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Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207 brill.


Assessing Turbofolk Controversies: Popular Music

between the Nation and the Balkans

Rory Archer
Centre for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz

This article explores controversies provoked by the Serbian pop-folk musical style turbofolk
which emerged in the 1990s. Turbofolk has been accused of being a lever of the Miloevi
regime an inherently nationalist cultural phenomenon which developed due to the specific
socio-political conditions of Serbia in the 1990s. In addition to criticism of turbofolk on
the basis of nationalism and war-mongering, it is commonly claimed to be trash, banal,por-
nographic, (semi-)rural, oriental and Balkan. In order to better understand the socio-
political dimensions of this phenomenon, I consider other Yugoslav musical styles which predate
turbofolk and make reference to pop-folk musical controversies in other Balkan states to help
inform upon the issues at stake with regard to turbofolk. I argue that rather than being under-
stood as a singular phenomena specific to Serbia under Miloevi, turbofolk can be understood
as a Serbian manifestation of a Balkan-wide post-socialist trend. Balkan pop-folk styles can be
understood as occupying a liminal space an Ottoman cultural legacy located between (and
often in conflict with) the imagined political poles of liberal pro-European and conservative
nationalist orientations. Understanding turbofolk as a value category imbued with symbolic
meaning rather than a clear cut musical genre, I link discussions of it to the wider discourse of
Balkanism. Turbofolk and other pop-folk styles are commonly imagined and articulated in terms
of violence, eroticism, barbarity and otherness the Balkan stereotype promises. These pop-folk
styles form a frame of reference often used as a discursive means of marginalisation or exclusion.
An eastern other is represented locally by pop-folk performers due to oriental stylistics in their
music and/or ethnic minority origins. For detractors, pop-folk styles pose a danger to the
autochthonous national culture as well as the possibility of a European and cosmopolitan
future. Correspondingly I demonstrate that such Balkan stereotypes are invoked and subverted
by many turbofolk performers who positively mark alleged Balkan characteristics and negotiate
and invert the meaning of Balkan in lyrical texts.

turbofolk, Serbia, music, nationalism, Balkanism, auto-Orientalism

Popular music is the language of translation and communication, of the vernacular

and the lingua franca, of the nostalgia echoing from the Ottoman past and the hope-
fulness resonant for a European future. Phillip V. Bohlman (Buchanan 2008: xvi)

Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2012 DOI 10.1163/187633312X642103

R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207 179

Turbofolk genre, conceptual category or lifestyle?

Turbofolk is generally considered to be a musical genre that emerged in 1990s

Serbia comprising a mixture of electronic dance sounds, kitsch folk music and
an oriental tone. The style developed from Yugoslav novokomponovana narodna
muzika (newly composed folk music; henceforth NCFM), the market history
of which began in the early 1960s during a period of rapid industrialisation
and urbanisation. NCFM is commonly regarded to have emerged in order to
satisfy the cultural needs of a transitional majority seeking to rid itself of the
baggage of rural origin while psychologically unequipped to accept models of
urban culture (Rasmussen 2002: xix). Even in its early stages, NCFM pro-
voked debate about rural/urban and eastern/western divides in Yugoslavia;
these debates grew more acute with the rise of nationalism and civilizational
discourse in the 1980s (Dragovi-Soso 2002: 166; Longinovi 2000: 635).
Turbofolk is commonly considered to have encompassed a set of values that
transcended the musical to become one of the levers of the Miloevi regime
(Nikoli 2005: 132). Acknowledging the salience of such claims I nevertheless
suggest that reducing turbofolk to the regime is analytically insufficient. Pop-
folk styles predate Miloevis Serbia, and have outlived it. Pop-folk remains
popular in Serbia and sees a considerable following amongst the ethnic oth-
ers, populations of neighbouring states that were the primary victims of
Serbian nationalism in the 1990s. In Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia,
Serbian pop-folk has become an increasingly prevalent phenomenon since
2000. The pop-folk styles of Yugoslavia and the wider Balkan region do not
generally behave according to nationalist logic.
I seek to demonstrate that turbofolk, as a Serbian variant of a wider pan-
Balkan musical phenomenon, is frequently articulated within the bounds of
the balkanist discourse that Todorova (1997) and other scholars (such as Baki
Hayden 1995; Bjeli and Savi 2002) have problematized. The musical cate-
gory has been endowed with a number of essentialist traits linked to its
Balkan or oriental nature by critics. Correspondingly, I show how turbo-
folk has relied on strategies of stereotype inversion recontextualization and
self-exoticism. Negative stereotypes are turned upside-down by performers
and commodified for a local audience. I consider pop-folk to mediate an
ambiguous post-socialist socio-political context which oscillates between
nationalism and pro-European discourses, the local and the global a kind
of willing regression into a great, scandalous, Balkan neighborhood away
from both Europe and the annoying official homelands (Kiossev 2003: 184).
Such processes link pop-folk to broader debates: the nature of Balkanism,
180 R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207

internalized Balkanism (or nesting orientalisms) and hierarchies of perceived

Europeanness in the realm of symbolic geography and cultural space. I con-
sider elite opposition to pop-folk styles within the broader context of processes
of de-Ottomization which have occurred since the formation of the respective
Balkan nation states. In an attempt to contribute to a better understanding of
the turbofolk phenomenon beyond the pro/anti Miloevi regime dichotomy
which much scholarship has placed it in, I refer to the regional context of
turbofolk, comparable styles in other Balkan nation states, in order to reach
generalizable conclusions in relation to balkanist discourse and the popular
musical styles.
Categorising pop-folk musical styles is a difficult exercise because of the
dynamism and heterogeneity they engender. Pop-folk styles borrow from a
range of spatial and temporal musical traditions simultaneously. Due to their
attributed symbolic and political meanings, terms of categorization are oftenas
much value laden as they are descriptive. A lowest common denominator for
inclusion under the rubric of Balkan folk-pop can be considered to be the
following: the blending of one or more musical styles of the former Ottoman
Empire with modern technology for a predominantly urban audience.
Although pop-folk may sometimes rely on rural motifs and a traditional melos
its development is indisputably urban, the result of processes of appropria-
tion and popularization of folk music in urban environments (Rasmussen
2002: 10).
NCFM, a precursor to turbofolk and other Balkan ethno-pop, is a Yugoslav
product of popular culture, a mix of folk stylistic variety blended with ballads,
pop and/or rock. A trajectory of pop-folk sees the development of NCFM in
the 1960s1 and with a peak in production (hiperprodukcija) in the early 1980s.
This period of hyper-production saw a new generation of young singers and
increasingly pop-oriented production (Rasmussen 1996: 101) paving the way
for turbofolk a decade later. The term neofolk came into more frequent use
not only as a musical style but as a broader mass cultural model explicitly
linked to patriotic-kitsch nationalist mobilization in Serbia during the early
1990s (Dragievi-ei 1994). Following this the term turbofolk2 came into

