Making the Scene
An interview with the Yugoslav DJ collective Belgradeyard Sound System
Limited by a serious lack of both freedom and resources, Belgrade's music scene stagnated and became strangely homogeneous under the hegemonic rule of Slobodan Milošević. The grossly nationalistic turbofolk of silicone-injected, mob wife Ceca and her ilk was the order of the day, and it was served up on a silver platter to the masses. The country ate it up, but only because there were very few alternatives.
There was no money to start independent record labels or clubs that would cater for non-mainstream music, and very few international artists could be enticed to visit the country on their tours. Record stores were few and far between, and independent releases were almost impossible to find. But the crux of the indie scene—be it music, film, publishing or whatever—is found in its DIY spirit, and one Belgrade-based DJ collective was already hard at work on their self-proclaimed goal of giving the people "what they need."
After the elections in October of 2000, Milošević grudgingly conceded defeat and stepped down as Yugoslav president; that is, after doing everything he could, including falsifying results, to remain in power. As the dust cleared and the infinite possibilities of freedom were made evident, the floodgates opened for an outpouring of international support, both monetary and otherwise. It was what Yugoslavia and the world had been waiting for.
Belgradeyard Sound System was already one step ahead. They had been producing a weekly radio show on B92 for some time, and the new politics of democracy only helped their cause. No longer did they have to worry about the authorities jamming the station's signal or seizing equipment, no longer would they have to worry about being taken off the air. Instead, they were able to concentrate on bringing the world to Belgrade via music. In the interim, they have been responsible for bringing cutting edge electronica and hip-hop acts, such as Manitoba, Four Tet, Rechenzentrum and DJ Vadim, to Belgrade.
Recently, Central Europe Review caught up with Belgradeyard co-founder Goran Simonoski to discuss the collective and what they are doing for the newly revived scene in Yugoslavia.
CER: Why did you start Belgradeyard Sound System (BGYSS)?
Goran: A few years ago (four, I think) Relja (my BGYSS colleague) had a show on Radio B92 where he played dub and reggae music. Since I was working at B92 as a sound technician, I [did the sound for] his show as well. I really liked what he was playing, and I started to use effect machines (delay, reverb, etc.) as well as some sound effects. Then we decided to invite a well-known Belgrade reggae singer, Oliver, [to play with us]. We did a live gig at B92 with Relja on the decks, me on effects and Oliver on the mic. It was great and we decided that night to make a real dub sound system and play live. We did it once, it was great and after that night we never played together again. We had big problems with Oliver and we couldn't find a good enough replacement for him.
Since we liked the idea of a "sound system" and the freedom that you have when you play on your own stage, we decided to keep the name, and the idea to play whatever we want, without limiting ourselves to dub and reggae. As we said in our manifesto, "We want to present everything that people can't get in other places, at clubs or shows. But they're not to blame. It's the people who are in a position to help but don't feel any particular need to do it that are to be blamed. We have to bring back the old feeling for quality, which has been destroyed in the past few years. We want to bring back the open-minded approach to music, as to all other things in the category of creative thinking. We don't want compromises, molded forms, indecisiveness."
What were the original projects of Belgradeyard Sound System?
Our biggest project was a once-a-month matinee called "Soundscapes." We were doing it at the Rex cultural center, and the idea was to make an event where the entrance would be free, we would play downtempo / abstract music and some interesting videos. In the beginning, it was only us who played music and we played video clips that we found interesting. Then people started to send us their own mixes [made] especially for this event; for example, Tony Morley and Thorsten Lutz.
During the last few months we managed to have some live guests (Sutekh, Pure, Praxis, Four Tet, Toney Morley). As for videos, we didn't have live guests, but we presented the art of Takagi Masakatsu and the D-fuse Crew. At the moment, the Visomat Crew is doing a video for a Soundscapes mix that we made. Besides that, we organize some gigs from time to time. Our first experience was Jazzanova from Berlin. The last one was in January when our guests were Rechenzentrum. They played a fantastic gig at the Museum of Contemporary Arts. It was full, and the people loved them.
We have really huge plans for this year, so it's just beginning.
Could you talk a bit about your relationship with B92 and how you were forced off the air? To my memory, B92 was shut down by the authorities more than once. Was BGYSS affected each time?
Yeah, B92 was chased by Milošević's government all the time, and we were closed several times. Each time we had to move to other locations, reorganize our program and keep doing what we did. It really wasn't easy for B92 or for BGYSS. Of course, we were affected and we had pauses in broadcasting the show. During those pauses, BGYSS didn't want to move to another radio station even if we had received some invitations.
Why did you choose to stay at B92?
I guess we wanted to share the same destiny with B92. They gave us support once and we wanted to give them support back. Simply that.
