The good old days: Despite the situation in former Yugoslavia, Serbs and Croats still meet in a London club to recall better days. Hadani Ditmars joined them

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The Independent Culture
Late on Saturday nights, the basement of an unimposing, rather suburban-looking restaurant in Bayswater is transformed into a unique gathering place for London's former-Yugoslavian community.

At The Nest, Bosnians, Serbs and Croats - gypsies, students and refugees - come together for a unique blend of popular and traditional music performed by three friends from Sarajevo.

Before midnight, people meet for drinks, and deals are made quietly in back rooms. By one o'clock the whole place is alive with retsina-inspired dancing to wild gypsy tunes. At the end of the night everyone is singing old folk songs together, their eyes reflecting the inner conflict between the nostalgia and horror of memory.

Michael, a regular, is a refugee from a small town south of Zagreb. He's a gypsy who is now married to an Anglo-Irish gypsy woman he met in London. He likes coming here, he says, because of the friendly atmosphere. 'Everybody has a good time,' he says with a generous sweep of the arm, 'including people whose close relatives may have killed each other.'

But here the political gives way to the personal. Given the current situation in former Yugoslavia, the most striking thing about the club is its absolute normality. People come here to meet friends, flirt, have a drink, much like anywhere else. Perhaps this is what a Saturday night out in Sarajevo was like 10 years ago.

Much of the popular music played is from the 1970s and 1980s. For many this is a nostalgia throwback to their youth.

Tonight there are songs by Indexi - a Serbo-Croat-Muslim band from Sarajevo, popular in the early Seventies. 'They were like a Yugoslavian Abba,' the singer says.

The band plays a song by Bjelo Bume or White Button, another popular Seventies group. It's a mild protest song about the betrayal of idealistic youth by cynical adulthood. But the words take on a special meaning. 'I used to think I could be what I want / But now I see I can only be what others want / I agree to be whatever they want / Now I'm selling my soul to the devil.'

In addition to pop songs, the band plays folk music from all over former Yugoslavia. There are gypsy standards like 'Chevele, Romale' ('I'm looking for a gypsy boy to love') which solicit wild applause - and more modern, equally romantic ones.

A song about mandolin players - from the Hungarian part of Serbia - has everyone singing along - and a Macedonian tune gets half a dozen people up to do a traditional circle dance.

There is a short pause for talking as the band takes a break. I chat to a refugee from Sarajevo who is doing his PhD in mechanical engineering. We talk about job prospects and economic recovery and the English weather. A man with a mobile phone and an Armani suit walks in and is greeted by two beautiful girls with long, painted fingernails. No one talks about the war.

The band starts to play again, with a song about a gypsy girl dancing round a fire until dawn. A woman stands alone on the dance floor holding a half- empty glass of retsina up to the band, in a confused gesture of salute and defiance. She sways slowly back and forth, mouthing the words of the song, her eyes closed in remembrance of another dancefloor in another place.

The club takes place each Sat from 10pm at the 'The Nest', Porchester Rd, W2 by Royal Oak tube.

(Photograph omitted)

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