Since the 1950s party-led state cultural policy was abandoned in Yugoslavia (Hofman 2010:
149; see also Naumovi 1996: 56).
The term was coined by Rambo Amadeus, an alternative performer who claimed Folk is the
people. Turbo is the system of injecting fuel under pressure to the motors inner combustion.
Turbo-folk is the combustion of the people. Turbo-folk isnt music. Turbo-folk is the love of the
masses. Activation of the lowest passions of the homo sapiens. Turbo-folk is the system of inject-
ing the people. I didnt invent Turbo-folk, I gave it its name (cited in Prnjak 2008).
R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207 181

being. This polarizing musical style immediately became associated with the
Miloevi regime, war and the moral downfall of Serbia for its opponents. For
fans it represented a new musical variant, a more modern continuation of
NCFM, tapping into dance music which was sweeping Western Europe at the
time. Turbo implied speed, power and modernity, while folk represented the
remaining semblance of traditional melos (most commonly expressed through
the oriental trilling of the female voice).
In the post-2000 era, pop-folk music has continued to thrive in Serbia and
the wider region, and as the gap between pop-folk and other styles has contin-
ued to lessen, terms for categorization have become even more vague. The
pop element of pop-folk styles has won out in Serbia for instance the dif-
ference between traditional folk styles and turbofolk has never been greater
(Gordy 2005: 16). Despite the defanging of turbofolk (ibidem) the style
remains controversial, having retained a host of extra-musical symbolic prop-
erties. A range of terms (many with pejorative connotations) currently used
in Serbo-Croatian to refer to pop-folk variants include; turbofolk, narodnjaci
(folksies), cajke,3 irilica (Cyrillic), neofolk, digara (liver), (novo-komponovana)
narodna muzika ([newly composed] folk music) or simply folk. References
to pop-folk variants are so dominant that in everyday speech folk has come to
denote pop-folk rather than authentic folk music (izvorna muzika) or
ethno these terms are identified and delineated as such. For the purpose of
this article I predominantly use pop-folk as an umbrella term to encompass
the (contested) variants and terms mentioned above.
Gruji writes that uses of the term turbofolk carry certain cultural inclu-
sions and exclusions, surpassing pure musicological or technical demarca-
tion (2006: 35). Rather than embarking on tenuous debates to establish
what constitutes turbofolk in an ethno-musicological sense,4 it appears more
pertinent to ask who is using it, and why? Concurring with this view, Baker
considers turbofolk to act less as a concrete definition of musical directions
and more as a conceptual category which aggregates connotations of banality,
foreignness, violence and kitsch in order to provide critical apparatus with a
ready-made strategy of distancing (2007: 139). Turbofolk as a conceptual

The etymology of cajke is uncertain but it may relate to szajha, a Hungarian word meaning
Numerous debates have taken place in regards to turbofolk a prominent example (involving
ethnomusicologists and numerous other commentators) is the controversy surrounding Moja
tikla, Croatian performer Severinas 2006 entry for the Eurovision Song Contest (see Baker
182 R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207

category sufficiently captures the nature of turbofolk (and by proxy NCFM,

related variants and synonyms) as a loaded term which usually imposes par-
ticular value judgements upon its subject (e.g. as nationalist, trash, orien-
tal, peasant, Serbian) and functions as an exclusionary rhetorical device.
I concur with Baker in that it is not imperative whether a particular per-
formeror song can be definitively judged to be turbofolk in a strictly ethno-
musicological sense (if such a judgement can even be made) (ibidem). The
focus is to problematize what is being communicated (and by whom) with the
use of the turbofolk label.

Turbofolk as metaphor

The widespread and enduring metaphorical use of newly composed and

turbofolk is a testament to the social relevance of pop-folk styles. The con-
cept of turbofolk (as well as neofolk or novokomponovana newly com-
posed) has been extended in social commentary to refer pejoratively to
various phenomena in (post-) Yugoslav public life. The wide semantic field of
newly composed implies novelty, temporariness, bricolage and kitsch []
a lack of historiocity, stylistic coherence and aesthetic/artistic attributes
(Rasmussen 1995: 242). The gaudy 1990s architecture of Dedinje, an upmar-
ket suburb of Belgrade, acquired the name turbo-architecture. According to
Slobodan Bogunovis encyclopaedia of Belgrade architecture, these turbo
forms are founded on the reinterpretation and politicization of folklore, and
a nationalist mania for mythmaking based on incorrect readings of national
history (cited in Norris 2009: 173). In the same vein, pyramid-scheme
bankers became the novokomponovana elita and corrupt politicians novo-
komponovani politiari (Gordy n.d.). Croatian historian Ivo Goldstein refers to
newly composed history and writer Dubravka Ugrei to newly composed
political folklore (Hawksworth 2008: 199). Papi (2002) links the nationalist
mobilization in Serbia in the late 1980s to turbofolk, calling the process

Pop-folk music and urban self-perceptions

Much criticism of NCFM was levelled against its banality and rural or semi
urbanized qualities (exemplified in lyrics like Poor me who sleeps on a
wooden bed while my Mile is on Apollo 95 or, My village more beautiful

Spavam jadna u drveni krevet/a moj Mile u Apolo 9 (Mainka Luki).
R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207 183

than Paris?6). The style was largely interpreted as a product of acculturation,

suggesting a process of cultural impoverishment brought about by the migra-
tion of rural populations to the cities (Rasmussen 1995: 241). The core audi-
ence is considered to be migrants to the towns and cities of Yugoslavia during
mass industrialisation in the post-World War II era an interplay between
rural and urban ( Jovanovi 2005: 1334). Thematically NCFM has relied on
everyday motifs: love, family, regional belonging, patriotism, the kafana and
the trials and tribulations of the gastarbajter7 (immigrant) world (Rasmussen
1995: 249). Semantically, NCFM texts have functioned as a sum of culturally
recognizable signs rather than singular narratives (olovi 1984: 160 cited in
Rasmussen 1995: 250).
Although NCFM was considered symbolically marginal, and coupled with
spatially and socially marginal imagery of kafane (pubs/taverns) on the periph-
eries of cities, the Ibar highway (Ibarska Magistrala), and Southern Railroad
(Juna Pruga) it became an incredibly dominant cultural phenomenon
described as the hegemony of the periphery (Rasmussen 1996: 106).
Associated with the Eastern part of Yugoslavia, (Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia),
NCFM was popular across the country, consistently outselling other genres.
By the 1980s NCFM accounted for 58 percent of the Yugoslav music industry
(Rasmussen 2002: 169). Turbofolk developed as a continuation of NCFM.
No clear boundary delineated these styles and some of NCFMs biggest stars
(like Lepa Brena, Zorica Brunclik and Vesna Zmijanac) continued successful
careers alongside a new generation of performers. A song by Ivan Gavrilovi,
a new performer of this era, is closely associated with the rise of turbofolk.
His200 na sat (200km an hour), a dance-folk ode to fast cars, is considered by
many observers as archetypal of the new style heralding the age of turbofolk
in 199394.
On the basis of fieldwork conducted in Belgrade in 19961998, Jansen
asserts that in addition to a musical style, turbofolk (and synonyms narodn-
jaci, neofolk, etc.) constitute a whole universe of meaning, closely linked
with the rise of nationalism and wars (2002: 40). He considers those who
opposed turbofolk on this basis to generally be self-declared non-nationalist or
antinationalist and politically oriented within the opposition to Miloevi

Moje selo lepe od Pariza (Rade Jorovi).
Gastarbajter, from the German Gastarbeiter (guest worker) refers to Yugoslav migrants to
German speaking lands from the 1960s onwards. Mostly from poorer villages and working
classes the term implies a lack of cultureand a peasant background similar to the stereotype
of neofolk audiences.
184 R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207

(ibid.: 41). Gordys research shows a similar pattern; he observes that musical
taste became an important indicator not only between the distinction
between urban and peasant culture but of orientation towards the regime
(Gordy 1999: 105). Although turbofolk was opposed as a symbol of Serbian
nationalism, moral decline and the Miloevi regime, other value judgements
are very apparent and have not receded since 2000 (while the cognitive link to
nationalism and war has). From the anti-nationalist standpoint this includes
xenophobic, violent, cheap, kitsch, tasteless and vulgar (Jansen
2002: 42) and garbage, gastarbeiter-like, primitive and Balkan (Gordy
1999: 140164), the epitome of trash culture in Serbia in the 1990s
(Simi 2009: 188).
Gordy observes that in Belgrade, rock music is perceived as high art
which is implicitly opposed to neofolk, which is regarded as Balkan and
primitive, feeding into the larger rhetorical framework of urban self-percep-
tions (1999: 144). Such a framework is probably the most common non-
nationalist way of understanding events in Yugoslavia (Jansen 2005: 154; see
also Brown 2001). During the anti-Miloevi protests of winter 1996/1997 in
Belgrade there was a self-conscious ban on turbofolk which was considered
the antithesis of urban dignity and subjectivity ( Jansen 2001: 4950). The
opposition radio station B92 prided itself that it had never played one narod-
njak (ibidem).8 Narratives which hold turbofolk as morally and culturally
inferior remain salient in Serbia during the 2000s according to Simi (2009)
and Maleevi (2003).

