Make a Dumbful Noise
The Rise and Fall of Serbian Turbofolk
Latter-day turbofolk star Goga playing a nightclub gig for Belgrade’s criminal elite. Photo by Ana Kraš.
Remember at the beginning of the 90s when normal people got into Garth Brooks and Time magazine was running articles called things like “Has Country Gone City?” It was a tense moment, but thankfully it passed and within months the greater American herd was back to enjoying the fruits of the non-rural US music industry. Like Shai.
Yugoslavia’s flirtation with country music did not end so well. Rather than segueing peacefully into rap or La Bouche, their vox populi ripped the nation apart and led to unfathomable acts of violence that will permanently ruin your eyeballs if you YouTube them at three in the morning.
After liberating Yugoslavia at the end of World War II, Marshal Tito embarked on your standard communist program of way-too-rapid modernization. Part of this was basic necessity. The Balkans had been kept as a strategic backwater by Western Europe since Roman times and included regions that, by the mid-20th century, still hadn’t discovered the maxi pad. But another part of it was fostering a new sense of national pride and proving to the outside world that his socialist Yugoslavians weren’t just a bunch of hillbillies with unpronounceable names and menses drizzling down their legs.
To this end, the Yugoslav central committee took the Balkans’ millennia-old tradition of folk music, cleaned out all the references to drinking and fucking in the bushes, stripped it of its ethnic specifiers, and presented the bland new result with the appropriately bland title of “newly composed folk music” (NCFM). The forced ethnic neutrality was especially important to Tito, as the component republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had a historical propensity for killing one another in horrible and grandiose ways. Consider the fact that they’d just finished a war in which the Croatian Ustaše regime had committed such skin-crawling atrocities against Serbs that the Nazis had to tell them to chill out. Nobody wanted some old drinking song riling those chuckleheads up.
Tito died in 1980, and the cracks in his dignified, multiethnic Yugoslavia quickly started showing. In 1983, a Bosnian-born singer named Lepa Brena beat out the state-supported pop and NCFM groups to win that year’s nomination for the Eurovision song contest. Her entry was an actual-folk number about screwing some guy in the bushes, and it propelled her overnight into Yugoslavia’s biggest star.
Brena had come up singing in the truck-stop restaurants and kafanas along Serbia’s major highway (a kafana is like a bar, but shittier), where the racey, old style of folk had gained an underground following despite the state’s best efforts. Brena’s music painted a chilling portrait of rural backwardness in the SFRY, one drastically at odds with the party line. But while officials trying to secure the ’84 Winter Olympics for their country may have balked at such unflattering ditties as “Evo moga delije” (“Here’s My Hero”), the video for which features Brena’s husband as a beer-bloated Yugoslavian everylummox who insults her cooking and passes out in bed cradling a bottle of brandy; or her follow-up hit “Nema leka apoteka” (“The No-Cure Pharmacy”), which suggests that Yugoslavian dentistry is run by incompetents and general anesthesia is administered by having the hygienist show the patient her tits, they struck a chord with the Balkan hoi polloi.
Within a year Brena was playing shows to stadium crowds, and the M22 kafana circuit was bulging with imitators. Still unable to secure airplay from the state-controlled TV and radio, however, most budding “popfolk” singers sought support from the only members of their audience with any money—the Serbian mafia.