An American reporter investigates the surprising roots of a controversial Balkan music genre
By Clara MokriIt was a Saturday night in Mostar, so a group of us put on our best clubbing outfits—jean shorts, tank tops and our most trusted party shoes—and ventured out into the city. As we approached Club Art, Mostar’s late night destination, we saw girls getting out of cabs in stilettos and floor‐length, bejeweled satin dresses, with boys in suits accompanying them. Although convinced we were crashing a high school prom, we continued to make our way towards the nightclub.
In a quaint, historical town lined with cobblestone streets, the club’s all‐white facade and neon signs were a visual anachronism. And inside, the club was just as futuristic. Ovular light fixtures reflected every color in the visible spectrum, and crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, creating a 1960’s disco vibe.
In addition to being severely underdressed, we were further unprepared for the music, which could be best described as a fusion of Eastern European traditional folk music, dubstep beats, and rap lyrics. This genre not only has a name, turbofolk, but also an enormous subculture throughout Eastern Europe.
Turbofolk initially developed underground in Serbia as a result of the urbanization of traditional folk, with lyrics praising love and hating communism. It grew in popularity just before the start of the Bosnian War as illegal radio stations broadcasted mash‐ups of copyrighted Western pop music and dance beats blended with native folk music. Once the war began, people in the Balkans turned to turbo‐folk as an escape from hardship. Hedonist lyrics became more widespread, and rejecting pre‐established social ideologies became the norm.
***The nightclub Club Jež in Sarajevo purported to be the best turbofolk bar in the city. Although we feared we had arrived late at 11:30pm, we quickly learned that the typical turbofolk party starts no earlier than 12:30am and continues until the sun begins to rise. The club was underground, and the deep, thundering sound of bass made the brick walls shake; we thought we might get buried alive.
Adel, the bar manager and turbofolk aficionado, explained his perception of the genre to our group: “turbofolk is real life in Bosnia—alcohol, women and drugs; like rock and roll in America, but a little softer. Everybody likes turbofolk in the Balkans.”
His statement took me by surprise, since the majority of people I spoke to up until that point had expressed severe distaste for the genre and the culture surrounding it. While visiting the Sarajevo School of Music, the most prestigious classical institutions in Bosnia, a group of students were aghast to discover I was researching turbofolk.
“Turbofolk isn’t for educated people, it’s the shit of music,” said one. Fuad Setic, an aspiring conductor, patted my shoulder and whispered, “They’re all on drugs.”
A girl sitting nearby overheard our conversation and exclaimed, “No. Don’t. Seriously? It’s the plague.”
Adel, however, dismissed this negativity. “90% of the people who say they don’t like turbofolk are lying.”
A key part of the turbofolk culture that deters listeners is the frequent sexualization of women. Back at Jež, Adel attempts to translates the lyrics of a typical turbofolk song but the music is still so loud in the club that he has to yell and use hand gestures to get his message across: “I want to get drunk, I’m drunk I take off my bra, I take off my panties.” But after finishing his translation, Adel continues, “I have young cousins who are 11 years old and want to be just like [the turbofolk stars]. It’s like mind games—they listen to the lyrics and watch their performances, and suddenly want to be just like them when they grow up. They’ve been brainwashed.”
Adel explains, “the women get drunk, they get loose, and whoever approaches them gets the girl.”
But just like hip‐hop, not all turbofolk is offensive and vulgar. In fact, many rap songs poetically address global issues, cultural injustices, and emotional stories. The same goes for turbofolk. When you take an unbiased step back and examine what turbofolk represents musically, it is a fusion of three very powerful and distinct styles of music—traditional folk, rap and electronic dance—that when put together create a new and interesting sound. Certainly not “the shit of music.”
***Imagine driving on the freeway with your friends, windows rolled down, with a generic chart‐topping pop song blasting in the background. Many people know the lyrics and sing along. However despite the bliss, this Billboard 100 song is not necessarily appropriate in every setting. The pop song is appreciated in social environments but has limited utility elsewhere.
Turbofolk works the same way—“It’s music for looking, not for listening,” said Adel. Turbofolk is popular for the culture that is associated with the genre. While it’s not the song of choice when driving to work on a Tuesday morning or the go‐to ambient dinner music, once you’re a little intoxicated and having a great time at the club with your friends trying to pick up a one‐night‐stand, “Sampanjac” by Mile Kitić suddenly becomes your anthem.
Despite Turbofolk’s similarities to American hip‐hop, every time I asked if the electronic sounds, lyrical themes, and idealized lifestyles were inspired by Western pop culture, I would receive a strong negative reaction. “No, no, no, no” Almir, the ticket salesman Club Art, chuckled, “the United States holds an influence on hip‐hop. Turbofolk is influenced by its surrounding Balkan countries—Serbia, Bulgaria, Croatia… the lyrics are completely different.”
Surely, the sound is different, since part of what you’re hearing comes from the regional folk genre. However, the other part—the lyrics—are remarkably similar to hip‐hop and pop lyrics. I was surprised by the ticket salesman’s comments. Many rap lyrics today revolve around sex, drugs and violence, and many turbofolk lyrics do too. While it might not be a direct mimicking of Western hip‐hop lyrics, there are undeniably similar trends.
When I asked Vedran Mujagić, the bass player for a famous Bosnian reggae‐rock band Dubiosa Kolectiv, if he was frustrated with turbofolk’s popularity, he was actually very open‐minded about the whole phenomenon. “It’s not black and white. A lot of these turbofolk musicians are actually more liberal in their views than some rock and roll musicians, if you talk about the LGBT community, and their approach to that. All these issues that are kind of taboo in these Balkan societies—these guys have more of a liberal viewpoint. And turbofolk is spreading faster across borders than any other genre, such as Balkan rock and roll.”
Mujagić, whose band’s purpose is to also start a dialogue about political and social beliefs through ethnomusicology, acknowledges the power and influence turbofolk has on society. “It’s a funny thing that the musical genre that [was] used as a vehicle to propagate nationalist and controversial rhetoric in the 90’s is what brings people together now,” he says. Once a genre becomes a global phenomenon, it belongs to a bigger modern entity that evolves as trends change in order to sustain popularity.
When something as regional as turbofolk gains international notoriety, it must evolve as it becomes subject to globalization. At the time of the genre’s inception, artists were singing about the war and politics—topics that were relevant and at the forefront of Balkan society. However, as the war ended and time progressed, turbofolk developed alongside international pop culture trends in order to remain relevant in society, and sustain the popularity it gained during the Bosnian War.
Regardless of whether Bosnians believe that turbofolk is completely separate from Western culture, it is clear that turbofolk has adopted lyrics that mimic the lifestyle of stereotypical Western hip‐hop or pop artists. What the evolution of turbofolk makes evident is that pop culture transcends territorial boundaries and borders. At the end of the day, we are all living the same, shared turbofolk experience.
Clara Mokri is a sophomore political science major in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.