Turbofolk, national politics, and (de)politicization

Serbian variants of Balkan pop-folk have been associated with nationalist

mobilization, the Miloevi regime and its role in 1990s Yugoslav wars and the
social downfall of Serbia (Gordy 1999; Kronja 2001, 2004). Most English
language academic and journalistic texts consider turbofolk from this

A lot has been written about Turbo Folk by both journalists and academics in
the West. For example, journalist Peter Morgan described Turbo Folk as the music
of isolation, while another journalist, Robert Black, described the singers of Turbo
Folk as the balladeers of Ethnic Cleansing. Black added that Turbo Folk represented

Ironically, in the post-2000 period B92 television is increasingly criticized for emulating TV
Pink with low culture programming and incessant advertising.
R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207 185

the sound of the war and everything that war has brought to this country (Hudson
2003: 172).

Turbofolk has been accused by numerous Serbian and foreign authors of

being a medium for the promotion of the lowest cultural habits, a key lever
in the promotion of chauvinism, violence, criminal acquisition of wealth, a
patriarchal social order and other aspects of the cultural and moral downfall
of 1990s Serbia (Dimitrijevi 2002). Consequently, turbo-culture was inter-
preted as highly specific to Serbia in opposition to open global culture
There are clear examples of state support for neofolk and turbofolk produc-
ers and media outlets including TV Pink, TV Palma, PGP-RTS, as well as
individual links between Miloevi cronies and numerous folk performers
(Simi 2009: 208). The marriage between folk singer Ceca (Svetlana Velikovi)
and paramilitary leader Arkan (eljko Ranjatovi) symbolized for many the
symbiotic relationship between turbofolk, state-controlled media and the new
criminal elite (Gordy 1999: 138). Other performers had direct links to the
ruling party, like Vesna Zmijanac, who was in a relationship with state televi-
sion director and Socialist Party of Serbia parliamentary deputy Milorad
Vueli (Aimovi 2001: 34), and Zorica Brunclik, a founding member of
Jugoslovenska Levica9 (the political party of Mira Markovi), and a candidate
for Minister of Culture (Rasmussen 2008: 72). The 2010 Bosnian pre-election
campaign of Milorad Dodiks Savez Nezavisnih Socijaldemokrata10 saw a return
to the turbo politics of the 1990s with Arkans widow Ceca taking to the
stage with Dodik and representatives of the ruling elite from Serbia (including
the Minister of Foreign Affairs Vuk Jeremi) to sing at the final rally in Banja
Luka on the eve of the elections (E-novine 2010). No prominent folk per-
formers were associated with the Serbian democratic opposition of the 1990s,
in contrast with some politically engaged rock and alternative musicians such
as Elekrini Orgazam, Partibrejkers and Ekaterina Velika who promoted
oppositional politics and formed symbolical rallying points against the regime
along with independent media outlets like B92 and alternative music venues
(Gordy 1999; Collin 2001).
Yet a pro-regime/anti-regime dichotomy attributing turbofolk to national-
ism and rock to democratic opposition forms problematic analytical catego-
ries. Simi suggests that such a binary forms just one possible form of discourse

Yugoslav Left.
Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, the authoritarian ruling party of Bosnia and
Herzegovinas Republika Srpska entity.
186 R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207

of music and nation which can be analyzed and does not represent fixed ana-
lytical categories (2007:112). A large majority of musicians of diverse genres
(NCFM, zabavna,11 rock, izvorna12) supported, either explicitly or tacitly, the
official positions of the emerging nationalist regimes and fracturing political
units [in Yugoslavia] (Rasmussen 1995: 197). Rock musicians like Bora
orevi (frontman of Ribjla orba [Fish soup]) and Oliver Mandi, consid-
ered rather counter-cultural during the 1980s (Ramet 1994: 104), wavered
between public agitation for Miloevi and more extreme (etnik) political
options such as the wartime political leadership of Republika Srpksa. orevi
declares in song Good Zagreb chicks, they were like toys to us; Ah my Zagreb
pal, soon youll sing in German [] here we come to plunder all of you; My
Zagreb brothers, Im a peasant from aak, dont let me finish all of you
(cited in Rasmussen 2002: 1978). Ironically, perhaps the only neofolk anti-
war song of the early 1990s came from the (then future) wife of Arkan, Ceca
Velikovi, in a duet with Yugoslav actor Rade erbedija Neu protiv druga
svog (I wont be against my friend/comrade). The song explicitly takes an anti-
war stance and as a result was absent from Serbian and Croatian airwaves,13
being played only in Bosnia. The chorus declared: But I will not, will not,
will not, I will not be against my friend [comrade], but I will not, will not, will
not, I will not be against my own people.14
Although significant numbers of non-Serbian minorities (mostly Roma
and Muslim) were represented in the Serbian pop-folk music business, most
have demonstrated a Serbian national identity publicly supporting a collec-
tivist national spirit (Gruji 2006: 12) while sidelining their non-Serbian
identification. This was predictably acute in the war years of the 1990s in the
context of Serbian nationalist euphoria in which there was not space in pub-
lic life for those of a different faith or nationality (Dragievi-ei 1994:
203). Belgrade-born Roma performer Dej Ramadanovski rose to stardom in
such an environment affirming Serbian ultranationalism with public state-
ments like Brother Serbs, Gypsies are with you15 (ibidem). Ambiguous atti-
tudes on the part of ethnic minority performers in terms of national

Pop music of the Yugoslav estrada associated with Croatian producers.
Rural authentic folk music, often posited as the polar opposite of inauthentic
By this stage Serbian and Croatian state media were in the thralls of nationalist propaganda
(see Thompson 1999; MacDonald 2002).
A ja neu neu i neu/neu protiv druga svog/a ja neu neu i neu/neu protiv narodamog.
Brao Srbi, Cigani su s vama.
R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207 187

identification predate the Serbian nationalist mobilization of the late 1980s

and 1990s. One of the earliest stars of NFCM was born Zilha Bajraktarevi in
Doboj, Bosnia Herzegovina, later changing her name to Silvana Armenuli
upon moving to Belgrade in the 1960s, in order to increase her market poten-
tial ( Jergovi 2004). Similarly, Bosnian-born Fahreta Jahi began her Belgrade-
based career as Lepa Brena.16 Brena sings exclusively in the ekavian dialect of
Serbian17 and publicly identifies with the city of Belgrade where her career has
been based since her rise to fame in the 1980s, linked to a pro-Yugoslav politi-
cal orientation (S.C., 2009). A number of her songs make reference to the
cultural traditions of umadija in central Serbia (aak, aak umadian
rock and roll [] Mile loves disco, disco but I love the umadian kolo [tradi-
tional dance]).18
Brena has successfully maintained a career at both sides of the Drina (and
in both post-war entities of Bosnia) despite fitting awkwardly into Serbian
or Bosnian conceptions of national propriety and being publicly accused of
violating both. A 2004 visit to Bosnia highlights the awkward position Brena
holds in both countries. In the lead-up to a humanitarian concert in her native
Brko some local radio stations held surveys about the appropriateness of her
presence as she had spent the war as a successful performer in enemy Serbia.
Most listeners responded negatively to her visit (R.S. 2004). In Tuzla, Brena
and her husband, former tennis player Boban ivojinovi, paid their respects
at a memorial plaque marking the site of a massacre. The plaque read In this
place on May 25th 1995, Serbian fascist terror ended 72 young lives by shell-
ing. Their visit to this site prompted negative reactions amongst nationalist
Serbian media The ivojinovis discredit Serbs read the Belgrade daily
Dnevni Kurir (Spai 2005). Brenas gesture was also negatively perceived by
Bosnian media, with Sarajevo daily Osloboenje dismissing her gesture as
attempting to collect points she lost in the war (R.S. 2004). In response
to criticism, Brena attempted to depoliticize the situation by emphasizing
her role as a mother and concern for children while her husband sought to
legitimate the visit by calling attention to the ritualization of visits to the

