Turbo Folk Is Unfortunately Hear to Stay

BELGRADE—If you don’t know whom Ceca is, than you have never been to the Balkans. Because you can’t miss her—with her obviously plastic surgeried breasts and her face spiked high from facelifts, she peers out from magazine covers, blasted on loud speakers at clubs and appears on television in concerts and as a judge on Serbia’s version of “America’s Got Talent” called “Pinkove Zvezde” (Pink’s Stars). Svetlana Ceca Raznatovic—the widow of career criminal and paramilitary leader Željko “Arkan” Ražnatović who was indicted for crimes against humanity during the Yugoslav wars—is a turbo folk force to be reckoned with.

Since getting married to my Serbian husband in November, I have spent the last several months commuting between London and Serbia. And pretty much every time we turn on the television, there is Ceca, or one of her cheesy counterparts, warbling to the rather disconcerting musical mess that is turbo folk. Describing turbo folk is a bit difficult, as it’s a cultural phenomenon unique to the Balkans, having grown in popularity during the 1990s wars and continuing to remain popular to this day.  The music is a mixture of Balkan folk music with electronic elements and though it originated in Serbia, the genre is popular across the Balkans and into Turkey. Turbo folk’s rise also saw similar musical styles develop in Romania (Manele), Bulgaria (Chalga), Greece (Skiladiko) and Albania (Tallava), all of which have similar elements of mixing traditional local folk sounds with pop music aspects.

jelenaWhat is most interesting about turbo folk  (I, like many of my Serbian friends, find turbo folk absolutely dreadful), is that it’s a genre that grew out of the turbulent times here in the Balkans. Over the last few months, many of the people I have met here have told me stories of how, during the Yugoslav years, music across this region was focused on rock and roll, punk and what the rest of Europe was listening to. But when the wars erupted, and folk music with a pop sound was not only uniquely from the Balkans but also had some nationalist undertones, it exploded onto the airwaves. For a country that was facing sanctions and seen as the pariah state of Europe, these perceived glamorous singers like Ceca gave an escape from the hardships, especially for younger generation that was in many ways felt cut off from what was happening culturally across the rest of the continent.

When Ceca and Arkan married in 1995, it was seen as a golden union between turbo folk and the criminal underworld, which helped finance and produce some turbo folk labels and singers. According to Eric Gordy, a sociology professor from Clark University in Miami, Arkan and Ceca’s union, “symbolized the connection between turbo folk, state-controlled media, and the new criminal elite.” State television, as well as commercial stations including Pink Television, constantly showcased turbo folks singers on screen. Even after the wars ended and Serbia entered a new era of peace, turbo folk has, disappointingly, remained popular.

Certainly now on commercial Serbian radio the same songs that are heard in London, Paris and Bangkok are also played here. But there are also stations that still focus on turbo folk and clubs the across the country get packed on weekends when they feature live turbo folk bands. A friend told me that at one bar in Kraljevo, the rock and roll band who play on the ground floor don’t make half of what the turbo folk band who play in the basement do.  And Ceca, despite spending three months in jail in 2003 for illegal possession of firearms and eight months under house arrest from 2011 and 2012 for embezzling millions from the transfer of players from a football club that her husband owned, remains the queen of the genre. Young musical hopefuls stand in front of she and her fellow judges each week (the show is currently the most watched show in Serbia), and sing their hearts art. And almost 100% of the songs they are singing are turbo folk pieces, much to the horror of all those punk and rock and roll fans who grew up in the days of Yugoslavia. Online I’ve seen “Keep Calm and Hate Turbo Folk” mugs, stickers and mouse pads for sale–I may just have to get me some.

First photo, Ceca; second photo Jelena Karleusa