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Sea Dance's Founders are Harnessing the Power of Rave to Prevent Another Balkan War

"That the people here are great, normal people who are the same as everybody else. They just want to do what all young people want to do."
July 29, 2015, 3:50pm

In England, all we really ask of a festival is that it gives us somewhere to get fucked, dance like twats with our mates and enjoy a few days escape from confronting the essential futility of all human endeavour.

In the countries of the former Yugoslavia, however, festivals can mean something rather more revolutionary. Here in the Balkans nobody has forgotten that just 16 years ago NATO planes were dropping bombs over Belgrade. Saturday July 11 this year marked the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the most horrific act of genocide in Europe since the end of World War II. At the memorial this year, Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic, who once claimed that for every Serb that was killed in the war they would kill 100 Muslims, was pelted with stones by an angry crowd. Deep wounds don't heal easy.

Which is what makes it so remarkable that the following weekend, on a beach in Montenegro, the Bosnian band Dubioza Kolektiv could stand on stage and ask: 'Who's Serb?', 'Who's Croat?' and 'Who's Bosnian?' and get nothing but cheers from an audience drawn from all over the region who wanted nothing more from each other than to drink, dance and maybe have a cheeky snog sometime late during Gramatik's set.

They were appearing at Sea Dance Festival, which started last year on Jaz Beach, just outside of Budva on the Montenegrin coast. Headlined this year by The Prodigy, Roisin Murphy and a Rudimental DJ set, they've already picked up an award for Europe's best mid-sized festival. It was created as a sister festival to Serbia's Exit, which runs the previous weekend, although a cynic might suggest it simply represents the inevitable seizing of new territory on the Adriatic coast now that every inch of Croatia hosts at least one party every summer.

However, when I sit down for a beer with Exit and Sea Dance founder Dušan Kovačević backstage after Dubioza Kolektiv's set, he tells me that he truly believes his festivals are creating an atmosphere that can help transform the whole region.

"We really want to bring the Balkan region together," he says, "Sea Dance is in Montenegro and is now part of one festival adventure in Serbia and Montenegro along with Exit. When I spoke with the Minister of Tourism for Montenegro he said that because of Exit they had five times as much cooperation and talks between Serbian and Montenegrin tourism than before. That's the real impact you're getting on the ground, and it's something that we will continue to do. We're expecting to organise also a small festival in Romania this year and to spread to Bosnia next year. We have invitations from Croatia as well. We would really like to unite all of the people from the Balkans together. Keeping in mind that in something like every 50 years the Balkans falls into a cycle of war, we would like to stop that. Really. It's like a vision. It's like a dream. We would like to build a generation who, when they have some incentive to shoot each other, will say: 'No, let's have a beer instead.'"

Dušan Kovačević

That might seem like a lot of hype for a beach party, but Dušan is a man who knows what he's talking about. Nearly 20 years ago, his first involvement in running events was as a student protestor against Yugoslav dictator, multiple war criminal and all-round rat bastard Slobodan Milošević. "When I enrolled in university I immediately became a part of the student resistance movement, the movement against the tyranny of Slobodan Milošević," explains Dušan. "One of the things that I organised was using music and culture in order to motivate people to be part of the movement. That was the roots of the first Exit festival, which had a local character and was held during the time of Milošević. It was a protest festival. It lasted almost a hundred days. Two days later were those crucial elections when Milošević was overthrown and democratic change began to happen in Serbia."

When Exit adopted Novi Sad's Petrovaradin Fort as its home, complete with its now infamously debauched Dance Arena, it began to grow into a major international festival – but Dušan believes their success was down at least in part to the horrors of their beginnings. "Bear in mind that during the 90s the whole of the Balkans had experienced a decade of war, poverty and isolation with no international concerts, no travelling and no visas. It was a very tough time," he explains. "We tried with Exit to somehow make up the lost years for my generation. I was 22 or 23 then, I'm 37 now. That's why the energy of the first Exit was very special. The performers felt that. All of them said either that it was the best concert of their life or the best concert of their tour. All of them. The reason for that was that people were so hungry for normal life, for concerts and festivals. When people ask me about the secret of Exit's success, the answer unfortunately is that bad things sometimes give birth to good things. The wish to escape from oppression, wars and everything else was the reason the energy was so great for that first Exit."

That energy has continued, and has transferred to Sea Dance too. These festivals are not just places of escapism, but somewhere where the people of the Balkans can come together and be free to do what they want to do. Which turns out, just like pretty much everywhere else in the world, to be to get loaded and have a good time.

"During the bloody 90s, half of Serbia was always against Milošević," says Dušan. "The problem is many people don't know that. Until the mid-90s, Milošević had backing from the West. The student movement, which I was a part of, didn't. What we were trying to do all that time was to get the message out that more than half of Serbians didn't want Milošević in power. We were fighting against him, and when he lost international support that's when we got rid of him. Now we're trying to show the whole world what people who travel to Serbia know already: That the people here are great, normal people who are the same as everybody else. They just want to do what all young people want to do."

Dancing like twats with their mates it is, then.