Similarly in Bulgaria the Muslim Roma Ibryam Hapazov began a successful career as
(Orthodox Bulgarian sounding) Ivo Papov in the 1980s (Rice 2002: 27). Bosnian performer
Nino (born Amir Rei) changed his name to Nikola after to converting from Islam to Serbian
Orthodoxy. He then reconverted to Islam in 2004 (R.J. 2007).
Her name in Bosnian (or Croatian) would be Lijepa Brena.
aak, aak umadinski rokenrol[] Mile voli disko disko a ja kolo umadinsko.
188 R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207

monument (everyone visiting Tuzla gets taken here), listing other Serbian
public figures who have visited the site (R.S. 2004).19
Despite the cognitive association between turbofolk, war and socio-
economic hardship in Serbia, the content of commercial turbofolk has gener-
ally been anationalist in form.20 Critics of the musical style concede that it did
not have an overt nationalist lyrical or visual content rather, it aimed to
divert the attention of the population away from the policy of poverty and
war, and direct it towards the attractive and inaccessible image of the lifestyle
of turbo folk stars....an escapist, pink, rosy culture as a refuge from the
gloomy reality (Kronja 2004: 7), an antithesis to the misery on the streets
(Nikoli 2005: 132), and a means of forgetting the present while maintaining
symbolic aesthetic links to global fashion trends through glamorous figures
like Ceca (Papi 2002: 143).
Ceca, embodying the synthesis of Serb nationalism and pop-folk for many
observers, distances her opus from her nationalist persona by depoliticizing
her musical dimension21; although I consider myself a big patriot I have not
one patriotic song in my repertoire, they are all love songs (B92 2004).
Furthermore, she points out her popularity amongst women: Women like
me a lot, when Im touring abroad about 80 percent of my concert goers are
female (ibidem). Voli and Erjavec consider that Cecas national identity as a
Serb gets overridden by her personal identity of a strong, powerful, smart
woman who has triumphed over hardship which is understood by the audi-
ence in depoliticized terms (2010: 104). Ceca is popular in Croatia and Bosnia
Herzegovina, which suffered violent Serbian military agression including
many war crimes perpetrated by her husband and his paramilitary formation
The Serb Volunteer Guard, better known as Arkans Tigers.
Many other singers seek to project a neutral or skeptical attitude towards
political orientation. When confronted with the issue of political affiliation in

ivojinovi listed Gordana Sua, ore Balaevi. eljko Joksimovi, Zdravko oli, aban
auli, Stoja, Mile Kiti, Indira Radi, Ljuba Alii [] and all our sports teams who have ever
visited Tuzla (R.S. 2004).
An agitprop nationalist variant of folk music did develop in the 1990s (see Gordy 1999:
130132) but was rather marginal, the preserve of extremist radio stations like Radio Ponos this
article focuses on music which has a greater mass appeal, artists who belong to the Serbian
In Croatian post-Yugoslav musical discourse Ceca represents the most othered Serbian
performer due to her nationalist credentials (Baker 2006: 284).
R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207 189

a 2004 B92 documentary Sav taj folk (All that folk), performers Mira kori
and Dej Ramadanovski recall that although they have performed for a num-
ber of political parties they did so to earn a living and not because of political
leanings. Singing is implied to be differentiated from politics the duty of the
singer is to sing, for a price. The moral dimensions of supporting particular
political options through song are ignored (possibly for fear of alienating
sections of the audience). When questioned about political activism in the
Serbian estrada (show business scene), Vesna Zmijanac remarks:

Let God help colleagues of mine who are politically engaged! Music and politics dont
go together. Its not terrible that someone from the show business scene goes into poli-
tics, but only under the condition that they do not sing anymore. I cannot connect
the Estrada and its emotion to the emotions of politics one of them has to be false
(Aimovi 2001).

Zmijanac also suggests that performers do not always have the power to
choosewhich political parties or events to sing for: The record labels have a
big role. If they demand a singer sings then they have to do it, regardless of
their own convictions (ibidem).
Although neofolk styles were interpreted as synonymous with nationalism
and war by Serbian democratic opposition in the 1990s, the same style has
come under attack by Serbian nationalists for violating models of national
culture in particular for containing oriental stylistic attributes (Simi 2007:
108). According to an understanding of the nation which considers the simi-
larity of culture as the basic social bond necessary for the political principle
of nationalism (Gellner 1997: 24) the cultural heterogeneity of sources audi-
ble in pop-folk styles renders turbofolk a problematic instrument of dissemi-
nation for some nationalist agitators. Turbofolk has encountered conservative
resistance which considers it as a throwback to taboo Turkish aspects
of Serb identity, thus violating imagined notions of a pristine national culture.
As ivkovi observes, the entangled complex of the Turkish Taint remains
extremely potent in Serbian nationalist mythology (1998). Numerous public
figures in the realm of cultural production saw turbofolk as an attack on the
Serbian spiritual tradition (urkovi 2004: 280). During a July 1994 session
of Serbian parliament, member of the opposition coalition Democratic
Movement of Serbia (and choral singer) Pavle Aksentijevi played a song by
Serbian turbofolk performer Dragana Mirkovi. He juxtaposed this with a
nearly identical-sounding contemporary Iranian pop song, accusing the estab-
lishment of deliberately polluting Serbdom with oriental tunes (ivkovi
190 R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207

1998). Ultranationalist Radio Ponos (Radio Pride) director Zoran oki

showed similar contempt towards the oriental nature of turbofolk, for exam-
ple stating that even though folk performer Branka Sovrli was not Muslim,
her songs sound very Islamic and as a result his station did not play her
music (Gordy 1999: 134).
Dimitrijevi believes that the discourse of turbofolk critics is largely based
on the same ideological premise that Miloevi used during the late 1980s a
cultural-racist resistance to cultural influences that are in general recognized
as malignant tissue in the healthy body of the true Serb tradition (2002). He
believes that many authors make one fundamental assumption when address-
ing turbofolk; turbo-culture as a medium for the promotion of the lowest
cultural and civilizational habits specific to Serbia and opposed to global cul-
ture (ibidem). Thus he suggests that the key argument against turbofolk is not
based on nationalist cooption of the style but rather on orientalist attitudes
which hold eastern cultural sources to be a danger for nationally framed cul-
ture. Such assumptions correspond to public discussions and panicked debates
in other Balkan states where the explosion of pop-folk styles that borrow from
Ottoman sources was perceived as a social ill in the post-communist era.

