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

Turbofolk and Orientalism: A Question of Identity

The video opens with a market where men in traditional arabic headdresses lead camels throughout the crowd. It jumps to a woman wearing a bejeweled niqab, backed by women in similarly conservative clothing. She flings off her covering, revealing a skimpy outfit as she begins to sing in Bulgarian. This music video for the song “Vlez” by Cvetelina Yaneva perfectly introduces the complex presence of oriental elements in turbofolk music. The Balkans have a unique identity with a distinctive mixture of elements from both the east and the west. This distinct identity is well exemplified in the music of Balkans, notably the turbofolk genre. This genre mixes western pop music styles with folk elements, often with subtle or explicit Oriental tones. The presence of these oriental musical elements is especially interesting, because of the strong reactions they evoke. Where do these eastern sounds come from? Why do turbo folk artists choose to include these sounds, and how do people react to them? Is the inclusion of these oriental elements cultural appropriation? Answering these questions can give an insight into the broader culture and history of the Balkan region and help decode the identity of the Balkan people.

It is useful to be acquainted with the history of the East in the Balkans to fully understand how these elements came to be present in the region. The Ottoman empire ruled over various parts of the Balkans from approximately the 14th to 20th centuries. An important element of this empire was the millet system. This allowed for different courts of law for the different religious groups in the Balkans, notably the Christians, Muslims, and Jews. This millet system has in some ways, shaped the different national identities of the Balkans today (Baker 10). As a result of the profound effects the Ottoman empire had on the Balkan region, it is impossible to definitively separate “pure” Balkan culture from oriental elements brought by the Turks. There are certain oriental musical elements that show up in Balkan folk music as a result of this exposure. The most prominent and easily recognized oriental musical element to show up in Balkan folk music is vocal vibrato or trills. It is the small but quick change in pitch that a singer can create with their voice. It is exemplified here in an Islamic call to prayer.  The same vocal technique is common in neofolk and turbofolk music of the Balkans.  Another sound that is distinctly oriental but used in turbofolk music is the maqam. This is a style of melodies typical in Arabic music. It can be heard here. The Serbian song “Kad bi bio ranjen” (If you were wounded) by Ceca exemplifies this trill and maqam melody.  The trumpets and chords played at the beginning of this song (see 0:35-0:45) show oriental styles. These are only a few of the oriental stylistic elements of turbofolk that can be analyzed.

Now that we are acquainted with some of the oriental stylistic characteristics in turbofolk music, we must question why turbofolk artists emphasize these elements in their music. One way we can analyze this question is to look at the political and social history of turbofolk. Turbofolk arose out of the neofolk genre. This genre was created as a bridge between folk and pop music for the migration of rural people into cities in Serbia. The rural elements gave a comfortable and familiar sound for this group of people in a new and unfamiliar environment. It was a representation of rural to urban transition (Gordy 104). This music was also initially supported by the Milosevic regime in Serbia in the 1990s. It was promoted because, unlike punk and rock music, it did not upset or challenge the regime or existing social order. It also promoted a nationalist message, because it highlighted the “authentic” folk experience and the national folk music. This hybrid of rural and urban can be seen in the music and video for “Mile voli disko” (Mile likes disco) by Lepa Brena. The lyrics of the song speak about a man wanting to go clubbing, while the girl would rather dance traditionally. The style also features the accordion and vocal trills, previously mentioned. These stylistic elements give the music an oriental feeling, while still referencing the maternities of clubs and partying. In the video, Lepa dances in a traditional style, while wearing skimpy clothing more likely seen in a club. This visually shows the intersection of folk and oriental styles with the new urban reality in the Balkans. Although eventually the government withdrew its support of neofolk music, the genre was already solidified, with its own cult following of people either loving of hating the style. As a result of the political and social past of the genre, it can evoke certain political feelings. This contributes to the reactions against the genre, which will be discussed later.

