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

Turbotón: Negotiating Musical Transnationalism and Authenticity in Turbofolk

All that is the smoke that came from Cuba, I'm asking for rounds of drinks on the hill above Pula, I hear it first, it’s blasting from the car, New summer hit, hit, hit -Miligram feat. Severina, "Od Leta do Leta" (“From Summer to Summer”)

The first music video in Serbia to reach over 100 million views, 2014’s “Moje Zlato” (“My Gold”) by MC Yankoo and Milica Todorović, heralded the popularity of a new innovation in Balkan pop music: the appropriation of reggaetón, a Caribbean music genre which has steadily been gaining popularity globally since the early 2000s. The song combines the recognizable dembow beat of reggaetón with Balkan brass horns and Milica Todorović’s trilled vocals, creating a syncretic mixture of influences that is completely unique both to reggaetón and Balkan pop. Reggaetón has a similar quality as a “vanishing mediator” to turbofolk, and the two share an affinity towards hybridization and transnationalism. Through the medium of reggaetón, turbofolk artists are further hybridizing the genre and producing a transnational product intentionally meant for global consumption outside of the Balkans. This is done by negotiating authenticity within what I am terming turbotón, which is a specific subgenre of turbofolk that utilizes reggaetón beats, Spanish language, and/or tropical locales to evoke the Caribbean.  While I do not use the term Balkaton, this term has been utilized by Balkan artists who are explicitly attempting to make reference to a Caribbean cultural space (for example, Romanian artist Mr VIK’s “Balkaton” or Serbian rapper Rasta’s Balkaton label). My preferred term is turbotón to acknowledge the subgenre's roots in the turbofolk industry.

Reggaetón as a musical genre has its roots in Sub-Saharan rhythms brought to the Caribbean by enslaved Africans in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In the twentieth century, these rhythms founded reggae in Jamaica, which was spread to Panama by migrant workers who were originally transplanted to Panama while working on the Panama Canal. In Panama in the 1970s, the reggae en español genre developed by covering and creating reggae in Spanish instead of in English/Jamaican patois. In the early 1990s, the dembow rhythm (as originally produced in a 1990 song by Jamaican artist Shabba Ranks) was spread through reggae, dancehall, and reggae en español, and variations on it are still prominent in reggaetón today. However, reggaetón was crystallized as a musical genre when reggae en español was combined with hip hop by artists in Puerto Rico in the late 1990s, which was in turn influenced by Spanish rap from New York City (Marshall “Dem Bow, Dembow, Dembo”). Since then, the genre has become widely profitable in Latin America, achieving occasional entrance into English-speaking markets, like 2004’s “Gasolina” by Daddy Yankee. In the past five years or so, reggaetón has seen massive growth in popularity in global markets, especially non-Latin markets. This is evidenced by the popularity of songs like “Despacito” and “Mi Gente,” by Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee and J Balvin, respectively.

The history of reggaetón as a hybridizing genre echoes that of turbofolk. Whereas turbofolk today has its roots in the neofolk and newly composed folk music popular in urban pubs (kafane) catering to rural and working-class transplants in Belgrade, reggaetón was “música negra,” a black genre that was heard in public housing projects (caseríos), considered a “lowbrow, stigmatized genre, shackled to a legacy of racism and colorism” (Cepeda). Now, reggaetón is a vehicle to success in Latin America and diasporas (although primarily for white performers, counter to the genre’s black roots), incorporating numerous musical traditions like bachata and merengue into a pan-Latin genre. Similarly, turbofolk is a kind of pan-Balkan phenomenon that belies the influences and appropriations of Turkish and Roma influences and a steady cannibalization of global pop trends. In content, the genres are also well-suited to intermingle. The subject matter of many reggaetón songs revolves around sex and love and “women rarely appear as anything other than objects of the male gaze,” although certainly there are women and queer performers in the genre who subvert the genre’s patriarchal norms, like Queen Ivy or Chocolate Remix (Marshall “The Rise of Reggaeton”). Turbofolk often reproduces and reifies rigid gender roles, although there are strong undercurrents of subversive feminist and queer transgressions in turbofolk (see Eurovicious “Queer as Turbofolk”).  