Balkanist discourse and pop-folk music

In the Balkan Peninsula in the early 1990s, the demise of socialism gave a
greater impetus to a return to Europe through democratization and free
market economics. Democratization enabled the spread of pop-folk by reduc-
ing the burden of state supervision in cultural production. The unrestrained
free market, coupled with technological advancement, further facilitated the
proliferation of pop-folk via (mostly pirated) cassettes in response to popu-
lar demand. The various Balkan pop-folk styles inflected by the Ottoman
Ecumene exhibit a symbiotic development, particularly during and after the
later years of socialism when NCFM penetrated the borders of Yugoslavias
Eastern neighbours. As Yugoslav NCFM developed largely free from the rigor-
ous national cultural models imposed by the harsh communist regimes of
Bulgaria, Romania and Albania it served as a source and model to be emulated
in the region.
Chalga ( also called popfolk or ethnofolk) is the most common
name for a musical folk hybrid that emerged in Bulgaria in the 1990s. It devel-
oped from svatbarska muzika (wedding music performed mainly by Roma
bands) and was disseminated largely by live performances and pirated cassettes
R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207 191

(Kurkela 2008: 146). Commentators insisted it derived from Serbian eth-

nopop prototypes (Buchanan 2008: 233). A similar phenomenon is known
as muzic oriental or manele in Romania and similarly developed as a conflu-
ence point of Romani wedding music and Yugoslav NCFM which began to
penetrate the Banat region located beside the Serbian border (Beissinger
2008). In Albanian-inhabited lands (Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Western
Macedonia) muzika popullore developed in the post-socialist period paralleling
other regional styles and incorporating Albanian Ottoman-derived urban and
rural traditional music, elements of rock and jazz, Romani tallava, and Turkish
arabesk (Sugarman 2008: 271-275).
In all Balkan states these musical styles faced significant opposition on the
part of national elites during socialism and afterwards when both pro-Euro-
pean liberals and conservative nationalists challenged the widespread popular-
ity of pop-folk styles in the realm of popular culture. Keeping in mind that
Balkan pop-folk forms part of a broader post-Ottoman cultural legacy, state-
and elite-driven efforts to marginalize them can be considered within the
broader context of de-Ottomanization, a process occurring in all Balkan
nation states since independence, fluctuating according to waves of national-
ism according to Todorova (1997: 183).

After the introduction of nationalism in the area during the first half of the nineteenth
century, the Turkish yoke, or the Ottoman political and cultural influence, became
a serious problem for the Western-oriented members of the educated classes. In their
train of thought, national culture, including folk music, had to be free from foreign
influencesincluding those of the Ottoman Turks (Pennanen 2008: 127).

Todorova considers that processes of de-Ottomonanization were more suc-

cessful in the material public sphere while phenomena like food, music, popu-
lar beliefs, customs, attitudes, and value systems were more tenacious (1997:
Eclectic pop-folk musical styles have provoked quite similar narratives on
the part of opponents in the Balkan nation-states. Three broad criticisms
emerge in former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania:

1. pop-folk as aesthetically poor (kitsch, banal, pornographic, violent)

2. pop-folk as rural or rurban (a symptom of the failure to adapt to urban
life and values in the city; failing to correctly adapt to modernzation)
3. pop-folk as oriental (often articulated in terms of orientalist or balkanist
discourse by opponents who presuppose eastern sources to be inferior and
devalue the participation of resident ethnic minorities).
192 R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207

Having gained a host of extra-musical attributes, evident by the widespread

metaphorical use and widespread criticism of the style, turbofolk (and its
Balkan sister variants) can be understood as an explicitly balkanist construct
both due to its geographical origins and its implications of violence, eroticism,
barbarity and otherness that Todorova (1997) identifies as attributed to the
Balkan stereotype. Just as Balkan has a liminal position within Europe as its
internal other according to such rhetoric, pop-folk styles have a liminal and
peripheral position within the cultural space of Balkan nation states in it but
not of it, a frame of reference often used as a discursive means of marginaliza-
tion or exclusion. An eastern other is represented domestically by pop-folk
performers, oriental stylistics and/or the performers ethnic origins. For detrac-
tors such styles appeared to pose a danger to autochthonous national culture
as well as the possibility of a European and cosmopolitan future (cf.
Buchanan 2008; Rice 2002; Bessinger 2007; Stokes 1992).
Debates of the source of the other vary according to geographical posi-
tion, adhering to patterns of nesting orientalisms hierarchical patterns
of internal orientalism coupled with base civilizational discourse (Baki
Hayden 1995). Egypt is oriental vis--vis Turkey, Turkey vis--vis Serbia,
Serbia vis--vis Croatia and so on. In terms of music these patterns are simi-
larly remapped Egyptian film music is viewed as a problematic source for
Turkish arabesk (Stokes 1992), Turkish arabesk is criticised as having intruded
on Serbian NCFM, and Croatian commentators have lamented the influence
of Serbian pop-folk in their domestic market (Baker 2007, 2008). Associations
with the west are commonly seen as affording prestige according to the logic
of (internalized) balkanist discourse, thus accounting for the Romanian and
Bulgarian affinity for Yugoslav NCFM (particularly in the latter years of the
communist regimes). The comparatively liberal nature of Yugoslav socialism
with its western trappings and glamorous estrada combined to make it an
attractive product of consumption NCFM was considered more western
than Bulgarian music and yet closer to home (Buchananan 2008: 233). In
Romania and Bulgaria Ethno-pop musical forms arose in tandem with glas-
nost and perestroika in the mid-1980s and signified an emergent sense of
regional Balkan consciousness within the European continent (Buchanan
2002: 45). This musical style became an icon of the possibilities of personal
freedom and expression within a totalitarian regime and a harbinger of the
political changes to come (Rice 2002: 27; Archer and Rcz 2012: 67).
Serbian music sounded freer, more appealing, more innovative, containing
more interesting moves. It was full of melismas, orientalisms, and sexual
R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207 193

lethargy indicative of music for the Serbian kafana, itself a vestige of the for-
mer Ottoman presence (Buchanan 2008: 247).
Despite being understood as a western and liberating phenomenon by
fans in Romania and Bulgaria, in Yugoslavia at the time, NCFM was seen
despite its massive popularity as an inferior Eastern cultural frame, evi-
dence of a civilizational divide in Yugoslavia between an internal East (Serbia)
and West (Slovenia and Croatia), a view which was gaining political currency
by the late 1980s. From its inception in Yugoslavia, NCFM crystallized inter-
nally divisive issues, chief among them the distinction between Yugoslavias
east and west (Rasmussen 2002: xix). This became more acute with the adop-
tion of more oriental sounding stylistics by musicians in the 1980s in par-
ticular the musicians of Juni Vetar (Southern Wind) who worked with a
number of up and coming NCFM singers. The media exclusion and the
marginalization by the industry on the one hand and the musics great popu-
larity with the audience on the other suggest the oppositional dynamics of
the oriental surge (Rasmussen 1996: 99). The pattern of debate seen in the
other Balkan nation states in the 1990s was already beginning in Yugoslavia in
the 1980s. These debates hinged on the notion of the unsuitability of eastern
musical sources for the national audience and mutual exclusivity of these
sources and national culture.
As I have written elsewhere (Archer, 2012) panicked discourses generated
by regional pop-folk styles in other Balkan states (as well as in Israel, Turkey
and Egypt) are remarkably similar to that of neofolk variants in Serbia/
Yugoslavia (though stripped from cognitive associations linking war and pop-
folk music). Bulgaria for example has seen heated public debates since the
1990s where chalga has been accused of endangering Bulgarian national iden-
tity due to its supposed primitivism and backwardness. Implicit in such
debates is the symbolic exclusion of the local other, heavily represented in
chalga by Bulgarias largest minorities, Turks and Roma (see Levy 2002). Some
established musicians called for institutional control, i.e. censorship, to limit
the musics access to the media. They demanded the cleansing of the national
soundscape of what were deemed to be bad, vulgar, and strange sounds
coming from the uncivilised experiences of local Roma and Turks (ibid.:
Similar concerns were raised in national terms in Romania. Beissinger
writes that muzic oriental brings to the fore discussions of where Romania
lies in relation to the Balkan/Europe construct as well as the position of Roma
and other national minorities within contemporary Romania (2008: 97). The
194 R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207

