exceeding 25% (no one's quite sure) and the challenging university system meaning many people study into their 30s, a lot of young people in Serbia are hard up. There are few fully professional DJs, and they are very often paid by percentage on the bar, which may or may not be a figure the manager makes up at the end of the night.
Ewox: "Here you cannot live from it. At the beginning I didn't care about money, but when they started to call me to play in the region and smaller towns, I could ask a fee. But when you are trying to make a scene in your town you can't expect to earn from that. It's only for your pleasure and to make things better."
Vlada Janjic disagrees: "It's not true you can't make your living out of it, they just underestimate the time it takes to succeed. You can't be successful by just mixing well and telling nice stories. You have to negotiate in the right way, present yourself in the right way, not compromise yourself. People compromise too quickly—they are pushed by club owners to play a certain music, and they leave in a minute what they had imagined for so long as their perfect approach."
The fact that clubs generally don't charge an entrance fee means that it's hard to persuade people to pay entrance which in turn means it's very hard to cover the fees and flights for foreign artists. Marko Nastic blames a spate of free parties run by beer companies. "You start off with so much love but you end up losing it because people won't pay 100 dinars (about €1) to come and see you, even 50 dinars." The result is that there are not as many "name" artists playing as one might expect, and they tend to be more established names from the '90s which are safer bets for the venues.
Schwabe, disco promoter: "There is no money in clubbing. If you cover your expenses, it is a victory. You are doing it because you want to move things. My motivation is that I would like to present a good side of Belgrade for guys that we bring from abroad. We as country have a bad reputation and I think this is one way to make it better in future. I think that we have good DJs but the main problem is that we are not going abroad to play. It would be great if that happened in future because it will bring some good new sounds in Belgrade and someone could actually be a full time DJ."
Marko Nastic: "Money is the problem—in Poland people go out every weekend, there are 50 festivals in the summer, but here younger people don't have money. I know a lot of people who are not working."
Vlada Janjic: "We do six, seven or eight small to mid size parties a year—when we do the small parties everybody wants to get on the guestlist. They all see themselves as an integral part of the scene. As in, without them there wouldn't be anything. And they don't understand the point that they can get on the reduced list but we actually need them to pay. They perceive it as an insult.
"But we worked out a model without relying on them. We do three parties in a row, we don't make anything, we lose. I don't have a problem as long as the party is a good one. Then at some point we do a big party and sell three or four thousand tickets and we make a living. But if I relied on a local crowd that is hip and cool and listens to the right music we would be poor guys, really."
The audience attaches to the DJs and crews rather than the venues, and DJs are expected to bring their crowds with them wherever they go. This can make it hard for new acts to get a break, and there are only a couple of long-running nights that challenge this situation of constant flux.
This is a late night scene—if you go to a club before midnight it'll probably be empty, and then a sudden rush will see it nearly full by 1 AM. There are no licensing laws, clubs can open and close when they want, and you can smoke wherever you like. That said, the police are also quite happy to come in and close down a club if a neighbour has called in a complaint, unless they can be persuaded to go away by some other method (ahem). Despite being a fairly big city (estimated at 2.5 million) it consists of a lot of small self-contained scenes, and you'll often find a large part of the audience is personally acquainted with the DJs and promoter.
While there are few dress codes, clubbing people are generally quite stylish. Serbs pride themselves on their national physical beauty, and '80s style sidestepping while elegantly holding a cigarette is more common than sweaty shirts-off raving. Almost all clubs are free to enter, except when a foreign artist is performing, and this enables Belgraders to enjoy their nightlife despite high levels of unemployment and the generally dire state of the economy. Visitors will notice during better weather the parks are buzzing with pre-clubbers drinking beer or rakija (a strong spirit made from a range of fruits), who then head off to the nightspots and buy one drink and make it last all night.
Free admission to clubs and the compact centre of the city also makes a "club crawl" a realistic proposition. "I'm bored, let's go somewhere else" doesn't have to mean another big outlay in cabs and entrance fees. It's usually just a wander next door and a few swigs from the rakija bottle on the way.
Belgrade is not multi-racial in the way citizens of New York, London, Paris or Amsterdam may be used to and it's rare to see a non-white face. Despite this, a lot of black music styles are well-represented. You may be surprised to find 100 people packed into a basement dancing to hardcore ragga jungle on a Thursday night, and, like most capitals, Belgrade nurtures its own groups of hardcore enthusiasts that pay little attention to wider global trends.
But lastly, and most significantly, the club scene is a seriously divided one, and not just between genres. There is "Serbian music" and "other." By far the most popular music in the country is the indigenous "turbofolk," a fusion of Oriental melodies and electronic beats.