In the past decade or so, Balkan pop music, as based in Belgrade, has been experimenting with new musical styles to position artists as modern and in step with global trends and therefore available to global audiences. Specifically, songs are now being built to appeal to Balkan diasporas. For example, Belgrade producers Filip Miletić and Miloš Roganović are mixing European and global dance music with local folk music, i.e., turbofolk (domaći neofolk). Belgrade producer Damir Handanovic has said that now, due to the wider Balkan diaspora in countries like Germany and Austria, “the songs [Balkan artists] are singing must have Western structures, because audiences in the West are being converted to and are in large part adopting Western culture” (“Velike promjene na balkanskoj glazbenoj sceni”). This illustrates the adaptability of the Belgrade pop scene to global trends and the continuing hybridity of turbofolk.

As an example of the Balkan diaspora producing pop music back at the Balkans, take the Austrian-born artist MC Yankoo. His aforementioned song with Milica Todorović from 2014, “Zlato Moje,” was the first “Serbian” music video to surpass 100 million views on YouTube. It is notable that this song utilizes a dembow drum sample, fusing reggaetón as well as Balkan brass horns and the trilled vocals of Milica Todorović, who exemplifies the kind of highly skilled artistry required by many divas in turbofolk. Furthermore, in the midst of this syncretic musical palette, the Orientalism of the turbofolk genre (Baker “The Concept of Turbofolk in Croatia” 13) is emphasized by silhouettes of a belly-dancing woman.

Severina in particular is an example of a Balkan pop artist utilizing reggaetón to revitalize folk music traditions and present themselves as a global pop star; her most recent 2019 album Halo illustrates this best. Severina is billed as a Croatian pop star who retains wide popularity in the region while being tied to the Belgrade production scene. She has dabbled with reggaetón in the past, as in her collaboration with Serbian group Ministarke (“Uno Momento”), with Serbian emcee Miligram (“From Summer to Summer”), and her song Hazarder,” which was in fact produced by Belgrade-based Filip Miletić. On the album, over a quarter of the songs utilize reggaetón samples (“Fatamorgana,” “Bijela Vrana,” “Halo,” and “Tutorial”). Severina has already positioned herself as a trans-Balkan performer who can appeal to the broader South Slavic space, including diaspora (Baker “When Seve Met Bregović”). Reggaetón, then, is a natural expansion of her role as a truly transnational diva, opening her up to a broader audience outside of the Balkans and its diaspora. Furthermore, the visual, Caribbean evocations of reggaetón are easily mapped onto the Dalmatian coast, where she is originally from and which she has historically represented (see “Dalmatinka”/”Dalmatian Girl”). This evocation recreates the Caribbean in the Balkans, which I will expand upon further. 

As another case study of turbotón, take Serbian artist Saša Kovačević. His oeuvre is predominantly generic summer anthems and romantic ballads, but in 2016 and 2017 he made an actively concerted effort to include himself in the global reggaetón conversation with three singles and vied for “authenticity” by filming on location in Cuba and releasing his singles with Spanish versions. Two of these singles, “Zamalo Tvoj” and “Temperatura,” were filmed in Cuba with Latin American directors and local actors, and “Temperatura” and “Kažeš Ne” were both released with Spanish lyrics. The visual landscape of his Cuban videos appear to evoke and romanticize the working-class caseríos of reggaetón’s roots and the addition of Spanish-language rap features mimic the hip hop that is closely tied to reggaetón, but Kovačević strives for a particularly Cuban authenticity. This is exemplified by the opening scene of “Almost Yours,” in which he smokes a cigar, a symbol eponymous for Cuba, and watches children play soccer in an abandoned street before a vintage red car pulls up; all the actors in this scene speak Spanish (and though Kovačević does not join their conversation, he gestures jocundly).

