Old Beats, New Verses: 21 Newly Composed Essays on Turbofolk


“Like a hurricane that is preceded by a steep rise in air temperature and humidity along with a simultaneous decline in air pressure, turbo-folk is formed amidst the rising technologization of society alongside the simultaneous decline of its morals, remarks Rambo Amadeus—a Belgrade-based musician, poet, and self-proclaimed media manipulator—at the beginning of his characteristically droll parody of turbo-folk, titled “Turbo-funk.”[1] This musical hurricane, to continue Rambo’s meteorological metaphor, swept over Serbia in the early 1990s and still shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. Indeed, the popular music genre, which combines electronic beats and Western pop melodies with select elements of Balkan folk music, has only grown in popularity, captivating listeners across the former Yugoslav states and is now becoming a regional, if not global musical brand. [2] Yet despite (or even because of) its continued popularity, turbo-folk still remains a veritable source of cultural and political anxieties.  

Turbo-folk draws its roots from (and is arguably continuous with) newly composed folk music (henceforth NCFM), which emerged in the 1960s Yugoslavia, a time of rapid urbanization and modernization for the fledgling socialist state. Part of the growing subculture of migrants from rural areas to urban centers, NCFM from its inceptions carried pejorative connotations of eastern (Ottoman) origins and rural backwardness, reflecting broader prejudices connected to the Balkan stereotype (Rasmussen 241-242). The frequently troubling hybridity of NCFM is evidenced in the mixing of traditional acoustic and modern electric instruments, as well as Oriental and Occidental musical influences, such as the combination of trilled vocals and ornamented melodies with western pop idioms (e.g. German schlager and Italian canzona). While frequently disparaged by the communist cultural establishment and even subjected to a “tax on kitsch” (as a commercial product of low cultural value),[3] NCFM only grew in popularity, shifting from the gritty and smoke-filled margins of kafana[4] culture to packed stadiums by the time socialist Yugoslavia started unravel at the seams, in the late 1980s. As Ljerka Vidić Rasmussen has argued, NCFM should therefore be seen more broadly as “an expression of the Yugoslav post-1945 experiment as a nation; that is, this nation’s experience of positioning itself within European culture while affirming its own identity (and ‘energy’) as a Balkan subculture” (255). 

The neologism “turbo-folk,” originally coined by the aforementioned Rambo Amadeus, suggests an intensification of contradictions already present in NCFM. While the suffix “folk” retains connotations of rural origins and populist authenticity, the prefix “turbo” imbues the genre with additional associations of technological modernity, speed, and power. The “turbo” element is evident in the rapid technical and formal innovations in the Balkan pop music industry, as well as turbo-folk’s increased presence in the Balkan mass media from the 1990s onwards. Music videos, modeled on similar western forms, have become much more prominent part of the musical presentation, employing highly stylized sets, cinematic storytelling, and self-referential, disjunctive or highly baroque visual modes that—in a postmodern fashion—destabilize the more fixed textual and musical referents. Explicit, threatening, and deviant sexuality, in particular, remains a dominant feature of both texts and music videos, where both female and male bodies are framed, fragmented, and displayed as fetish objects for viewer’s consumption. Finally, the dominant lyrical motifs of love, patriotism, and kafana culture specific to NCFM have been transformed to more contemporary themes of clubbing culture, display of wealth, as well as criminal activity and sexual transgression.

Figuratively speaking, turbo-folk has come to represent the dramatic political changes in the region, including the violent dissolution of socialist Yugoslavia and the region’s transition from state socialism to ethically unfettered capitalism. “Turbo-folk,” especially for the urban intelligentsia, stands as a central metaphor for a transformation of the Yugoslav body politic into a kitschy, violent ultra-nationalist spectacle during the Milošević era. For instance, the televised marriage between the turbo-folk singer Ceca and the notorious war criminal Željko Ražnatović Arkan in 1995, branded as “a Serbian fairytale,” is widely seen as cementing the symbolic connection between turbo-folk industry and the post-communist criminal elite in Serbia.

The genre, however, has survived the Milošević era of the 1990s largely intact, becoming a permanent feature of the wider Balkan post-communist media scape. The social historian Rory Archer, for example, situates the continuing animosity against turbo-folk within the Orientalizing discourse “due to its geographical origins and its implications of violence, eroticism, barbarity and otherness […] attributed to the Balkan stereotype” (192). Emphasizing the Ottoman influences in turbo-folk, its popularity beyond Serbia, and its conscious embrace of cultural liminality, he views the genre as a possible transnational bridge in the region that has been fragmented along ethnic and national lines and imbued with almost exclusively negative meanings. “For detractors,” Archer continues, “such styles appeared to pose a danger to autochthonous national culture as well as the possibility of a ‘European’ and cosmopolitan future” (192). Those looking for gun-toting paramilitaries and murderous nationalist sentiments in contemporary turbo-folk will therefore be sorely disappointed. Moreover, the gradual normalization of turbo-folk and its gradual de-coupling from militaristic ethno-nationalism of the 1990s has also made it possible to analyze other aspects of the evolving genre: in particular, its emergent aesthetic sensibilities, such as camp and “techno-gender,” as well as its appeal to female, queer and international audiences (see Jelača).

The student essays on this website reflect these new approaches to turbo-folk. Accordingly, they attempt to question dominant assumptions about the genre while still maintaining a critical outlook. Embracing an interdisciplinary framework, the essays are organized around four dominant categories: turbo-folk celebrities, gender and sexuality, national and cultural identity, and global influences.

This project approaches turbo-folk not as a static and stable popular music genre but as a dynamic and changing cultural field. Due to its continued popularity, its provocative aesthetics, and its undeniable ties to the Balkan cultural space, turbo-folk can be seen as a prominent site where various social meanings—related to trans/national belonging, class, gender and sexual identity—are constantly being produced, contested, and negotiated. Scholarship on turbo-folk is part of that process of meaning production, even as it tries to critically step outside of it. In this sense, we hope that these essays reach beyond the kitschy surface of turbo-folk stereotype to better capture Balkan popular culture in its ever-newly-composed formations.

Works Cited

Archer, Rory. “Assessing Turbofolk Controversies: Popular Music between the Nation and the Balkans.” Southeastern Europe, vol. 36, no. 2, 2012, pp. 178–207., doi:10.1163/187633312x642103.

Dijana Jelača. “Feminine Libidinal Entrepreneurship.” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, 2015, pp. 36-52, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2015.988391

Rasmussen, Ljerka Vidić. “From Source to Commodity: Newly-Composed Folk Music of Yugoslavia.” Popular Music, vol. 14, no. 02, 1995, p. 241., doi:10.1017/s0261143000007467.

[1] The song was created in collaboration with Tamara Obrovac, a Croatian ethno jazz singer, songwriter, and composer. 
[2] Similar (and in some cases identical) styles of music exist in other Balkan countries, such as Skyladiko in Greece, Chalga in Bulgaria, Menale in Romania and Tallava in Alabania.
[3] The tax on kitsch was introduced after the new Yugoslav Constitution in 1974 as a way to regulate cultural products, such as books, musical recordings, and magazines that were considered of low cultural quality or not consonant with communist values.
[4] Kafana (from the Turkish kahvehane) is a Balkan style café serving alcoholic beverages and coffee, and traditionally featuring live music.