Turbofolk is a whole music world unto itself: With dedicated TV channels, magazines and record companies, it goes from mum-friendly pop to R&B to hardcore rave, all with Serbian lyrics and descending scale melodies, some of which are "borrowed" from big Turkish stars such as Sezen Aksu. Turbofolk has a lot in common sonically with other pop musics all across the old Ottoman Empire, from Bulgaria (chalga), to Greece (laika) and all the way to Armenia (rabiz).
Today there are more turbofolk clubs than Western-style clubs, especially in summer, but the two audiences are often totally opposed—radio stations which play Western styles don't play turbofolk, and Western dance music lovers often wouldn't be seen dead in a turbofolk club. The objection is an ideological one, springing from turbofolk's association with Milosevic, nationalism and war criminals, which was, as Ewox pointed out, everything the ravers were uniting against. This guide will focus on venues playing global dance music, but included are a few of the best turbofolk nightspots for the curious.
Belgrade is a mosaic of small scenes. The internet has reduced the time lag that used to exist between styles coming up in London or Berlin and arriving here, but there are no iconic record shops or pirate stations to act as tastemakers or bind together a scene and visitors may find elements of the club scene quite retro. As well as the usual divisions of "mainstream" and "underground," money is also a key divider. The price of a drink can vary from about €1 to €4, and this is as important a selecting factor as music style, with more underground styles usually ending up in the cheaper clubs, with correspondingly poorer soundsystems and less comfortable interiors.
Given the shifting nature of Belgrade's venues, it's more useful for a visitor to know the names of the DJs and crews than the clubs, so here's a quick rundown of the interesting players and what's currently in fashion: In a compact scene like Belgrade, artists and styles can blow up very quickly—in the space of even a week—and drop just as quickly as the crowd gets bored and desires fresh sounds and fresh faces. But with the scene moving at this speed, they can blow up again one or two years later.
Two years ago electro house was dominating the big clubs but has receded of late, and those clubs are more likely to blast commercial R&B or vocal dance hits now. Disco is coming up with the more mature clubbing crowd: after a six year incubation, importing underground legends like Ray Mang and Rune Lindbæk, DJ Schwabe ("cockroach" in Serbian) and his nomadic Disco Not Disco nights have built a strong and attractive audience and play contemporary material in a variety of clubs, alongside DJ Brka and others. New Rave is also growing: four man crew Banana Rave play diverse contemporary sets and the scene finds its home at the weekly Trashcotheque nights in Club Batler, with an exuberant young crowd prone to dressing up and stage diving, and a range of styles from electro rave sounds to ghetto and B'more club from DJs such as Felony Flats. Production crew The Good Guys have started to make waves with some heavy rave mash-ups which are gaining global attention.
Sound, one of the many floating pontoons and moored ships on the banks of the Danube and Sava rivers
A quick guide to Belgrade
The Sava and Danube rivers are the reason Belgrade is where it is; check out the impressive Kalemegdan Fortress which houses a host of cafes and bars (though animal lovers should avoid the zoo); visit the beach at Big War Island that hosts a small self-sufficient community or eat fish soup (riblja corba) on one of the many riverside or floating restaurants.
You are only 20 metres away from a bakery or pekara at all times in Belgrade. A cheap and reliable source of sustenance, they offer anything from elegant Vienna-style cakes to good solid meat and cheese pies. Burek is the post-hangover favourite, a greasy flakey mound of filo pastry in a range of shapes usually filled with cheese or minced meat.
International cuisine is not a strength in Serbia, so you're better off eating local. Serbs enjoy their food and the city is dotted with kafanas, some charming, some intimidating; most are cheap, although standards vary widely. Try The Question Mark (Znak Pitanja), one of the oldest in the city with a garden and Lord of the Rings tavern-style interior—bull's testicles are on the menu but rarely in stock. Serbian food is substantial and largely meat-based, so vegetarians may struggle, but you can get good salads. For a more sophisticated and modern—but slightly pricier—option try Zaplet, which serves Serbian alongside modern international cuisine, while Sansa in Tasmajdan Park has excellent Italian food for reasonable prices with outdoor seating in a relaxed leafy location.
Hotels have gotten better in Belgrade in recent years. Best and most reasonable of the newer options is Design Hotel President, with a crazy decor of pictures of world leaders but good comfort-to-price ratio and location near the stations. For hostels, Arka Barka is hard to beat—a purpose-built barge floating on the Danube, which is worth the trip to the city centre. Lots of other hostels have recently opened, so there's plenty of choice but booking ahead is advised. Flat rental for one or two days is also a good choice if you're in a group.
