Music has always been a way of confronting unwanted reality. A dance culture during the ‘90s in Serbia helped people say “no” to war, propaganda, and hatred. Why is going to clubs in Serbia still a form of political protest and what role did techno play during the ‘90s? We tried to find out.
I meet Gordan Paunovic in one of the bars in Belgrade. The bar is located on the 13th floor. From here you can see the dome of the parliament, old high-rise residential buildings, a small fountain below and a wide road filled with traffic noise. Jazz music can often be heard here.
These days, many similar small and cozy establishments line the streets in the capital of Serbia.
Modern glass office buildings stand adjacent to old houses reminiscent of the communist style of architecture, sometimes with traces of bombings.
Paunovic did not know about this place, even though he lives in Belgrade. He is from an older generation, and therefore prefers the “good old” institutions.
During the ‘90s at the time of the war in the Balkans, Paunovic, along with several other enthusiasts founded Radio B92. The then-President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, used media as a means of propaganda and the spread of hatred. B92 was different. It had become an independent source of information and a place to find alternative music.
“This station was known not only for its politics, but also for its music,” says Paunovic. “The ‘90s was a particular era, a time of great political clashes in Serbia.”
Paunovic was the B92 music editor for ten years, during this time there were wars, NATO bombings around the Balkans and then the revolution that drove the dictator and war criminal, Milosevic away from the post of presidency in then Yugoslavia. The turbulent political life in the country developed in sync with nightlife. For many, it became salvation from undesirable reality.
The ‘90s saw the collapse of Yugoslavia. The communist ideology was losing power, but at the same time Milosevic was rising to power, obsessed with the nationalist idea of “Greater Serbia.” However, the former republics began to declare independence, which meant the loss of Belgrade’s control over them.
The Balkans were swept over by the war: the largest took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina killing more than 100 thousand people and displacing almost two million. In 1995, in Srebrenica, the military, under the command of Serbian General Ratko Mladic, massacred more than eight thousand Bosnian Muslims.
During Milosevic’s reign, wars continued throughout Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia. Its capital, Belgrade, was significantly affected.
Youth between the ages of 18 to 27 were required to serve in the army. But, the younger generation did not want to live with this reality.
“Young people went to clubs instead of going to fight in the army. They did not want to fight in Bosnia or Croatia or Kosovo. Nightlife and the B92 Radio strongly influenced anti-war sentiments,” recalls Paunovic.
At the time, he was a little over 20. Along with friends, he did not stop broadcasting over B92, despite officials revocating his license. They listened to electronic music and subsequently began to play it. After leaving for the UK and attending legendary “Lost” parties, he concluded that something similar should be done in Belgrade.
This is how Klub Industria came into being. It became a paradise for fugitives from war, propaganda, and violence. When a curfew was installed for residents, the club just switched up its schedule. It no longer worked during the late night, but rather, parties began in the afternoon and ended in the evening.
Dejan Milicevic, a Serbian DJ, recalls those times as romantic and troubled. “Every day, 500-600 people came dressed in something crazy, and the club was a great success. It was a moment to be yourself. You couldn’t do this on the street,” he said.
He was performing at that time, and recollects the diversity of people, you could meet anyone in the club: form a drug dealer to a professor. Without a doubt, drugs played a significant role in this. He himself had already performed at that time and recalls that you could meet anyone in the club: from a drug dealer to a professor. Drugs did play a significant role in this solidarity. The drugs entered the country from abroad, and subsequently illegal laboratories opened in Belgrade itself.
But, of course, it was not just about the drugs.
“There was love between people,” says Milicevic, "people who did not want to limit themselves to a bunch of rules came to us, hung out, it became easier for them. I still feel that we are connected. Whenever I bump into someone in the street, I still find it nice and easy to speak to them.”
If the early ‘90s techno was used as an attempt for the Serbs to escape from reality, whilst, later, it became a tool for fighting.
“In the late ‘90s, there were several organizations and movements that used the mass character of the rave culture. Otpor!, a student organization that fought against the Milosevic regime, started having parties all over Serbia as protest,” says Tijana Todorovic (Tijana T), perhaps the most famous Serbian DJ. She appeared on the electronic stage in the 2000s and before that she worked as a host of various music programs on Serbian TV.
In two years of existence, the number of participants in Otpor! grew to 60 thousand and subsequently, in 2000, the movement played a key role in the removal of Milosevic from power. The democratic opposition won the election, and the following year the ex-president was arrested and transferred as a war criminal to the Hague Tribunal.
It felt like everything was working out, but Serbia still needs time in order to get rid of the echoes of the past.
