Beats from the Balkans: A New Generation of Musicians are Making Sonic Waves

The new wave of music emerging from the Balkans is complex and subversive: it draws from the diverse historical entanglements of the region.

YouTube

By loading the video, you agree to YouTube's privacy policy.
Learn more

Load video

The new beat of the Balkans is a polyphony—a wave of multifaceted sounds that are as complex as the historical cauldron of unresolved border disputes, and questions of national identity. It’s a new wave created by the collapse of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires—and, subsequently, communist regimes. From the soul-aching Sevdah—a traditional genre of Bosnian folk music evoking strong melancholic feelings—to the distressing sound of “turbo-folk” (folk music on steroids), to western-inspired synth-pop music, and everything in between.

The most captive sound we’ve discovered over the past years was released by Bucharest-based label Future Nuggets—in particular, their EP “Raze de Soare – Albatros”, named after Albatros, a popular local band that incorporated Manele styles and socialist ghetto vibes and was once the soundtrack of the Romanian proletariat.

LP Cover by Future Nuggets

Similar to the Albanian Tallava, Bulgarian Chalga or Serbian “turbo-folk”, Romanian Manele is a Balkan music phenomenon with Turkish, Arabic and Greek influences, performed by Roma musicians mostly living off the wedding industry. In the eighties and nineties, the eclectic mix of traditional instruments such as the accordion, the cimbalom, the double bass and the violin was progressively amplified by emerging local bands with electric guitars and synthesizers, morphing into the so-called “proto-Manele.”

However, as the region’s middle class grew and wanted to shake off the socialist past, its music started to fade into oblivion. The Future Nuggets pay tribute to this neglected hybrid genre by fusing an electrified Middle Eastern sound with contemporary psychedelic influences—an unusual blend of melodies and rhythms, yet somehow so familiar. In their own words, the band’s sound is “informed by the past, but made for the times to come—as we navigate within a realm where reality is made out of fictions, fragments and rumors, populated by names with no bodies.”

YouTube

By loading the video, you agree to YouTube's privacy policy.
Learn more

Load video

But as much as the Manele sound provides inspiration for this new generation of music producers, it still remains marginalized by the Romanian mainstream radio and TV stations as a result of racial stigma against Romani and “lower-class” people. In recent years, Manele artists like Florin Salam were only able to succeed by westernizing their sound and quoting commercial, US-inspired pop music, which reduces its spirit and groove. But music prevails as a reminder of how creativity is a circle in which the past morphs into a kaleidoscopic blur of the future; unpredictable and constantly shifting.

More than any other part of the Balkans, Kosovo’s love affair with music, whether traditional or pop, is generating internationally-acclaimed stars. Beyond the lights of beaming stages inhabited by celebrated pop princesses like Dua Lipa, Rita Ora, and Bebe Rexha, Prishtina throbs to the rhythms of a tightly knitted underground scene. The city’s young, independent and self-organized initiatives are fostering a subversive culture that challenges the dominance of old patriarchy its resulting political instability.

Activist and DJ Oda Haliti’s line of personal politics began with serving drinks and organizing music events at Gegë, a small bar she bought in her early twenties. These days, the Prishtina native brings her brazen style and voracious appetite for genre-bending sets of experimental, acid disco and techno to international tours. “After years involved in organizing the Feminist Festival in Kosovo, I am taking my activism to the region of music. I believe it is one of the best mediums for protest—a powerful way to resonate social, political and individual issues,” explains Haliti.

DJ Oda Haliti © Ash O'Neil

While it still might be silent to the global listenership of Soundcloud, this electronic new wave emerged as a local phenomenon, and its multi-genre nature is grounded in the precarious history of this part of the world, entangled in politics of ethnic and territorial conflict. Despite these fluctuations, younger generations are eager to map a new sonic territory, across which moving between cultural and geographic lines to combine different experiences becomes a driving force.

Impressions from a performance by Zagreb-based band Nipplepeople © Nipplepeople
Impressions from a performance by Zagreb-based band Nipplepeople © Nipplepeople

The Croatian capital of Zagreb is another case in point that the Balkans are reinventing their musical identity, after being long-overshadowed by the reductive labels of (turbo-) folk traditions. Zagreb-based Nipplepeople is an electro-pop tour de force broadcasting a rounded line of urban sound waves that borrow references from eighties Croatian pop. Their single “Frka” reconfigures an iconic hit from legendary jazz and rock vocalist Zdenka Kovačiček; while the beloved native label Low Income Squad gathers cutting-edge experimental positions under one eclectic roof. Founders Strahinja Arbutina and Filip Šćekić expand on the prevailing sentiment: “We have a feeling that every producer in Zagreb acts on their own. As a label, we don’t feel obliged to emulate greater concepts or ideas that are tied to the notion of a collective body; we’d rather play in the grey zone.”

This kind of preconceived perspective about unknown regions is common. Asena Hayal, founder of Istanbul Comics and Art Festival (ICAF), has supported local live bands since 2016. She has given stage to a crafted mix of punk, rap and rock bands including Rashit, the first official Turkish nineties punk rock band, as well as The Ringo Jets, whose hard-hitting and hypnotic assembly of guitars and drums heralds them as pioneers of a new generation of rock music in the country. Since the recent period of tumultuous riots in Istanbul, the festivals have expanded their role as platforms for addressing political structures and avenues for redefining the public space. “We don’t have a rock’n’roll culture here,” explain The Ringo Jets. “Everyone has an expectation about Turkish music: “It’s Middle Eastern, there must be some balalaika; a violin.” The band is already making waves in Europe as they continue to redefine new directions that confront the western understanding of what their country represents.

And that may just be a herald of what more is to come from these realms. If you’d like to expand your breadth of musical knowledge, we invite you to tap into our “Balkan New Wave” playlist.

Rafaela Kaćunić and Nina Vukelić are the founders and editors of THIS IS BADLAND Magazine, a biannual independent magazine that explores art, design and culture from the Balkans and beyond.