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A genre of music whereby the folk-music of a given culture is merged with modern techno and industrial styles, lending it a much faster and more modern air. Popular as dance music in Eastern Europe, particularly Hungary and Serbia, and gaining a measure of notoriety in England, turbofolk music is closely associated with punk. See Szeki Kurva.

A style of Serbian music which mixes traditional folk motifs with the instrumentation and glitz of everyday Western pop. Emerging as an offshoot of the Serbian nationalist revival in the late 1980s, it became the soundtrack to Slobodan Milošević's regime, providing his state with its ready-made celebrities and his wife's TV station with a round-the-clock diet of garish kitsch.

Before turbofolk came neofolk, or to give it its proper but unwieldy name, newly composed folk music, novokomponovana narodna muzika. A rehash of traditional folk-music styles and structures with Western arrangements, it might best be understood as the former Yugoslavia's answer to country and western. While young people in the cities took to rock and roll, neofolk was the sound of the provinces and countryside, perfectly placed to be taken up by Serbian nationalists when they railed against cosmopolitan Belgrade.

If folk music was borrowing from rock, the feeling had initially been mutual. The Serbian musician Goran Bregović, who began his career with the band Bijelo Dugme, had been the pioneer in the movement incorporating folk elements, often ultimately derived from Turkish music, into rock.

The Sound of Slobo

The rock bands of the seventies and eighties, however, had had a pan-Yugoslavian appeal, and were often more popular in other republics than their own. In parallel with the upsurge of nationalism to which Milošević attached himself by developing a sudden enthusiasm for the Serb minority in Kosovo, neofolk was patriotic, brash and chauvinist. When war broke out, cheaply produced cassettes of the new folk music filled market stalls in all the belligerent states.

Milošević's enthusiasm for neofolk was only matched by his antagonism towards the rock scene, which he recognised as a likely source of resistance to his regime. Rock groups tended to find the electricity for their concert venues cut off without warning, although similar blackouts were far from an unusual occurrence anyway in a Serbia taking the brunt of economic sanctions against the dictator.

The neofolk songs which accompanied his rule during the wars in Yugoslavia had less in common with pop music than with agitprop. Serbian heroism and martyrdom was lauded in the same terms as the epic poetry, usually dealing with the Battle of Kosovo, which had been rediscovered, and often newly composed, in the nineteenth century when a sense of Serbian nationhood had first been forged.

When Milošević began to cosy up to the international community in 1994 and abandon his ultranationalist surrogates, neofolk's particularly obvious extremism became as much of an embarrassment as had paramilitary politicians such as Vojislav Šešelj. Šešelj and neofolk were both unceremoniously dumped, with Milošević's culture minister Nada Popović-Perišić going so far as to declare a 'struggle against kitsch'. Considering what replaced neofolk, it can only be concluded that the kitsch won.

Turbofolk proper almost bears more resemblance to northern European dance music than to the Serbian folk traditions to which it professes to refer. In among the techno, the bridge will feature a quick burst of an accordion if you're lucky, although it's as likely to be a masquerading synthesiser instead. The traditional Balkan duophonic singing is reduced to the occasional howl or two at the end of a particularly melodramatic chorus.

Smugglers' Wives

Still, not even a turbofolk aficionado - if such a thing exists - would argue that its charm lies in its musical values. Instead, turbofolk owes its character, and its notoriety, to the image projected by its stars, most of all its reigning diva Ceca. No turbofolk hit is complete without its video, which wouldn't seem out of place on an American music channel if Jackie Collins were to start programming MTV.

The term was first coined by an early-nineties avant-garde rock star called Rambo Amadeus: Amadeus' shtick was to satirise the pretensions of the nouveau riche neofolk elite, who picked up the appellation with little sense of irony.

Men laden with unfeasible amounts of gold chains and women in miniskirts with a particularly maximalist attitude to their make-up drive fast cars and drink complicated cocktails in fashionable hotel bars, all to illustrate the anodyne love songs which make up turbofolk's stock in trade. They take their work home with them, too, and during the Milošević era were the staple diet of the regime's most openly propagandist tabloid, Večernje novosti. Whether on screen or not, Ceca and her colleagues provided Serbians with a less knowing, marginally more musical answer to Footballers' Wives.