“The war was a huge tragedy for Serbia, the country was isolated, sanctions were imposed,” recalls Todorovic. “The media portrayed us as some kind of beasts - as if we were the only culprits of the war.”
The new government was young and progressive, so they paid attention to the mass rave culture. Thus, the annual multi-format music festival Exit, that takes place in Serbia, received support. In 2019, the festival brought together more than 200 thousand people from 90 countries. However, according to Todorovic, Exit no longer has the same ideological significance as before.
“The entire movement, which began as a reaction to the events of the ‘90s, in the early 2000s became part of the establishment,” said Todorovic. "US AID (a US agency providing assistance to other countries - ed.) began financing Exit and B92, which provoked a lot of questions. After a while, it killed the local scene. They began to allocate so much money that the festival just started bringing in big stars and commercial artists.”
At the same time, Todorovic does not devalue the music and believes that any trip to the club in Serbia is still a political statement.
“There is still a lot of chaos in the country. It is especially difficult for young people. Sometimes the only rational thing they can do is go to a party. For people living in troubled societies, parties are the only safe place where they feel part of something whole. When everything else is in decline and the system is falling apart, it becomes a counterculture. It gives you a feeling of warmth, a feeling of a family - the one you get from your mother,” - this is how Todorovic describes the rave culture of Serbia.
From underground to mainstream
There are five clubs operating in Belgrade, where they play, as Paunovic says, "techno as it should be." In addition, every weekend there are parties in various locations of the city: in pavilions, in industrial areas, just like Cxema (“Scheme”) or Rhythm Buro in Kyiv. Famous and well-paid DJs who are rarely seen in Ukraine - for example, Richie Hawtin or Nina Kraviz - are frequent guests in Serbia.
“I believe that music is one of the positive effects of globalization. This culture is important for people from all over the world. For me, this is its main value,” says Paunovic. In addition to DJing, he himself brings artists to Serbia.
He thinks for a moment and recalls what the acronym PLUR stands for, which was often heard during the early techno-parties: peace, love, unity, respect. Paunovic admits that everything has changed in the direction of commerce, large sponsors came to the club culture, and with them big money, influencing the ideological significance of the parties.
“I think it's unfair when some people earn 20 thousand euros for a two-hour set. To me it’s stupid. I think no one on this planet should get so much in such a short amount of time,” he says. “I don’t know for what electronic music is the catalyst now, but I believe that it unites the world.”
However, commerce has not yet penetrated everywhere. Marko Stepanovic and Krsto Ristivojevic from time to time organize free Drill parties, and even if you need to buy a ticket, the entrance fee is about 3 euros - this is four times cheaper than the average price for techno parties in Kyiv.
I met them in one of the art centers of Belgrade, where Tim Burton's films were about to be shown. Before the event had begun, the guys turned up the music they were listening to - tracks from the ‘90s, the golden era of raves. It turned out that they were big fans of Kyiv’s Cxema, and Nastya Muravyova, a Ukrainian DJ, is often seen playing here. She even recorded their first podcast for Soundcloud.
“I would compare techno with the era of punk, with their revolution,” says Ristivojevic. “This is the reason why I am in rave culture: I feel like a rebel. I’d like to fight for something better for future generations. Maybe it's a cliche, but I do feel that way.”
They admit that their parties are nothing like the so-called “mainstream” ones. They are not invited to Belgrade clubs even when they offer to play themselves. They are told that their music is not the right format for the venue. However, they are content with local parties and say that they already have their own audience and recognizable brand and style.
“People have this tendency to rave when they are in trouble, when the system breaks down, and the government fails to do what is necessary. That’s when people rave,” Ristivojevic says.
There is no war in Serbia now, but to say that everything is fine in the country is also not right. Serbs talk about their president “straddling two worlds,” referring to Aleksandar Vucic’s attempts to please both the European Union and Russia. Despite the existence of independent media, many media organizations are controlled by the government, and often spread propaganda. Large festivals exist, but young people still complain about the lack of cultural events in the country.
Raves were born in Britain back in the ‘80s. Although it is unfair to link them exclusively to “problem” societies, electronic music appeared at the right time for each society. In the Balkans, it helped people forget about war, crisis, and hostility for at least a day. In Berlin, techno played a significant role in uniting after the fall of the Berlin Wall - people from the eastern and western parts of the city held parties together, managed clubs and hung out. In Georgia, it became a political act against the arbitrariness of the government. Finally, in Kyiv, Cxema parties were born after the Maidan and became a haven for young people who were trying to escape from reality.
“Rave is freedom. This is the basis of the ideology of rave culture,” says Stepanovic.
/Interviews and text by Liuda Kornievych