explicit oriental tone of muzic oriental has a polarizing influence in

Romanian society by challenging national narratives of European belong-
ing, and is used as cultural shorthand which produces dichotomous value
judgements. Its fans and supporters are considered to belong to a nouveau-
riche class that has emerged during the postcommunist period, urban work-
ing classes and new rural migrants to the city while its detractors are by and
large, the urban elite the ethnic Romanians who are relatively or well edu-
cated (ibid.: 129, 131).
Sugarman opines that in Albanian-inhabited Balkan lands22 perhaps the
most striking aspect of the genre [muzika popullore] is how much Albanians
love to say they hate it (2008: 289). The development of this modern
Albanian music occurred partly due to the lack of state oversight in the post-
socialist period and thus is symptomatic of what happens when there is no
top-down monitoring of cultural production according to many commenta-
tors (ibid.: 292). This implies the necessity of elite-driven national cultural
production to ensure a certain degree of cultural authenticity is maintained.
Avideo director in Kosovo implicates Serbs in the orientalization of Albanian
culture in a 2002 interview: Albanians are a Western people, but this music
[muzika popullore] had orientalized Albanians a great deal. The Serbs have
imposed this music on us so as to associate the Albanians with the Orient,
fundamentalism, and the like. This isnt our culture (ibid.: 296; Archer,
2012: 194).
Across the Balkan Peninsula one sees the respective pop-folk styles criticized
on remarkably similar grounds. For cultural elites and segments of popular
opinion these new musical forms represent unnatural and peripheral elements
that should not manifest in national culture. This is commonly perceived to
be propagated by national minorities (Roma in Romania, Turks and Roma in
Bulgaria, Serbs in Kosovo) revealing essentialist views of the bounded and
homogenous nation and the taken for granted inferiority of the orient.
Discourses of European integration have perhaps fuelled such public discus-
sions notions of belonging symbolically to Europe and politically to the EU
have given the rejection of the orient and Balkans a new sense of urgency.
Keeping the similarities of the pan-regional development of Balkan pop-folk
styles in mind, one can consider turbofolk as a Serbian variant of a broader
phenomenon. This challenges narratives of the singularity of Serbian turbo-
folk which was imposed on the masses. In fact, such styles have thrived in the

Albania, Kosovo, Western Macedonia and parts of Southern Serbia and Montenegro.
R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207 195

absence of state approval in Romania and later in Croatia. They would most
likely have also done so in Serbia. Indeed, after turbofolk fell out of favor with
the regime in the mid-1990s (and more so after the removal of Miloevi from
office in 2000) the style has remained extremely popular.

Auto-orientalism: reappropriating the Balkan stereotype

Although Serbian turbofolk and similar contemporary styles have had criti-
cism levelled against them for the last two decades, their popularity has not
waned. Writing of the examples of resistance to negative stereotypes of the
Balkans which found expression in the 1990s, olovi considers the new
music folklore (turbofolk, chalga, etc.) to be at the forefront: This culture
arrogantly glorifies the Balkans as they actually are: backward, oriental, but
own and close (2007: 9). Consumption of pop-folk styles can be viewed as
affirmative in the face of cultural exclusion on the part of national elites who
put forward their programmes for national emancipation, modernization
and democratization as a flight from the Balkans (ibidem). Kiossev considers
Bulgarian chalga in these terms due to the styles alleged transgression of
European and national norms (2002: 184):

[Pop-folk] turns the lowermost picture of the Balkans upside down and converts the
stigma into a joyful consumption of pleasures forbidden by European norms and
taste. Contrary to the traditional dark image, this popular culture arrogantly cele-
brates the Balkans as they are: backward and Oriental, corporeal and semi-rural, rude,
funny, but intimate [] (ibidem).

Self-exoticism and the inversion of Balkan stereotypes have played an impor-

tant role in the Balkan cultural industries and representations of Balkans from
outside the region (see Iordanova 2001; Voli 2005; Dimova 2007). In(post-)
Yugoslav pop-folk Balkan is often invoked in the form of self-exoticism or,
alternatively, the stereotyped concept is inverted and positive attributes are
gained by Balkan while an occidental other may be scorned. The concept of
an idyllic, own and close intimate Balkan as opposed to an anonymous
Europe or America has long been a theme in NCFM of Socialist Yugoslavia,
usually within the context of emigration, nostalgia and homesickness. With
the rise of turbofolk, music tackled more modern topics (consumerism, sex,
fashion and nightlife) and in some cases made social commentary of these
issues. Kurkela believes that Bulgarian chalga, unlike domestic pop-music, is
196 R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207

full of ironic social criticism straying beyond the bounds of Western political
correctness (2008: 1445). Serbian performer Slaana Ristis 1995 hit Mafija
(Mafioso) ambiguously addresses the proscribed role of the criminals moll in
this fashion: You can give me/everything, everything, everything/but I wont
be with you/because youre a Mafioso. You drive in vain/an expensive, fast car/
but whats it worth to you?/I wont be yours.23

(Pierced) naval gazing: The Balkans in musical texts

In a study of over 100 (former) Yugoslav songs which refer to Balkan,

Cvitanovi divides the musical use of Balkan as metaphor into four catego-
ries: Balkan as an area of war and conflict; Balkan as a source of joy, passion
and fatalism; gendered Balkan (primitive male/beautiful and resistant female);
and Balkan as Europes other (2009). In the case of turbofolk most musical
references to the Balkans fall under the category of joy, passion and fatalism.
Despite the absence of rural imagery, traditional motifs, in particular the kaf-
ana (a tavern for eating, drinking and live folk music) are ever present in
contemporary pop-folk and incorporated into lyrics and visual imagery. At the
forefront of such styles is Funky Gs Kafana na Balkanu (Kafana on the
Balkans), a 2008 Serbian hit which celebrates the passion of Balkan nightlife
located in a global themed kafana. At the beginning of the music video the sun
sets over grey high-rise blocks of flats, a symbol both of Balkan urbanity,
modernity and dislocation (Novi Beograd24 as a Balkan ghetto). It proceeds to
scenes of female friends bored at home until Saturday night fever hits25 and
they prepare to go out to the kafana. The chorus declares: Cash for drinking,
cash for dancing/going home isnt in anyones plans/this is where there is crazi-
ness, here where there is sadness/here God created a kafana on the Balkans
[]. Under this sky we are birds in flight/and when there is craziness, and
when there is sadness/well you dont have this [anywhere else] in the whole
wide world.26

Sve, sve, sve/moe da mi da/al ja neu s tobom/jer si mafija/Ti uzalud vozi/skupa, brza
kola/ali ta ti vredi/neu biti tvoja.
Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) is a huge grey socialist high-rise suburb of Belgrade.
Groznica subotnje veceri udara.
Banku za pijanku, banku za igranku/jo kui nije nikome u planu/tu gde se luduje, tu gde
se tuguje,/tu Bog stvori kafanu na Balkanu/pod ovim nebom ptice smo u letu/i kad se luduje, i
kad se tuguje/ma ovo nema na ovom belom svetu.
R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207 197