Prime pre-clubbing drinking spots include Idiott (sic), opposite the Plastic nightclub: it's a long-term favourite with an interesting playlist that gets packed on weekends and has garden seating in summer; in warmer months a hip young crowd can be found drinking and chatting al fresco in Toplicin Venac, AKA Palace Park, opposite the Palace Hotel. Buy your own beer at the grocery store opposite. Centrala in Dorcol is popular with an arty crowd and has great mulled wine.
Venues - Winter
Tube is probably the nicest of the larger more mainstream clubs, with an interestingly designed space. Entry and drinks prices can be steep in Belgrade terms, attracting a correspondingly upmarket crowd. Batler/Francuska Sobarica is a pair of small clubs connected by a courtyard which host the bulk of the more underground sounds from drum & bass to dubstep to electro, and entry is almost always free. Grad Cultural Centre is a newer venue with a varied programme and good potential.
Venues - Summer
Freestyler is the king of the big floating clubs, with scantily clad women on aerial walkways and crowd-pleasers pumping from the system and a handsome up-for-it crowd. Povetarac is the bohemian alternative, a rusting old ship which is fun to explore although the music tends to a school disco playlist. For the full turbofolk experience head up to Blaywatch or one of its equivalent neighbours—black Mercedes, menacing bouncers, extreme drinks prices and semi-nudity are the order of the day.
Off the beaten track
Final mention goes to two hard-to-find locations on the Ada Ciganlija island, reachable by tram from the city centre and packed with sunbathing bodies in summer. The Black Panther is a floating restaurant accessed by rickety walkway well-known for hosting authentic Balkan folk music, while Gavez is a wonderful but little-known bar/club hidden away in the woods in the middle of the island. It's worth the hunt.
Drum & bass is very well established: the Codex crew push the faster harder sounds and celebrated their tenth anniversary in September 2009. They bring regular guests to their fortnightly nights in Akademija, including Pendulum, Noizia, Bulletproof and Black Sun Empire, and put on one-offs in a range of venues as well playing weekly on Povetarac in summer. They also produce with releases on Full Force and Sinuous. DJ Rahmanee reps a ragga style, which has much bigger following in Belgrade than you might expect, with his own weekly residency at Francuska Sobarica. The Multicolor crew play more liquid styles and throw periodic parties in unusual venues, such as on an island in the Danube only reachable by boat, while All That Bass, (weekly Fridays in the smaller room at the posher Plastic) tends to stay closer to the High Contrast/Hospital Records template, usually throwing in the occasional dubstep banger too.
Breakbeat's lost some of the prominence it had a few years ago, and with the closing of the club Hector doesn't seem to have a home anywhere in the city despite being popular barely a year ago and the presence of some good local producers and DJs. The popular Idemo Na Mars crew (Flip and MKDSL—which stands for "Mama says I'm Pretty in Serbian"—previously associated with breaks and electro, have chosen an eclectic path and are now almost impossible to categorise, but at their best they can be the most interesting DJs in the city. They host a Saturday night radio show on B92, and Flip is resident on Fridays in Francuska Sobarica.
Interestingly, the "Balkan breaks" scene that's so big in Germany and Austria is almost impossible to hear in Belgrade, despite Serbian brass bands being the origin of many of the samples. Shazalakazoo are the scene's most successful producers locally. Scratchmaster Uce, one half of the team, puts it down to turbofolk phobia: "Because the scene is divided, people expect you to be on one side or the other. And yet what we do is exactly in the middle, so it doesn't fit; people don't know where to put us." That hasn't stopped them from building a successful international career with regular European tours and festival appearances.
There's a strong dubby thread running through music in Serbia, even extending as far as the pop charts with bands like Darkwood Dub and Kanda Kodja I Nejbojsha. Serbia has its own three day reggae and dub festival, Trenchtown, and a huge number of soundsystems play there. The more underground expression of this is the emerging dubstep scene, with the hardcore sounds of Noiz already released internationally, visits by The Bug, Tes La Rok and Cotti, and a squad of other producers and DJs including Piece of Shh... and Filtercutter, some of whom (full disclosure) will shortly see release on my own Svetlana Industries imprint.
Techno also once dominated Belgrade's clubs and through the middle of this decade the city boasted a tribal techno scene of global quality, headlined by local star Marko Nastic. Now Nastic and others have moved on stylistically and the scene has been recently dominated by minimal sounds. It's gained enough of a following to host visits from the likes of Luciano and Luomo, and local players include male/female duo TILT who host a show on web radio station Novi Radio Beograd, while fans of older style hard techno should look out for the occasional nights hosted by the Concrete DJz. The female member of TILT, Tijana T, also moonlights as a singer for Abe Duque, which takes her around the world. Local producers include Igor Krsmanovic who's started to see some playlisting internationally. Meanwhile Marko Nastic and his crew continue to dominate, selling out their events and drawing the most enthusiastic crowd reactions I've yet seen in Belgrade.
