Wiener Tschuschenkapelle: A balkan band, trying to make a difference in anti-migrant mentality in Austria, was recently featured on National Public Radio here in Los Angeles. Along with some 20 million Americans listening that morning, I was surprised to hear, “Moja Mala, Nema Mane” on my morning drive into work. Comprised mostly of citizens of the former Yugoslavia, this band has been bringing their traditional folk music to Vienna for decades now, after immigrating to Austria in the 1980s. The ironic band name comes from a derogatory Austrian word for foreigner, and aims to dispel the negative stereotypes and general racism against South Eastern Europeans and other foreign immigrants in Austria. It seems like Austrians are not using the slang word “Tschusch” in the same way anymore, since now its associated with up-beat world music that you just can’t stop dancing to. Tschuschenkappelle showcases the rich history and culture of their homeland, in an attempt to dissolve discrimination and promote inter-ethnic peace. This is one political message from the area that I can really believe in. Listen to a Serb, Croat, Macedonian, Rom, and Bulgarian play music together here:
Google “Kafana” and you’ll find references of ancient Turkish rule, male only bars, and old-fashioned stereotypes of down on their luck drinkers. Those stereotypes couldn’t be farther from the real modern-day Kafana. My experience with one in Belgrade was purely magical. I was drawn in there one quiet weekday night upon seeing 2 girls about my age chatting alone. I eyeballed them for a split second before joining them for a glass of wine and some forced Serbian practice. As soon as I was inside, I was hooked. 4 nights later all the bartenders were my personal friends, and everyone knew my name. I’m not kidding. By the time the weekend rolled around, I invited all my local friends and ended up with a small international posse who loved the place as much as I did from the start. The thing that sets the Kafana apart from a regular bar or nightclub is the music and the atmosphere. The music is the old traditional kind; usually played live, usually with an accordion (Serbs call it a harmonica), and hopefully a guitar, bass or some other instrument. Sometimes the band will sing as well, but even if they don’t the whole crowd will join in and drown out the band anyway. I had been sort of avoiding Kafana’s in favor of regular bars, lounges, and cafes since I didn’t consider myself a fan of traditional Serbian music. I was dead wrong. I wish I had been going to this place since day 1. The average age of the people there was around 30 years old and it was a balanced crowd of guys and girls. Mostly friends, having a good time after a long day, enjoying their company, the music, and a good drink. One man was studying orthodoxy and told me ancient stories of saints. He told me about how Serbs were good people, and if I happened to fall down on the ground in front of him and needed a life saving organ, he would give me his kidney without a second thought. OK, a shocking and humorous analogy, but you get the point, and he was serious. “I Give You My Kidney!” He shouted, through the accordion music and the singing, swaying crowd. “Thats how we are! We are good people!” And I agreed. Another man, upon hearing about my Serbian husband, kissed me on the head gently and said, “You’re husband is lucky man”. Then he proceeded to introduce to me to all his people at the bar as his newest friend, the American learning Serbian in Belgrade, who was married to a Serbian man in California.
Though the music was as old as it gets in the Balkans, the young crowd brought life back into the songs. They were singing every word from memory and swaying together like old, old friends. The guy next to me was telling me how his grandfather used to sing this song, and his great-grandfather and great great grandfather knew this song as well. These were the songs that carried the country’s history and the country’s soul with them from generation to generation. The songs somehow survived all the struggle until they ended up in this Kafana, sung by young, vibrant Belgraders who were utterly connected to their past, yet looking forward with an optimism that their ancestors couldn’t have had. The energy of this place captivated me, like many places in Belgrade did, and I instantly felt at home.
The Kafana in Belgrade was a pleasant surprise. It was a goldmine of fun, new friendships waiting to happen, and the perfect window into the Serbian soul, Serbian music, and Serbian society. So if you’re ever in Belgrade, seek out a Kafana and join right into the merriment…. you won’t be a stranger for long, my friend.
Today I accidentally happened upon a strange and beautiful event. I was planning on seeing a jazz concert at the Beograd Cultural Center, which is near Republic square downtown. I had been told about it by a friend of a friend whom I befriended recently. I met another friend by the box office, if you could even call it that, and we were found out we were in the wrong place. After much searching, we found the actual place, which is the Kulturi Centar Grad. Not to be confused with the Kulturi Centar Beograda, or the Studenski Centar Kultur. These places are as different as Serbs, Americans, and Japanese. So, being late and lost, my friend Natasha, an art curator from Roterdam, and I took a taxi to the place, which was by a bridge and railroad tracks. You would never guess it was a “cultural center” by the looks of it. It had no sign, and in fact looks like an abandoned building. On the inside, it was raw. Exposed brick, exposed ceiling rafters, exposed cables and pipes and cement. No finished floor so to speak of, no finished anything. It was the shell of an old forgotten building, and full of Belgrade alternative youth. They were selling hand-made unique items from local artists that had no studio. We befriended the girl who worked there and she gave us extremely detailed directions, including a hand drawn map, explaining exactly how to find the best graffiti art in the city. First the best graffiti art, then the best stencils. Then a few random spots that had some of both. All types of people were there, and the feeling of the place was industrial, flavorful, grunge. Finally the music started and it was a 5 man band, though I don’t know if I would really call it jazz. It was instrumental, an acoustic guitar, an accordion, a bass player, a violinist, and a drummer. And the music was phenomenal. It was the type of music that – once it started, you felt as if you were in love. It may be a stretch to call myself a real violinist now, but I was touched by the one on stage. Violins can be called clean. They can be classical, they can be sophisticated, and intelligent, brilliant even…but this violinist was playing something alltogether different than this. Yes, he smoked a cigarette during the guitar solo, and sipped wine during the applause. His technique was flawless, yet, he made the violin cool. To me, this is beautiful. The sounds coming from his instrument were smooth, like chocolate honey syrup, warm and delicious, and so inviting, you wanted to eat up the sound and lose yourself in the sweet high. I was in love. There were no vocals, which was just as well, as music needs no translation. Pretty soon, a guy with dreadlocks pulled a short-haired punk girl into an impromptu tango dance, and later in the night, a few broke out into what I can only describe as a modified Hungarian countryside dance. The musicians were young very well-connected to each other, and the music was soulful, fantastic, exciting, and bold. The crowd cheered for more, and we danced like nobody was watching….in the back of my mind, I started to let crazy thoughts creep into my head, such as….Do I really have to leave Belgrade? Why shouldn’t I just stay? Maybe I could play the violin in a band…Maybe I could find work here as a pilot, my trade, Maybe I should bring my muz back here….They went on and on, and soon it was time to go. A cab driver on the way home was patient enough to listen to our broken Serbian, we were drunk with enthusiasm, the language, the people, the music, the scene, the city….
And now its time for bed….
Laku Noc, from Belgrade!