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Orientalizing Turbofolk: Balkan Hybrid Identity and Responses to Ottoman Heritage
by Milena Đorđević-Kisačanin
In the thick of the Yugoslav wars, a spectacular wedding was unfolding: the turbofolk diva Ceca was marrying the notorious gangster and war profiteer Arkan. This highly televised ceremony was broadcast on one of Serbia’s biggest networks; although disparaged by the intelligentsia, it captured much of the country’s imagination. But Ceca and Arkan’s wedding carried symbolic weight as well. It cemented the association between turbofolk -- a genre melding Balkan folk influences, oriental instrumentation, and modern pop-rock music -- with Serbian nationalist ideology (Volčič and Erjavec). Turbofolk had emerged in the 1980s as an antithesis of then-globalized Yugoslav pop and rock music, turning the western focus of the music scene back inwards. Despite the former regime’s condemnation of Turbofolk for its sappy lyrics and bad taste, the genre conquered the airwaves of Serbia by the 90’s and become the soundtrack to civil war.
On its surface, Turbofolk music seems to promote pre-communist values: traditional gender roles, Serbian nationhood, and so on. However, the issues in Turbofolk are not as clear-cut as they might seem. One of the most paradoxical elements of Turbofolk is its tendency towards “orientalization.” As a genre that allegedly promotes Serbian nationhood, one would expect the folk influences to be limited to Serbian folk music in contrast to the Muslim and Croatian enemy. However, Turbofolk often employs an array of elements that characterize “oriental” musical traditions: eastern scales, abundant vocal trills, and use of Bulgarian/Turkish instruments such as the tanbur and zurna. These elements go beyond the Ottoman influences on Balkan folk music; Turbofolk will consciously add additional oriental influence or even go as far as to plagiarize Greek, Turkish, Israeli, and Arab music. This essay will explore the identity crisis at the heart of turbofolk: while on the one hand it is a genre closely tied to Serbian nationalism, it nevertheless takes much of its appeal from a foreign “oriental” melos. To understand this paradox, we must understand the role of the Ottoman past in Serbia’s history.
As the Ottoman Empire advanced into the Balkans, subsuming the Christian principalities into its domain, it did more than take political control over the region. The Ottomans brought in their culture: Balkan towns gained čarsije (Ottoman business districts), ćuprije (bridges) and pazars (bazaars). Balkan kitchens gained burek (phyllo pastries), ćevap (kebab), and sarma (stuffed cabbage). Shepherds dressed themselves in šalvare (pants) while noblemen slept on dušeks (mattresses). The Ottoman legacy in the Balkans was so pervasive it became veined into the language, the urban landscape, and everyday rituals of eating and sleeping. It also became a formative influence on the region’s musical traditions: many of the regions instruments and scales are derived from the Ottoman music tradition.
However, with the 19th century national independence movements, the Ottoman legacy was seen as an alien culture imposed from above. The new independent Balkan states began using the west as a model for their new political systems, architecture, fashion, and literature. Orientalist stereotypes from the West influenced the intelligentsia, and Ottoman culture became viewed as backwards. (Čvoro) But despite this surface modernization, the old patterns of Ottoman-era life remained in the clothing, speech, food, and buildings of the lower classes, inseparable with indigenous traditions. And with the advent of modernization and westernization, the folk costumes and music of the “old times” became celebrated for their “authenticity” and “traditions.”
On the one hand, the Ottoman past was imposed and foreign; on the other hand, it was an integral influence on the “traditional” culture of the Balkans, a tradition that nationalism glorifies. This complicated position of the Ottoman past in Serbian history has led to an identity crisis of sorts, and caused complex responses to emerge. The first response is a complete rejection of the Ottoman cultural influence. In the popular historical imagination, Ottoman times were seen as an era of stagnation; therefore, most modern architecture either emphasizes European models or pre-Ottoman styles (such as the avalanche of neo-Byzantine churches built in Serbia in recent years).
The second reaction is a more complex erasure of the Ottoman past through cultural appropriation. In nationalist narratives, the culture of the Ottoman Balkans simply becomes seen as something traditionally Bulgarian, Serbian, or Bosnian with minimal acknowledgement of influence or cultural continuity. For example, several Serbian cities have major surviving examples of Ottoman architecture. However, in discourse about national heritage, the background of these houses is decontextualized and they are merely labeled “traditional Serbian houses (Marinov).” There are even narratives that aim to place the origins of pan-Ottoman culture with the christian Byzantine Empire. This narrative seeks to legitimize the influence of the muslim Ottoman Empire by claiming that its cultural origins are ultimately Christian. For example, Ottoman music has recognizable “eastern” scales, which are prevalent in other Balkan traditions due to shared culture. However, some Christian nations (especially Greeks) try justifying this similarity by claiming that Ottoman music is mainly derived from secular Byzantine music, signifying its ultimately authentic “Greek” origin (Pennanen).
