The extended holiday season in Serbia finally ends with a bang and a hangover on Serbian New Year’s day, on January 14. Like our belated Christmas, it is a consequence of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s continued adherence to the old Julian calendar, which lags 13 days behind the predominantly used Gregorian calendar.
Unlike Christmas, Serbian New Year’s eve is a very raucous affair and a great excuse to party hard to the sounds of Turbofolk in a smoky kafana.
Serbian New Year’s Eve has more of a reputation for cheekiness and debauchery than most Serbian holidays. City folk got the idea to celebrate the start of the New Year in the mid-19thcentury from their counterparts in Paris, Vienna and London. It has none of the complicated customs common to other Serbian celebrations: the only requirement is to have a good time until dawn.
After the Serbian state officially switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1919, most restaurants and hotels organized parties for both New Year Eves, to give their guests two chances to enjoy themselves.
After World War II, in the Communist era, however, there was a bit of a taboo about Serbian New Year’s Eve, as it was considered a celebration of exclusively Serbian national sentiment.
This was antithetical to the goal of creating a supra-ethnic community, so celebrations were banned and restaurants were required to close before midnight on January 13. Opponents of the system celebrated at home by playing folk songs as a small act of rebellion.
Since the 1990s and the break-up of Yugoslavia, Serbian New Year has re-emerged and been freely celebrated, often with public concerts. But it still retains its rakish image. That is in large part because January 14 is not a public holiday in Serbia, so revellers often have to nurse hangovers at work or school.
So, what to expect? At its most typical, a Serbian New Years’ Eve celebration takes place in a kafana and involves gyrating on random pieces of furniture while rocking to the oriental beat of Turbofolk.
It involves a singer with shrill vibrato voice, often in a tight-fitting colourful or sequined outfit, and emotional patrons jumping up and down and hugging each other and occasionally throwing some money at the band.
The weird and wacky music, like Serbian New Year generally, has a somewhat controversial place in the Serbian psyche due to its historical baggage.
Turbofolk started happily enough in 1980s as a movement to modernize traditional folk sounds by adding influences from disco and rock. What ensued was a manic and entertaining mix of synth-beats and accordion and a lot of wailing of hyper-sentimental lyrics about love and the various troubles it brings.
The music became immensely popular over the whole of the former Yugoslavia and the wider Balkans and spawned many starlets. The most notable was Lepa Brena – born Fahreta Jahić, from Brčko, Bosnia – who became the first Yugoslav superstar with sold-out concerts, several films, marriage to a tennis star, and even a Barbie-like doll made in her likeness.
From the start, its unsophisticated rhythms, banal themes and popularity in roadside kafanas, meant urbane cultural elites shunned and ridiculed it.
This feeling of disdain grew as Turbofolk’s rise coincided both with the rise of Serbian hard man Slobodan Milošević and with the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
The oriental-synth beats became the soundtrack to the devastation of war, while its colourfully made-up and garishly dressed stars became the public faces of a tragic era. The Milošević-linked media exploited the smiling faces, tacky glamour and happy songs to project normality in Serbia, while most people were, in fact, being impoverished by hyperinflation and food shortages.
It did not help that many of the Turbofolk stars became involved in politics, crime and fanning nationalism. The most famous example is Svetlana “Ceca” Ražnatović (nee Veličković), who married Željko Ražnjatović Arkan, a mobster-turned-warlord who led paramilitary operations in Bosnia and Croatia.
After Arkan’s murder in 2000, Ceca was herself involved in illegal activities: she was held in custody after the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić for possession of illegal weapons, and charged with embezzlement in 2011.
It all fanned a moral panic about Turbofolk, which many still see as essentially corrupting: tasteless at best and chauvinist and criminal at worst.
However, if you visit a kafana on Serbian New Year’s Eve, you can see that this moral panic did not reduce the appeal of its current EDM and R’n’B-infused incarnations. Like other moral panics about music, from Jazz onward, it is also very naïve.
Ironically, Serbia’s Turbofolk stars are one of the greatest sources of Serbian soft power in the region, thanks to their huge fan bases across the ex-Yugoslav countries as well as Bulgaria and Romania.
Even in the bloody 1990s, cultural exchange between Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia continued though cassettes and CDs of Turbofolk music.
More people in Croatia participate in cultural rapprochement with Serbia through “cajkas” – parties playing Serbian Turbofolk – than through any high-minded art form explicitly promoting tolerance and regional co-operation.
Like the relationship between rap and gun violence, the link between Turbofolk and social ills in Serbia is tenuous. The lyrics are often slightly nonsensical or overwrought laments about loves lost or unreciprocated, but are not much worse than those in globally known popular songs.
Although it used to be the music of choice of traditionalists and nationalists, there are many closeted Turbofolk fans in Serbia’s liberal, Western-leaning sets. Jelena Karleuša, another Turbofolk star who came up in the 1990s, is a staunch promoter of liberalism and LGBT rights.
Turbofolk is slowly gaining recognition from other parts of contemporary Serbian culture as well. Mimi Mercedez, a rising star in Serbian rap, extrapolates from Turbofolk tropes – including Ceca’s popular lyrics – to promote individualism and female empowerment.
Her hit with Polo Čare, “Turbofolk me je naterao” [“Turbofolk made me do it”] spoofs the popular concerns with Turbofolk and blames it for partying hard and causing havoc.
So, if you are feeling adventurous and interested in the quintessential Serbian New Year, find a Turbofolk kafana, and experience the effect for yourself.
This article originally appeared in Belgrade Insight and is now available on Balkan Insight