Ethnic cleansing's balladeers get their marching orders

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The Independent Online
IT IS the music of war. On stage, the Serbian megastar Ceca sways before an enthusiastic crowd of Belgrade youths. Her normally heavily teased hair is pulled back and she is wearing a pink push-up bra, black Lycra leggings and heavy make-up. The image may be Madonna, but the sound is Beverly Hillbillies.

Ceca and a host of other artistes - Vesna, Lepa, Djaj - dominate the airwaves of Serbian radio and television with their eclectic sound, blending traditional Serbian folk music with oriental lilts and hip-hop techno beats. The name given to this home-grown style of music is 'Turbo Folk', which for the past two years has been an inescapable part of daily life in Serbia.

With its glib message of xenophobia, guns and easy money, Turbo Folk has become the music of choice to an entire generation of young people brought up with 'ethnic cleansing', international pariah status and the penury born of a United Nations trade embargo. To paraphrase David Bowie's Diamond Dogs, this ain't rock 'n' roll, this is genocide.

'Turbo Folk is the sound of the war and everything that war has brought to this country,' said Petar Popovic, the former director of Serbia's state-run record company PGP. 'It represents everything that has happened to this country over the past few years.'

Belgrade, with Sarajevo and the Croatian capital, Zagreb, produced some of the finest rock music in Europe in the Seventies and Eighties. But as the old multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Yugolsavia started to fall apart, the best rock bands and their pan-Yugoslav message were forced underground. They were replaced by groups and singers rediscovering nationalist folk songs.

For many young people in Serbia, whose idols are nationalist political celebrities and members of the burgeoning criminal class that has grown rich off the war, Turbo Folk talks about the things that many of them aspire to but few can achieve. 'Coca-Cola, Marlboro and Suzuki/ Discotheques, Guitars and Bouzouki/ Nobody has it as good as us,' goes the refrain of one of the most popular radio hits.

The distraction that Turbo Folk has provided for young and old alike has served well the regime of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. In a country where businesses go belly-up every day, jobs are hard to find and war profiteers rule, few people talk about anything else but Turbo Folk stars and their love lives.

Parliamentary debates have even been called to discuss the romantic links between important political figures and folk singers.

The public obsession with this marriage of Turbo Folk stars and nationalist mafia heroes was perhaps best illustrated this week by the appearance of 21-year-old Ceca and her rumoured boyfriend, Arkan, on a leading Serbian talk show. Arkan is the alias of Zeljko Raznatovic, a man who wears the hats of a convicted international thief, a former member of the Serbian parliament, the head of an extreme nationalist political party and a paramilitary leader accused by the West of carrying out some of the most brutal war crimes committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

However, all the public wanted to know was whether the stories of Arkan and Ceca's love affair, which have dominated the front covers of dozens of magazines, were true. No clear answers were forthcoming. When asked if she loved Arkan, Ceca replied: 'How can you not fall in love with a man who is a war hero, who was wounded in battle? He is the president of my party, and I can't hide the fact that I adore him, as all his members do.'

Despite the public fascination, there are signs that the heyday of Ceca, Arkan and Turbo Folk is coming to an end. Until now, Turbo Folk has received the blessing of the official state media, which have played it to the exclusion of almost all other kinds of music.

Now that Mr Milosevic has decided to abandon his client warlords in Bosnia and Croatia in exchange for an easing of the trade embargo, Turbo Folk and the ostentatious lifestyles of its stars appear to have outlived their usefulness to the regime. State television and radio stations have been asked to play less Turbo Folk. This week Mr Milosevic's Minister of Culture, Nada Popovic-Perisic, has announced a war on all forms of 'cultural kitsch', whose main target is Turbo Folk.

To redress the cultural imbalance, she said that the government would introduce a bill next month that would heavily tax Turbo Folk cassette tapes and records.

If Mr Milosevic, the undisputed master of Balkan political intrigue, is sincere about abandoning the Bosnian Serbs and their extremist allies in Belgrade, he would have to move against those people most closely associated with the war. As war profiteers promote and sponsor most Turbo Folk stars, any move against the music would be a move against them.

Removing the genre from the airwaves may also be for external consumption. The UN Security Council voted on Friday night to ease the regime of sanctions and restore international flights to Belgrade, as well as international sporting and cultural links. The move was meant to reward Mr Milosevic for his military blockade of the Bosnian Serbs.

'Now that the thought controllers in government are switching their policy, and Serbia can be culturally part of Europe again, they want something that they can connect with Europe, and Turbo Folk is not something the government wants to promote abroad,' said Ljudmila Cetkovic, music critic and journalist for Belgrade's independent radio station B-92.

But she doubts whether the regime can stamp out the music it has fostered throughout the war. 'The government created this culture, and no matter what the government does, these singers and their backers are strong and the kids have adopted their music.'

(Photograph omitted)