The third response is a subtle nostalgia of sorts, which is observable even in countries like Serbia, and especially with regards to the culinary arts. There is a certain kind of refinement and artisanal skill associated with the Ottomans, and the expectation is that the closer one is to the Ottoman past, the finer this artisanal skill is. Popular Turkish-origin food such as ćevap (kebab) or ratluk (lokum/turkish delight) is often marketed as being “Sarajevan,” since Sarajevo is perceived as a city close to its Ottoman legacy.
These reactions to the Ottoman heritage is what drives this modern appropriation of “eastern” musical elements (which goes as far as even direct plagiarism of Middle Eastern music). Plagiarism was not a phenomenon unique to Turbofolk; music produced in the former Yugoslavia often stole music from both western and eastern countries. The band Bijelo Dugme infamously stole melodies and motifs from western rock songs, Greek ballads, and even Russian folk music. The extent of plagiarism of a certain musical genre can reveal which musical tradition is most influential; in the case of Bijelo Dugme and early Yugoslav rock/pop, this was Western pop and rock. As for Serbian turbofolk, many songs exhibit what could be dubbed as 'oriental influences' -- eastern scales, Turkish instrumentation, and intensive vocal trills -- which begs the question of how original some of these songs truly are.
Examining Serbian turbofolk, it becomes clear that the main source for plagiarized songs is Greek music. Much of the Greek musical tradition is inseparable from the Ottoman musical tradition; Greek music features “eastern” scales, trilled singing styles, and Ottoman-style instrumentation and percussion. By the 1960s, several Greek genres (such as Laiko) developed that melded traditional Greek folk with modern pop-rock; by the 1980s and 90s, Laiko came to strongly influence the genre of turbofolk in Serbia. (Pennanen) The more “oriental” sounds of many Laiko songs were highly appealing to turbofolk fans because they drew on the Ottoman musical traditions firmly embedded in Balkan sound. However, as Greece was a friendly Christian nation (as opposed to a nation like Turkey), Greek music has been deemed “safe” to plagiarize. This has engendered the paradox where turbofolk stars associated with Serbian nationalism (such as Aca Lukas and the aforementioned Ceca Ražnjatović) use heavily “oriental” sounds derived specifically through Greek rebetiko.
In 1997, the Cypriot singer Anna Vissi released the song “Trauma,” which is a ballad about heartbreak set to clearly Ottoman-derived instrumentation. The song features scales clearly based on Ottoman makam scales and instruments such as the oud, ney, and qanun. The Serbian singer Aca Lukas took the instrumentation, structure, and scales for his song Licna Karta from whole cloth from Vissi’s song. Although Lukas is usually associated with nationalism, his song is immensely popular and is viewed more as “traditional Serbian” than something stolen.
Even the aforementioned Ceca Ražnatović, who has ties to extreme expressions of nationalism and war crimes, plagiarized the highly oriental-sounding song Antidoto from Vissi. Both Vissi’s Antidoto and Ceca’s Oproštajna Večera are based on Ottoman scales and feature a variety of Ottoman instrumentation.
However, at other times turbofolk artists have directly decided to plagiarize Turkish music. These plagarizers are often more ambiguous figures that are not as associated with nationalism in the same way Lukas and Ceca are. The singer Jovana Karleusa, who is famous for her controversial support of LGBT rights, had no nationalist hang-ups about stealing a song from the Turkish singer Tarkan.
Another route of “orientalization” of turbofolk comes through the umbrella genre of “world music.” Many Balkan artists openly look to other musical traditions for inspiration. The aforementioned band Bijelo Dugme was led by the songwriter Goran Bregovic; beyond his work for the ex-yu band, Bregović has become a successful solo musician famous for melding numerous world genres, such as Italian and Latin music. However, his most famous work has been based on the genres from the broader Ottoman context, especially Romani music. The song he wrote for the famous pop singer Zdravko Čolić (who normally sings western-style ballads) strongly illustrates this. In this case, Bregović lifted the melody and instrumentation for his song directly from the Algerian song Ya Rayah, most famously covered by the artist Rachid Taha.
Unlike the other example songs (which at least retain the general theme of love, hardbreak, and hardship) Bregović has completely changed the lyrics of the Algerian song. Whereas the original song is about the struggles of Algerian immigrants in a foreign land, Colic’s song is about the temptations of love. This shows that the true appeal of this music is not derived from lyrical content but truly from the more “oriental” instrumentation and the appeals of the middle eastern musical tradition.
As these songs demonstrate, Serbia has cultural identity crisis. On the one hand, music with Turkish and “Middle Eastern” influences is highly appealing; on the other hand, this appeal goes against the Serbian nationalist narrative. This dilemma has never been fully acknowledged; instead it has either been circumvented through borrowings of Greek music or explained away through bogus theories about Byzantine music. But whenever Ceca Raznatović belts out a ballad with an oriental scale, it becomes apparent that turbofolk still bears the paradoxes within Balkan culture. As much as the genre wants to reject Serbia’s multicultural past, its hybrid influences showcase the fluid identity of this fascinating region.
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