There is a relatively thriving experimental scene, benefiting from the strong presence of various international NGOs and funding agencies which sustain a number of arts centres and alternative venues. Cinc (pronounced Chinch) produce a series of ambient and electroacoustic shows featuring the likes of Thomas Koner, while the Dis-patch Festival crew tend to produce a number of events during the year ranging from minimal techno to more experimental, usually with visiting artists and local support. There are also occasional noise and electro improvisation events, foremost among the local artists being Lukatoyboy and Igor Stanglizcky, also known as Stung.
Trance is still big, especially with younger kids, and has the potential to fill venues of two or three thousand on a regular basis. Israeli stars make frequent trips, and this scene has arguably the best international connections of any, boasting its own club (X-Lagoom) and a label, Ultragroove Records, organised by the DJ duo of Xperiment and Intellect. Serbia was recently identified as a global hotspot for Goa trance, and there is a major event nearly every weekend—look out for the brightly coloured posters adorning lampposts and billboards in the city centre. Smaller trance nights are held in Namaste.
One surprise in Belgrade is the amount of retro-futuristic synthpop around, something like DAF meets Italo disco. Truly there is a part of Belgrade that is forever nonchalantly smoking a cigarette next to the Berlin Wall some time in autumn 1979, and the Teutonic electro sound seems to suit the grimy urban landscape well, especially in winter; perhaps the black leather jackets, narrow jeans and unhealthy pallor suit a city so full of slim people and where heroin addiction wiped out a whole generation of stars.
Weirdly, despite the large number of bands, there are very few chances to hear them, so you'll have to look out for the rare appearances by Illigalni Emocija, or Aftersleep, but the haircuts will make it worthwhile. Many local electro and synth acts find an outlet in e75 records, an active Serbian net label based in the Southern city of Nis. Also check out Mekonin, a young DJ who plays excellent sets made up of perfectly-beatmatched-yet-really-hard-to-beatmatch-tracks all recorded before his own birth and none of which you've ever heard before.
Finally, like pretty much everywhere else in the world, house dominates the club main rooms at the weekends. Most of the clubs have residents which tends to mitigate against the emergence of stars and the scene boasts more DJs than I could possibly mention here, but among the notable are DJ and production duo Gramofonedzie who as well as being popular funky and jacking house DJs have also broken big this year as producers: Their Peggy Lee mash-up "Why Don't You?" on California's Guesthouse label has been charted all over the world.
The scene in Belgrade often attracts praise, since to an outsider it is more varied and rich than one might expect for a city not often reported about and less often visited. But locals are often disappointed that it doesn't equal the diversity and scale of the major cities of Western Europe, perhaps testament to the fact that Belgraders often like to see their town as something of a cultural meeting point or a regional centre, rather than a small European capital.
Perhaps one area that is identifiably weak is that of production, labels and the actual creation of music, with very few Serbian artists establishing reputations outside the nation's small borders.
Vlada Janjic puts it succinctly: "When it comes to producing music, Belgrade is slow. When it comes to parties and reacting to music, Belgrade is fun, the leading place in the region. Visiting DJs can play much deeper than elsewhere. The crowd is good looking but not posh, there isn't any trouble. The audience is educated, they know what they want, even if it's hard to get them moving."
But he is generally negative about local production. As the selector for the influential Belgrade Coffee Shop compilation series, Janjic receives a lot of demos but ends up licensing foreign tracks to bulk out the compilations due to a lack of quality submissions. In his analysis, younger Serbs have been too infected with the Eastern sounds of turbofolk and are no longer able to produce "funky music." International isolation has cut people off from directly experiencing other sounds, and while the internet allows people to learn and research "we all know that having personal interaction makes things much, much better."
Hope for a brighter future perhaps resides in the inspiration provided by big festivals featuring foreign performers like EXIT or projects like Kids-patch, which sees Belgrade youth getting a taste of music production during the Dis-patch Festival. But it will still require hard work past these fleeting experiences, despite—in Janjic's view—it being all there for aspiring artists: "You have the radio stations, studios, mastering. All the tracks on Belgrade Coffee Shop are paid for. It's not hard to make a breakthrough, at least locally."
Techno DJ Marko Nastic, probably Serbia's most successful dance music export, has a great deal of optimism, however: "I used to travel to Budapest by train and spend all my money to buy four records. The lack of people travelling means there is still a time gap for new sounds to reach Serbia. Also people go out for fun, but there's no real subculture about music—we never had a real record shop. Now with the internet you get everything in your face. In a way, it's really nice, and with this will be born lots of amazing artists, and with the right communication, I believe something will happen here."