The next verse adds Let glasses fly towards the ceiling, to the ceiling and
concrete/sing in spite of every pain/pour the whiskey, add cola [].27 The
image of traditional wild Balkan kafana throwing glasses, singing through
pain is coupled with confidence and modernity whiskey and cola. Despite
the kafana being a key metaphor for male in-group social space (Rasmussen
2002: 70) women dominate Funky Gs Balkan kafana. Strengthening notions
of modernity are images of African American men, dressed in basketball
clothes, dancing with Funky G and her female friends. The kafana and the
behavior of partygoers are portrayed visually and lyrically as more wild and
passionate than anywhere else in the whole wide world. The images of (pre-
sumably) non-Balkan males conveys the intention and desire to participate in
the wider world (beli svet), in keeping with world trends (svetski trendovi).28
Like Funky Gs feminized kafana, a 2011 hit by performer Neda Ukraden
Na Balkanu (In the Balkans) also visually portrays female in-group social space.
The video was filmed in Sarajevo, Zagreb, Belgrade and Sofia with imagery of
various groups of female friends going out for the night. In the Balkans there
is no peace and quiet or sleep/only beside you can I sleep, and calm down/ In
the Balkans crazy nights, crazy girls, clubs/but I dream about you honey, my
only one is you.29
Seka Aleksi affirms a Balkan kafana. The chorus of her song Balkan
declares, let everyone hear/this song which fires up the kafana/let them all
hear/let everybody hear how we enjoy ourselves in the Balkans,30 and a verse
declares let this night be worth five/let the whole world be in awe/let them see
who is who/there is nothing else, thats that!31 Aleksi sings to a Balkan in-
group in this anthem-like song challenging them to let all the non-Balkan-
ers (Europeans) know how we enjoy ourselves.

nek lete ae po plafonu, po plafonu i betonu/pevaju u inat svakom bolu sipaj viski/dodaj
coca colu.
Invoking svetski trendovi (world trends) provides a rhetorical tool in Serbian estrada media
discourses to legitimize otherwise controversial behavior (metrosexual male fashion, erotic dance
styles, etc.). By pointing out that such acts or behavior is modern and acceptable in Western
Europe, it is implied that those who challenge or criticize it are somehow unmodern and
Na Balkanu nema mira/ni tiine, a ni sna/samo kraj tebe bih zaspala/i smirila se ja/Na
Balkanu lude noi/lude cure, klubovi/a ja o tebi duo sanjam/moje jedino si ti.
Ba svi, nek uju svi/ovu pesmu to pali kafanu/ba svi, nek uju svi/kako se veseli na
Nek no ova vredi pet/nek se udi ceo svet/nek se vidi ko je ko/nema dalje to je to.
198 R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207

Stojas Evropa (Europe) similarly makes positive reference to domestic hedo-

nism by overtly dismissing Europe. Satisfied with a modest life, her lyrics
break with the turbofolk trope of unrestrained consumption by placing value
on intimacy and contentment: A little house, little threshhold/you dear to me
like life/in the pocket some cash/for happiness its enough).32 The chorus
demonstrates a mix of contempt and pity for a Europe lacking a passionate
and wild Balkan life: You should know, nobody has the life that we do, whats
a dream for them [Europe] is every day for us. Once again, Opa! Everyone up
on the table, who cares about Europe? Nowhere in the world do you have
Other pop-folk songs lyrically refer to Balkan in essentialized terms by
marking a specific understanding of Balkan masculinity in contrast to an infe-
rior European one. anis Balkanac (Balkan man) declares I remain a Balkan
man and provincial/go to Europe/I wish you luck/but sweetie when you need
a man/youll come to me for sure.34 Luna makes a similar claim in her song,
also titled Balkanac (Balkan man), who is much dearer to me, than some
Spanish guy [] Balkan boy, wears a gold chain, loves trumpets, and is
ashamed to cry.35 Other songs invoke the notion of Balkan blood as hot
and irrationality as a characteristic of Balkan heterosexual relations. The cho-
rus of Balkan Express by Aca Lukas claims: Tonight I will destroy everything/
so that I will not fade like a flower/like the Balkans my blood is boiling/Im so
hungry for love.36 Bosnian singer Selma Bajaramis ena sa Balkana (Woman
from the Balkans) declares Hot blood from the crazy Balkans/ love is my
weaker side/I never lose strength/I never give up/ I was born like that/created
for you.37 A song by Danijel oki titled Balkan u mojim venama (Balkans in
my veins) attributes infidelity to Balkan genes which allegedly predispose men
to this vice: What is cursed in me/that took me away from you/in the bed
ofan unknown woman, as I loved you so much/ You turn your back on me

Mala kua, mali prag/ti ko ivot meni drag/i u depu stoja, dve/to za sreu dosta je.
Nema niko, to da zna / ovaj ivot kao na / to je njima pusti san / to je nama svaki dan /
hej Jo jednom pa opa / zajedno svi na sto / ma, kakva Evropa / na svetu nema to!
Ostajem Balkanac i provincijalac/putuj evropo sreu elim ti ja/a ti mala kad ti zatreba
mukarac/doi es meni budi sigurna.
mnogo si mi drai/nego tamo, tamo neki panac [] Deko Balkanac, nosi zlatni lanac/voli
trubae i stidi se da plae.
Noas poruiu sve/da ne uvenem ko cvet/kao Balkan krv mi vri/ba sam gladan ljubavi.
Vrele krvi sa ludog Balkana/meni je ljubav slabija strana/ja nikad ne posustajem/ja nikad ne
odustajem/takva sam roena, za tebe stvorena.
R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207 199

forever/think of me what you will/but believe me its only genes/Balkan in

The Eurovision Song contest has also seen lyrical references to the Balkans
in recent years. Milan Stankovi performed Ovo je Balkan (This is the Balkans)
for Serbia in 2010 (placing 13th) and Elena Gheorghe performed The Balkan
Girls for Romania in 2009 (placing 19th). Both songs appeal to the notion of
the Balkans as a location where partying and vivacious nightlife occurs. Rather
than being presented as wantonly violent (as Aca Lukas has done) or impart-
ing genetic hypermasculinity (Danijel oki) Gheorghes Balkans is described
as a site of fun: The Balkan girls, they like to party like nobody like nobody
(the groovy light will shine all night). The recurrent feminized Balkan stereo-
type suggests that the harsh masculine Balkan as symbol that Todorova attri-
butes to dominant balkanist discourse is far from fixed but rather dynamic
and open to negotiation: Unlike the standard orientalist discourse, which
resorts to metaphors of its object of study as female, the balkanist discourse
is singularly male (2007: 15). Yet in Serbian pop-folk we can see a self-
exoticized and eroticized female as a significant trope.
The meanings of these songs should be understood at least partly in the
context of the resurgence of urgent pro-European discourses in Balkan politics
and societies since 1991 return to Europe. Rather than interpreting these
musical texts and images as evidence of a deep seated occidentalism (a process
of reverse othering of Western Europe) I see these attitudes forming affirma-
tive populist counter narratives that poke fun at national elites and the abstract
Western Europeans they emulate. Acknowledging peripherality and marginal-
ity vis--vis both Europe and high brow domestic cultural sources, turbofolk
offers a tongue-in-cheek alternative a necessary source of difference in the
face of western hegemony that declares: yes, we are chaotic [] and crazy
[] yet we really know how to live (Voli 2005: 161). The Balkan stereo-
type is thus appropriated and commodified for a domestic and regional
audience. A notable feature in these songs (and in turbofolk in general) is a
vague attitude towards national identification. In the song texts described
above the nation-state is not explicitly mentioned, and there is instead a focus
on a Balkan identification a mental and spatial location that implicitly
includes but also transcends the nation state, potentially generating a degree

ta je to prokleto u meni/to me od tebe odvelo/u krevet nepoznatoj eni/a tako sam te
voleo/Zauvek lea mi okreni/misli o meni bilo ta/al veruj to su samo geni/Balkan u mojim
200 R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207

of transnational solidarity by implicitly imparting that the listener is part of a

larger collective.39
The role of diaspora in (post-) Yugoslav pop-folk music is an important
(and under-theorized) factor in the production and consumption of Serbian
pop-folk. NCFM has been very popular amongst gastabajter audiences who
served as economically important consumers particularly in the precarious
1990s and post-Miloevi transition years which reduced the spending power
of domestic audiences and fostered widespread piracy. For most folk singers,
performances in migrant communities in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and
beyond served as important sources of income. Thus it is logical that pop-folk
should incorporate notions of dislocation, nostalgia for home, and ambiguous
attitudes towards the host country (or an abstract Europe and North America
in general) for this key audience segment.
Mile Kiti and ogani employ the gastarbajter theme in the music video
for Nema vie cile Mile (No more messing around, a pun on the name Mile)
(Archer 2012: 197). Kiti is working abroad in Europe but arrives home by
private jet (painted in the logos of the imaginary Mile Airways). Rich, suc-
cessful but self-assuredly Balkan, his lover (Vesna ogani) wants to join him.
Alluding to the problems that many Balkan citizens have obtaining visas she
sings: I will search through the embassy, I dont care how such things work, I
want a visa, its urgent that I get to you, what women in love wouldnt?.40
Kiti affirms that his heart is in the Balkans,41 and throughout the songs
confirms to his girl that Balkan is better while singing in front of the national
flags of Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Netherlands, the UK and the USA
(prime destinations for Yugo-migrants). No Swedish or German woman can
compare to you, there is no chance I would ever cross the border with them
my love. France or Sweden is not your destiny, no chance my love, a Balkan
soul is calling.42
This section has sought to consider musical texts as an entry point
into discussions of internalized manifestations of the Balkan stereotype. Most