Another reason that turbofolk artists include oriental elements in their music is to evoke an exotic feeling when listening to their songs. This paints the singer’s world as one separate from the real world. Balkan identity has always been tricky, for both outsiders and people living in Balkan countries themselves. Turbo Folk artists who include oriental styles on their music do so to create a Balkan identity for themselves and for the rest of the world to see. They resist the western stereotypical image of the Balkans as backwards and violent (Archer 66). By using these oriental elements they create an exotic realm, painting their identity as one of fantasy and pleasure. The mix of western pop and eastern folk, the music exists in a imaginary limbo. This is interesting, as these artists use traditional folk and oriental elements to pull their identity into the present. It is also curious that these traditional sounds are usually paired with overt female sexuality and queer undertones. These two things would have been generally frowned upon and never discussed in folk music of the Balkans or of the east. This concept is best illustrated in another Cvetelina music video “Broi me”. The song begins with a man, speaking in English, “welcoming (the viewers) to his world”.  The lyrics, which are in Turkish, even though the singer is Bulgarian, describe a woman pining after her lover. The word habibi is repeated frequently throughout the song. It is an Arabic word meaning “baby” or “darling”. The video is a fairytale fantasy carnival, with Cvetelina dressing like a European princess, sitting on a pile of mattresses, and being driven in a carriage. This shows the combination of eastern and western influences to create a unique fantasy world for the listeners and viewers of the song. Clearly turbofolk artists have motivations for the inclusion of oriental styles in their music, but how do people react to these? 

The reaction to turbofolk vary but tend to be polarized to people either loving or hating the genre. As mentioned before, there is a political and social history to turbofolk and its predecessor, neofolk. Given these political ties, the folk and oriental sounds can often be associated with violent political regimes, and an outdated past. Milosevic, at one point promoted the genre. As a result, people who look down on Milosevic’s regime will associate the genre with his nationalist agenda. Conversely, when Milosevic changed his political strategy and turned away from his nationalist orientation, he labelled the neofolk genre as kitsch, an aesthetic of “poor taste” (Gordy, 106). This led to people turning further away from the genre, as it represented a pull back to the east, when most people were starting to look westward.

What is clear is that the identity of the Balkans is anything but clear. This region takes eastern and western elements and creates a unique identity that is impossible to nail down. Although in many ways the region looks towards western countries today, it is important not to forget its Ottoman roots. These roots are well represented in turbofolk music, where folk elements draw heavily from eastern oriental sounds. Looking to the history of the Balkans gives a deeper understanding into the oriental elements of the region. The Ottoman empire’s long-term rule imparted certain musical elements that became embedded into the folk music of various countries. It’s millet system also helped form concepts of national identities today. This also helps us understand the reasons turbofolk stars use these oriental elements in their music, to create their own identity in an unclear world. Finally, we can look to history to explain the way people react to oriental elements in turbofolk music. There is still much to be discussed concerning oriental elements of turbofolk. Where is the line between embracing Ottoman past and appropriating eastern culture? This question is especially interesting given the history of the Balkans and could be analyzed with the same framework as this essay. In the end, Balkan identity is a complicated but rich field that has a wealth of analysis left to be uncovered.


Secondary Sources

Baker , Catherine. “Yugoslavia and Its Origins .” The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990's , Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 7–39.

“The Destruction of Musical Alternatives.” The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives, by Eric D. Gordy, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999, pp. 103–164.

Archer, Rory. "" Paint Me Black and Gold and Put Me in a Frame": Turbofolk and Balkanist Discourse in (Post) Yugoslav Cultural Space." Master’s theis. Central European Univesity(2009).

Primary Sources

PlanetaOfficial. “TSVETELINA YANEVA & IONUT CERCEL - VLEZ / Цветелина Янева и Ionut Cercel - Влез, 2010.” YouTube, Planeta Official , 20 Sept. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSxuU8l72LA.

“Beautiful Islamic Call To Prayer.” YouTube, LearnTruthFindPeace, 9 Aug. 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=fe8qRj12OhY.

Channel, Traditional Music. “Arabic Maqam Music.” YouTube, 12 June 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlWqrBeRN1s.

AnaNikolic. “Ceca - Kad Bi Bio Ranjen - Live.” YouTube, 6 Oct. 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=66&v=xXeWPjzNiew.

Brena, Lepa. “Lepa Brena - Mile Voli Disko - (Tesna Koza, 1982).” YouTube, 18 Feb. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3NgcuITYfo.

MUSIC, FORZZA. “Cvetelina Yaneva & Rida رضا العبدلله - BROI ME (HD Video) Produced by COSTI.” YouTube, 8 Nov. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bLwGgQu0gE.


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