Where folk songs meet Serbian criminals

Kafanas – a traditional Serbian mix of English pub and Czech beer hall – are experiencing a renaissance as partygoers grow tired of Belgrade’s increasingly mainstream club scene.

I could hear guitar chords and the roar of the crowd before we even opened the door. Inside, it was hard to find a spot to stand. Napkins fluttered across the bar, women danced on tables and men slung their arms around each other’s shoulders – some in displays of affection, others for balance. The only time people stopped singing was to clank their glasses and shout ziveli (cheers)!

Outside it was cold and rainy. It was 1:30 am. And it was a Tuesday, months before tourist season. This was my fourth night out in Belgrade, and it was also the night I decided I would return to the Serbian capital one day.

Until recently, Belgrade was more famous for its role in the 1990s wars that led to the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia, which eventually formed Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia and the disputed territory of Kosovo. Serbia is often seen as the villain, accused of ethnic cleansing and other war crimes, but I was told many times that the US – my homeland – was the one responsible for the still-standing skeletons of buildings scarred by NATO bomb attacks.

Today, the internet is flooded with articles praising Belgrade as Europe’s newest party city, but in reality, Belgrade always knew how to get down. What visiting partygoers are now starting to discover pales in comparison to the underground techno parties of the 1990s that would rage for days. Locals still tell stories about electronic music blasting in dingy clubs and people dancing on bridges in hopes that their civilian presence would protect the structures from NATO bombs. Now that the war is more than a decade in the past, the city has seen an influx of visitors looking to party in underground caverns and rave on the barges that float along Belgrade’s stretch of the Danube River.

 “People come to Belgrade for nightlife – just to party and pick up chicks and get drunk cheap,” my friend Milica Isakovic said, annoyed. “Not to experience Serbia.”

The real Serbia can be found in Belgrade’s kafanas – traditional cafes that sit somewhere on the spectrum between English pubs and Czech beer halls. Once centres for artistic and political discussion, attracting mainly older males with their dim, wooden atmosphere, eye-watering amounts of cigarette smoke and free-flowing beer and rakija, today’s kafanas are experiencing something of a renaissance, attracting younger locals who have grown tired of the city’s increasingly mainstream club scene.

Rather than drinking Heinekens and tequila at the club, many Serbs are starting to spend more time listening to traditional folk music over a round of Jelens (a local beer brand) and rakija (a nationally popular fruit- or honey-distilled spirit),  with the added benefit of dancing, live music and sometimes even pub grub to help soak up all that booze.

Kafanas have become so popular that some establishments – particularly in the Austro-Hungarian neighbourhood of Zemun – now require a reservation as much as a week in advance to get a table.  

If Zemun’s kafanas veer towards the traditional, Ona Moja, a newer kafana in the municipality of Zvezdara, where I found myself Tuesday night, is of the more modern breed, which is to say the decor is slightly more upscale and the table dancing starts earlier in the night, but the music is generally the same. When I was there, the vocalist – accompanied by a clarinet, violin and accordion – belted out folk songs while the entire bar sang along.  I didn’t know the words, but it didn’t matter; nearly every Serbian folk song, I was told, is about the same two things: drinking and women.

“This song is like every other song,” my friend Luka Matic said. “The woman left him, so he drinks.” Of course, I couldn’t judge “him” for his drinking, because I took a look around and realized that “he” was probably left by one of the heartbreakingly beautiful women that now flock to modern-day kafanas, because every drinking establishment in the city is filled with enough supermodels to fill a runway at a high-end fashion show. If “she” left me, I’d probably drink too.

The music at Ona Moja was good – or at least tolerable. At Ispod Mosta, in the municipality of Savski venac, a few nights earlier, I wasn’t as lucky. After the live band stopped playing, I found myself listening to recorded turbofolk: traditional folk music mashed with aggressive techno beats, produced by – and popular among – Serbian criminals in the 1990s and 2000s.

When the turbofolk came through the kafana’s speakers, the unbridled joy and enthusiasm was both entertaining and confusing. About a dozen locals told me how much they hated the music, but they would invariably be screaming with excitement when any of a number of particular songs began to play.

“These songs are terrible to listen to at home,” Isakovic explained. “But when you’re drunk at the kafana they’re amazing. The quality of the lyrics is really, really low, but with the mix of alcohol it works.”

I’m still not sure whether they drink in order to listen to turbofolk or listen to turbofolk in order to drink, but it made for a good time either way.