What kind of authenticity is he seeking in the Cuban landscape? Setting aside the reality that it is probably cheap to film in Cuba, Kovačević’s efforts to release a Spanish-language version both belie the popularity of Latin music in the Balkans and an attempt to place himself in conversation with reggaetón and the Latin music space. This is interesting, because, by aligning himself with the Latin space, Kovačević is implicating himself in a non-Anglophone cultural space.  Turbotón is perhaps analogous to the 1990s trend of Cro-dance, an electronic dance genre which utilized English lyrics and symbolized difference from Eastern Balkan countries and belonging to a European cultural space. Turbotón then similarly functions as a Balkan code-switching genre. By utilizing Spanish language and visual imagery, these artists claim “to belong within a certain cultural space where their chosen languages have meaning” (Baker “Language, Cultural Space and Meaning in the Phenomenon of "Cro-dance"). However, the evocation of Cuba is an inauthentic point of reference for turbotón if it seeks to evoke reggaetón and its roots. A more accurate reference would be to Puerto Rico, due to its status as the home of the genre. Reggaetón is a recent infiltrating musical genre in Cuba that operates unofficially and which engenders “moral panic” due to its perceived support for consumeristic values and lack of sophistication (Gamez Torrez 229).

Within turbotón, the imaginary Cuba persists further in the creation of a “fake Cuba” in music videos, as in Tanja Savić’s “Prostakuša.” This, too, utilizes Spanish language and images of Cuba: colorful, old buildings and cars, rundown and empty streets, a fetishized element of crime. Interestingly, whereas reggaetón has obscured its Black roots and differentiates itself from similar genres perceived as Black, like Jamaican dancehall, Balkan turbotón uses Black performers as a form of exoticization to provide a perceived veneer of authenticity. For example, Black performers prominently feature in turbotón music videos, signalling “authenticity” in a manner similar to how Blackness establishes authenticity in global hip hop (Terkourafi 8). There is also the re-mapping of a new Caribbean in the Balkans using stereotypes of the Caribbean which complement the hyper-consumerism and idolization of wealth in post-1990s turbofolk. For example, MC Stojan’s “La Miami” is a Latin-influenced track whose video includes visuals of palm trees, tall white apartment buildings, beaches, tennis courts, all images evocative of Miami. With consideration to the rapid popularization of the Adriatic Coast as a European tourist playground, turbotón is somewhat like a soundtrack to this phenomenon.

According to Čvoro, turbofolk is a “vanishing mediator,” meaning that it contributed to and was utilized by actors of Serbian nationalism in the 1990s before transforming into a capitalistic, sonically unique genre which retains associated stereotypes from the 1990s (re: low-class, nationalistic, intrinsically associated with Serbian wars). Therefore, its original function has been displaced while it maintains popularity. Turbofolk since then has emphasized a specific Balkan-ness, as noted by Čvoro, that has built a regional transnationalism built on a shared enjoyment of a Balkan sound and lifestyle in contrast to the “lifeless West” (10-11). This creates “a degree of transnational solidarity by implicitly imparting that the listener is part of a larger collective” (Archer 200). The medium of reggaetón as a global genre is inherently tied to its history of anti-colonialism and the non-aligned movement, combined with cultivating national pride (Marshall “Dem Bow, Dembow, Dembo” 148-149). This original purpose has been lost as reggaetón has become a cannibalizing pan-Latin genre.

Turbofolk, from its beginnings in newly-composed folk music (novokomponovana narodna muzika) had an affinity for “bricolage and kitsch,” the combination of disparate musical sounds and samples, like the Ottoman and Roma roots of the melos vocal trill, the accordion, synthesizers, drum machines, and electronic samples of the gajde (a Balkan bagpipe). Therefore, the introduction of reggaetón drum loops are not an unexpected addition, owing to their global popularity. Turbotón, then, is an opportunity for Balkan pop to expand, not only to Balkan diasporas, but to global audiences and may be a way for turbofolk to shed its association with the 1990s, which it carries as a vanishing mediator. There is a romanticization of the Caribbean origins of reggaetón, illustrating a desire to be included in conversation with the Caribbean and a Latin cultural space, or to bring associations of the Caribbean to the Balkans, perhaps to the Adriatic Coast. However, what is intriguing in Balkan evocations of the Caribbean is the strong visual attraction of Cuba as a (real or re-constructed) setting for music videos. The “Cuban imaginary” in Germany has been explored most recently by Jennifer Ruth Hosek (2012), but the growing imaginary Caribbean in the Balkans remains to be explored. Might there be some strains of the original anti-colonialism of reggaetón in turbotón? The subgenre’s embrace of globalization in a third space further illustrates that it is “located between (and often in conflict with) the imagined political poles of liberal pro-European and conservative nationalist orientations” (Archer 178). Čvoro argues that turbofolk after the 1990s transformed into a genre that espoused a “’new-Balkanness…self-exoticizing, transnational, anti-neoliberalism” and a new form of resistance against globalization (2). Therefore, reggaetón may provide Balkan pop music an opportunity to include itself in a global conversation that is not of Europe or the Western political environment.

