Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

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Lauren Eby: "Turbo Folk"

I work for an organization of professional and amateur musicians who bring music to communities in conflict. We have projects in Holland and abroad. In Holland, we train musicians to work in refugee centers, sponsor choirs for Dutch and foreign born women to get to know one another, and help elementary and music schools work world music and cultural awareness into their curriculum. We have a depot of donated instruments that we distribute, we help Dutch musicians travel into post and active conflict areas to use their artistic skills in the peace-building process, and we hold international conferences under the theme “If we can sing together, we can live together.” We support projects in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Bethlehem, Cyprus, and Uganda.

I do all sorts of things around the office, and then work on one project in particular. Musicians without Borders (our group) and an organization called Community Building Mitrovica (Kosovo) are trying to open a music school in Mitrovica, Kosovo. Mitrovica (like Mostar) is an ethnically divided city with a bridge. The citizens of Mitrovica are 90% Kosovar Albanian and 8% Kosovar Serb. (However, if you share this information with your neighbor who happens to be of Serb descent, he will disagree with these numbers and might also tell you that the bones buried in the mass grave at Srebrenica belong to slaughtered cows). In Mostar, people more or less choose not to cross the bridge; in Mitrovica, there are thugs called bridge-watchers who keep the city segregated by force. To illustrate my point, international troops provide both Kosovar Serbs and Kosovar Albanians an armed escort for graveyard visitation on holy days, as the Orthodox and Muslim graveyards rest on the other’s allocated land.

There is a small section around the bridge called the Confidence Area, where members of all ethnic groups are safe. This is the area where Community Building Mitrovica (a local organization) has their office. The international troops are also located in this Confidence Area, residing in an antebellum cultural center. Last year they agreed to allow us to put a music school in the basement of this building, but now there is a new authority who turned the basement of the building into a personal fitness center. We would like them to leave so we can build the music school. The music school would be rather informal training in pop and rock music. The pop and rock music aspect is particularly important to the project due to a strange phenomenon called turbo-folk. (If the style of the next few paragraphs sounds odd to you, it’s because I lifted them out of a project proposal I wrote for the European Cultural Foundation that got rejected).

Violent conflict changed many aspects of Kosovar society including the role of arts and culture. As is frequently the case during times of war, music was propagandized. The authorities, the media, and musicians themselves shaped and styled popular music to suit the objectives of war. The sub-genre of popular music that emerged is called turbo-folk, which can be described as a combination of aggressive electronic modern sounds with traditional melodic motifs. Mafia culture saturates turbo-folk; it is a highly eroticized promotion of violence, decadence and the easy acquisition of wealth. This music is most commonly associated with the Milosevic era in Serbia, but has dominated the music scene of the entire region since the early nineties. During the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia, turbo-folk was played in the trenches of all sides, and thus became the music of war. The combination of high-adrenaline beats with nationalist kitsch is paramilitary perfection. Milosevic is gone and the war is over, but turbo-folk continues to encourage people to fear their neighbors, fight for ethnic and religious supremacy, and adulate their own culture’s history and traditions.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the prevalence of turbo-folk in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, etc. Turbo-folk videos, CDs, and concerts outsell all others. Its stars reach iconographic proportions. Turbo-folk is an element of popular culture with a proven ability to mobilize the populace. Failure to participate in the turbo-folk spectacle is perceived to be anti-populist and anti-national and therefore deviant. Just as there are people who are enchanted with turbo-folk, there are also people who are disgusted by turbo-folk. The idea to establish a music school specializing in rock and pop came from young musicians of Mitrovica who resent the turbo-folk dominion and long for a more diverse music scene. The Pop-Rock School will offer Mitrovica a turbo-folk alternative….

The truth is nothing can make me so angry as turbo-folk.