A blatant example of imagery denoting this transnational imagined collective can be seen in
a music video for Rodni kraj (Homeland) by Indira Radi which shows still images of all the
former Yugoslav republic capital and larger cities and street signs labeling these cities.
Traicu te preko ambasade / ba me briga da li takve stvari rade / hou vizu, hitno idem tebi/
koja ena kada voli ne bi.
Srce je moje na Balkanu.
Ni Sveanke, ni Nemice / ti nisu ni do kolena / da s njima preem granice / ma, nema sanse,
voljena / Ni Francuska, ni vajcarska/nisu tvoja sudbina/zove dua balkanska/nema anse,
R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207 201

literature which addresses internalized balkanism (or nesting orientalisms)

focuses on the stigma of the Balkans (e.g., Maple and Rasza, 2004; Baki-
Hayden, 1995). In these musical texts, however, the negotiation and inversion
of Balkan stereotypes is far more prevalent. The Balkans is marked positively.
Ambiguous attitudes from the periphery towards the center are evident, and
Isuggest interpreting them in the context of urgent pro-European political
and socio-cultural discourses emanating from Serbia, other countries in the
region, and centers of power in Europe itself.
The notion of Balkan as an exclusively male stereotype is undermined.
Inthe musical images and texts females are also attributed with agency through
tropes of hot blood, a sense of fun, and female camaraderie. Additionally, the
presence of queer aesthetics, pop-folks large gay fan base, and public support
from certain performers like Jelena Karleua and Indira Radi for Serbias
beleaguered LGBT community, calls for a reassessment of the dynamics of the
contemporary Serbian pop-folk scene, in particular the logic of condemning
it a priori as entirely patriarchal in nature.


This article has attempted to identify some of the dominant controversies

that pop-styles such as turbofolk have provoked in the former Yugoslavia and
the wider region. By broadening the scope of analysis to include perspectives
from NCFM, a Yugoslav pop-folk style which preceded turbofolk, and com-
parable styles which developed in post-socialist Balkan states (like muzika
popullore in Albania, muzic oriental or manele in Romania and chalga in
Bulgaria) Iargue that turbofolk represents a Serbian manifestation of a broader
trend, albeit with specificities that stem from its association with the Miloevi
All Balkan post-socialist countries saw the development and populariza-
tionof pop-folk styles in the 1990s which were deemed problematic from the
perspective of certain elites due to similar criteria including poor aesthetics
(kitsch), problematic urbanization and the presence of an internal orient, a
musical Ottoman legacy. Although the cognitive link between turbofolk and
the Miloevi regime of the 1990s is an important feature, I argue that it is not
its sole or defining characteristic. I consider it productive to also consider the
musical phenomenon within the frame of ongoing anti-Ottoman imperatives
whereby the national cultural model should remain free of influences from the
Turkish yoke. A regional perspective which considers discourses of pop-folk
202 R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207

styles in Serbia and other Balkan states supports this argument. Alongside the
notion of aesthetic inferiority and unsuccessful modernization, the presence of
a problematic orient remains salient in all Balkan states (on the part of many
self-declared cosmopolitans and avowed nationalists). Thus I have suggested it
is possible, indeed fruitful, to consider many of the controversiesof pop-folk
music within the bounds of scholarly works on balkanist discourse.
Examining musical texts and images demonstrates how a number of popu-
lar pop-folk performers have invoked, borrowed from, negotiated and reap-
propriated the Balkan stereotype. Ambiguous appeals to a Balkan collective
have become far more prevalent tropes than engaging with a nationally
bounded in-group. Performers, music, lyrics and videos link an abstract
Balkan to phenomena as diverse as migration, economic transformation,
the renegotiation of social relations, gender relations and tongue-in-cheek
critiques of Europeanization. Many studies which seriously engage with
turbofolk are primarily concerned with its political dimensions and relation-
ship to the Miloevi regime. Over a decade after the fall of the Miloevi
regime, pro/contra regime dichotomies are of limited analytical potential for a
dynamic cultural phenomenon which is no longer nationally bounded.
Productive directions for further research may include borrowing concepts
and methods from cultural studies and media studies, in particular approaches
that take audiences seriously and attribute agency to them. Research to date
has been more concerned with accounting for turbofolks opponents rather
than its listeners.
The account of pop-folk music I have provided here reflects the Belgrade-
centric nature of pop-folk (to the extent that I have prioritized discourse
emerging from the Serbian capital). Accounts of Balkan pop-folk controver-
sies from the perspective of other former Yugoslav states vary, though I believe
that certain tropes identified in this article remain consistent and interlinked
throughout the Balkans.43 In the former Yugoslavia, pop-folk styles can no
longer be posited as an instrument of nationalist agitation. Although perform-
ers may be interpreted as symbols in ethno-political discourse (Baker 2006)
and listening to the others music may be considered as a counter-cultural
strategy of rebellion particularly in the case of turbofolk in Croatia (J.L.,

See for example Velikonja (2002) for an account of Balkan popular culture in Slovenia.
Works by Baker (2006; 2007; 2008; 2010) largely explore issues at stake in Croatia while
Sugarman (2008) details the phenomenon amongst Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia. An
edited collection by Buchanan (2008) explores popular music and its relationship to Balkan
stereotypes and the Ottoman legacy at a regional level.
R. Archer / Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178207 203

2008) there is also evidence to suggest that pop-folk music is being con-
sumed within depoliticized parameters (Voli and Erjavec 2010). Popular cul-
ture has been at the forefront of the quiet but steady reconstitution of an
ambiguous post-Yugoslav space, part of a wider process conceived by Tim
Judah as the Yugosphere(2009). Just as in 1980s Yugoslavia, one can witness
in the current configuration of the Yugosphere a symbolic rejection of pop-
folk styles on the part of certain elites which contrasts sharply with the endur-
ing popularity of this music amongst its large audiences.


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Aca Lukas Balkan Express

Ceca and Rade erbedija Neu protiv druga svog
Danijel oki Balkan u mojim venama
ani Balkanac
Elena Gheoghe The Balkan Girls
Funky G Kafanu na Balkanu
Indira Radi Rodni kraj
Ivan Gavrilovi 200 na sat
Lepa Brena aak, aak
Luna Balkanac
Mainka Luki Apolo 9
Milan Stankovi Ovo je Balkan
Mile Kiti and ogani Nema vie cile mile
Neda Ukraden Na Balkanu
Rade Jorovi Moje selo lepe od Pariza
Riblja orba Ej moj drue zagrebaki
Seka Aleksi Balkan
Selma Bajrami ena sa Balkana
Slaana Risti - Mafija
Stoja - Evropa

*all songs are available via http://www.youtube.com (as of November 2011)