You mention in your manifesto that you're fighting against the stagnation of the music scene in Belgrade, and Yugoslavia in general. During the time I spent there, it seemed that there was little to no scene to speak of—at least outwardly; I'm sure there were plenty of bedroom DJs. This was obviously due in large part to the political situation at the time. How much have things opened up since Milošević was voted out of office? Do you have trouble convincing artists to come and perform in Belgrade now?
When we talk about the "scene" in Belgrade we have to talk about the audience and about the DJs. For example, although there was a small number of DJs, the techno and house scene has always had a huge audience. There was an even smaller number of DJs and a smaller audience when we talk about the drum'n'bass scene, and there were no DJs and no audience for experimental stuff.
Now, things are changing. More and more kids are becoming DJs, trying to get some records and play. I can't say they play interesting music; more or less it's all the same shit, but it's important that they are interested in music and I think (or I just hope) things will be better.
More and more foreign DJs are visiting Belgrade and that's good, too. Of course we don't have any troubles convincing people to come to Belgrade. On the contrary, Belgrade is a really interesting place for them, since it's new and exciting for them to come here. We have a nice audience that is hungry for new music.
The mainstream entertainment industry in Yugoslavia is very homogeneous. The mafia-run television stations seemed to pump schlock at the lowest common denominator (turbofolk, Pink TV, Baywatch, Cassandra). How difficult is it for an independent—and decidedly non-mainstream—collective such as yours to get your message heard?
It's not easy of course, but things are getting better. Since Milošević is gone, the people that supported him have to deal with themselves and admit they were wrong. The old way of thinking (or, rather, not thinking) can't help them to live a better life. We are so far behind Europe, and whether we want it or not, we have to start opening our minds. B92 Television is trying to bring something fresh and different.
In the beginning, people didn't know how to react to our kind of program, but now I think our audience is getting bigger and bigger. Same with Belgradeyard. We are deeply convinced that what we are doing is right, and we'll not change our approach. We are doing this with all our heart, and people can feel that. We live in an age when time is moving twice as fast as ten years ago. We don't have time for the same old uncreative bullshit.
Have you experienced any resistance from the Belgrade establishment, ie political red tape such as visa problems or old-school club owners who don't appreciate or understand what's going on?
Yeah, club owners are our biggest enemies. They don't want to take a risk and host something different. They always invite the same people to play techno and house, 'cause they know they'll always have an audience. Everyone can listen to techno and house today. I say "can" 'cause when it was fresh and new most of them couldn't understand it. All the kids that were listening to turbofolk now are going to clubs, taking "E" and jumping all night long. Music doesn't bother them too much, the clubs are full, everyone's happy.
That's why we turned to the foreign scene. There is a bigger understanding for what we do and we've already had a few gigs in Austria and Germany. We even played at the opening night of the Transmediale Festival in Berlin. Visas are not a big problem, since we are getting guarantees from the organizers.
Have any new underground clubs that cater to more experimental music sprung up in reaction to the conservative mainstream club scene?
Yeah, there are a few places where you can hear different music, but usually they don't have any money to support you (they don't even have turntables!), but [they'll let you] do whatever you want in the club as long as they don't have to pay for it. Once you realize that you are only losing money and nerves you just quit doing anything. The other way is to do as we do: try to organize everything by yourself—sound system, equipment, design, commercials... everything.
How has your weekly radio show been received in Slovenia and Croatia? Is there very much intermingling and cooperation among the experimental music scenes of the former republics or do politics interfere?
Honestly, I don't know how many listeners we have in Slovenia and Croatia. On the other hand, when we played in Zagreb and Ljubljana the clubs were full and we had very good feedback from the audience.
Recently, we started to cooperate more and more with the organizers from Croatia and Slovenia. It's a lot cheaper for us to bring someone from Zagreb then from Berlin. The same with them. Also, more and more artists from Slovenia and Croatia are coming to Belgrade these days, and that's cool.
BGYSS's motto is "Don't give people what they want, give them what they need." In your opinion, what do the people need most at this point?
Open-mindedness! We forgot how to relax and [how to not] think of everyday troubles. Music is like a cure. You have to take the right one to be healthy. BGYSS knows how to make you feel well. Sometimes we need some more time and the process must be more destructive and painful, but we guarantee that illness will be gone.
What about the future of music in Belgrade? And what's next for BGYSS?
I think that Belgrade has great potential. We experienced so many things that other people didn't, and we just have to express what we feel. It doesn't matter if we're going to do that through music or painting or acting, we just have to be more relaxed and more creative.
BGYSS will try to draw the maps for all undiscovered fields of music. We'll make music, we'll play music, we'll write about it, we'll bring people in who are more experienced than we are... any help is more then welcome.
We have a lot of plans for this year. For starters, we'll bring the Sofa Surfers to Belgrade, and in the autumn we'll try to organize a huge electronic music festival which will include artists from Vienna, Berlin, Paris, San Francisco... time will tell whether it was worth it.
Robert Young, 28 June 2002
This interview originally appeared in the weekly Internet music magazine Junkmedia.org