In Serbia's dire economic conditions, brought about by economic sanctions and the consequent hyperinflation, turbofolk undoubtedly provided an escapism as welcome to many of the population as it was to the state media, firmly under Milošević's control, which promoted it. TV Pink, owned by Milošević's wife Mira Marković and with its offices in the headquarters of her political party, was little more than an excuse for an unending rotation of turbofolk videos. Similar fare was served up by TV Palma, and by TV Košava, the station belonging to the couple's daughter Marija.

Regardless of TV Pink's promises, the lifestyle glamorised by turbofolk could only be achieved by the criminals who prospered in Belgrade's flourishing underworld. Focussed around the Folkoteka nightclub in central Belgrade, turbofolk was the music of the dizelaši, the diesel boys, young bloods who smuggled diesel fuel by day and wore its namesake label by night. If Ceca epitomised Turbofolk Woman, Turbofolk Man was summed up in her eventual husband, the warlord turned mobster Arkan.

The Golden Couple

Ceca and Arkan's marriage, on February 19, 1995, received levels of coverage one would only expect from a royal wedding. The ceremony was split between Belgrade and the bride's small home town of Žitorađe, to show she was a good village girl at heart; it was broadcast live on RTS, the state television service, and quickly sold as a video. With a forty-car motorcade, Arkan arrived for his wedding in a uniform inspired by the Serbian soldiers of World War I, while Ceca's dress was supposedly inspired by Gone With the Wind. It would have been news to Scarlett O'Hara, one can be sure.

The golden couple were never far from Večernje novosti's front pages during their five-year marriage: think Posh and Becks, with added firepower. Between them, Ceca and Arkan tapped into potent myths of their own, more universal than they were Balkan: he was the wounded hero-martyr, she his comforter and his reward.

When he was gunned down in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in January 2000, she exchanged one archetype for the next, donning a black veil and becoming the grieving widow.

Ceca was one of over 400 people connected with Belgrade's Zemun gang who were arrested and interrogated after the assassination of the Serbian prime minister Zoran Đinđić in March 2003, and a secretly filmed video widely broadcast on television news showed her meeting one of the chief suspects for the murder, the ex-special forces commander Milorad Lukoviè Legija. Turbofolk's top male star, Aca Lukas, was also hauled in during the investigation, amid claims that an associate of Legija's was his regular cocaine dealer.

Although Ceca can still sell out Belgrade's Marakana stadium, turbofolk's fortunes have waned somewhat since Milošević's fall, and Belgrade's rock scene has emerged from the underground with the help of the independent radio station B92. During the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, B92 was taken over by the state for several months; its edgy rock playlist was replaced for the duration by wall-to-wall turbofolk. Novokomponovano, the official designation for the new folk music, became catch-all slang in Serbia for anything trashy, tacky or associated with the regime.

Not every turbofolk star is married to a war criminal, or even, like Vesna Zmijanac, to the head of RTS. (And it's not as if other countries' music scenes are very much less banal.) Jelena Karleuša, whose CDs can be distinguished by her particular shade of platinum blonde, is possibly turbofolk's biggest name at the moment, and has turned in the Serbian version of Tarkan's well-travelled Turkish track Simarik, perhaps better known as Holly Valance's Kiss Kiss.

Even when turbofolk was at its height, a few brave rockers commented that similar folk-pop fusions would not be denounced elsewhere as they were in Serbia. There's been nothing to match Serbia's alliance of musical kitsch and political populism, but the purely stylistic elements of turbofolk resurface on the other side of the river Sava.

Replace the accordion with the mandolin-esque tamburica, a traditional stringed instrument from rural Slavonia, and you've got yourself the formula for much of the more disposable side of Croatian pop music during the mid-1990s. Neither are Croatian glamour-girls such as Severina a million miles away from Turbofolk Woman themselves. Another singer, Alka Vuica, has made something of a career of sending up turbofolksy kitsch, although it's hard to know with Alka what's a dig at Ceca and what's just an addition to her ever-expanding collection of shoes.

Ultimately, turbofolk might not be a genuine tradition, but in former Yugoslavia that's often the point. On occasion, folk culture has flourished and been revived; almost as often, it's been appropriated if not invented to suit the needs of the time. Ceca and Jelena's Balkan Bling Bling, perhaps, is just a particularly garish example.

Read more:
Matthew Collin, This is Serbia Calling
Eric D. Gordy, The Culture of Power in Serbia
Or visit http://www.nostalgija.com, and listen to some

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