Works Cited
For a corresponding playlist of reggaetón and turbotón tracks, see here

Chocolate Remix. “Bien bow” (“Good Bow”/”Good Gay”). 2017.
Daddy Yankee. “Gasolina.” 2004.
Ivy Queen. “Quiero Bailar” (“I Want to Dance”). 2003.
J Balvin. “Mi Gente” (“My People”). 2017.
MC Stojan. “La Miami.” 2018.
MC Yankoo feat. Milica Todorović.  “Zlato Moje” (My Gold). Feat. Milica Todorović. 2014.
Miligram feat. Severina. “Od leta do leta” (“From Summer to Summer”). 2018.
Kovačević, Saša. “Kažeš ne”/”Dices no” (“You Say No”). 2017. Serbian. Spanish.
----------“Temperatura” (“Temperature”). 2016. Serbian. Spanish. Filmed in Cuba.
----------“Zamalo Tvoj” (“Almost Yours”). 2016. Filmed in Cuba.
Savić, Tanja. “Prostakuša” (“Bad Woman”). 2017.
Severina. "Fatamorgana" ("Mirage"). 2019.
----------“Halo” (“Hello”). 2019.

----------“Hazarder” (“Daredevil”). 2017.
Archer, Rory. “Assessing Turbofolk Controversies: Popular Music between the Nation and the Balkans.” Southeastern Europe, 36, 2012, 178-207.
Baker, Catherine. “Language, Cultural Space and Meaning in the Phenomenon of "Cro-dance." Ethnologie française. T. 43, No. 2, CROATIE. "Hybridations et résistances," Avril-Juin 2013, 313-324.
----------“The Concept of Turbofolk in Croatia.” In, Baker, Catherine, Gerry, Christopher J., Madaj, Barbara, Mellish, Liz and Nahodilová, Jana (eds.) Nation in Formation: Inclusion and Exclusion in Central & Eastern Europe. (Studies in Russia and Eastern Europe, 1) London, UK. UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies Publications, 139-158.
----------“When Seve Met Bregović: Turbofolk, Folklore, and the Boundaries of Croatian Musical Identity.” Nationalities Papers, 36:4, 2008, 741-764
Cepeda, Eduardo. “Tu Pum Pum: As Reggaeton Goes Pop, Never Forget the Genre’s Black Roots.” Remezcla. 2018.
Eurovicious. “Queer as Turbofolk (Part I): ‘Eastern Europe is Homophobic.’” Balkanist, 9/4/2014.

Gamez Torres, Nora. “Hearing the Change: Reggaeton and Emergent Values in Contemporary Cuba. Latin American Music Review / Revista de Música Latinoamericana,Vol. 33, No. 2 FALL/WINTER 2012, 227-260
Hosek, Jennifer Ruth. Sun, Sex, and Socialism: Cuba in the German Imaginary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.
“Velike promjene na balkanskoj glazbenoj sceni: turbofolk je mrtav, cvate novi stil čija će kraljica biti Severina” ("Big changes in the Balkan music scene: turbofolk is dead, a new style is blooming whose queen will be Severina"). Slobodna Dalmacija. 1/1/2017.
Marshall, Wayne. “Dem Bow, Dembow, Dembo: Translation and Transnation in Reggaeton.” Song and Popular Culture, 5, 2008, 131-151.
 “The Rise of Reggaeton.” Norient. 6/27/2010.
Terkourafi, Marina. “Introduction: A Fresh Look at Some New Questions.” The Languages of Global Hip-Hop. London: Bloomsbury, 2010.
"Dembow Perreo, Classic Dembow, and Rich Dembow Beats."
Marshall, Wayne. Fig. 1. From “From Musica Negra to Reggaeton Latino: The Cultural Politics of Nation, Migration, and Commercialization.” Pg. 23.

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