How the 'Borat of the Balkans' hit the big time

A YouTube video has turned a labourer into an unlikely hero uniting the former Yugoslavia
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The Independent Online

He works as a labourer, sings (in a cracked voice) about the "dogs and concrete" of New York, and his earnings from the glamorous world of entertainment have hitherto been limited to $1,000 for appearing in an underwear ad. But Ekrem Jevric – or the "Borat of the Balkans" as he is becoming known – has succeeded where many others have failed by uniting the former Yugoslavia with his song about the lonely and confusing world of an immigrant abroad.

Jevric's rise to fame in his homeland that he still calls "Yugoslavia", and that until last week he had not visited since its bloody break-up during the 1990s, owes as much to YouTube as to the simple message of his song and video: "Home, Work – Work, Home."

In the song, Jevric, nicknamed "Gospoda" (Gentleman), expresses the culture shock experienced in New York, where dogs and buildings are everywhere, "battalions of women" roam the streets, and families are neglected at home. It has struck a chord in the Balkans, where it has achieved 4 million YouTube hits in a couple of months, a record for any singer from the region. Jevric, in his late 40s, has touched the feelings of millions, and his song has been acclaimed in all the languages of the former Yugoslavia – Bosnian, Croatian, Macedonian, Serbian and Slovenian.

With his missing teeth and skinny frame, Jevric, a Muslim labourer from the northern Montenegrin town of Plav, does not look like a Balkans folk music hero. But viewers have praised "the living truth" of his song, which expresses the emotional troubles of people living outside the Balkans, where little is similar to home.

"Hey New York, darkness looms all over you," Jevric sings, against the background of Brooklyn Bridge and the skyscrapers of Manhattan. The song describes life in a mega-city, where many immigrants see little beyond a life of work-home, home-work, which leads the singer to conclude: "What do I know? I don't know anything, and how could I?"

The media in the Balkans are having a field day. In Croatia, the newspapers have called him "the Borat of the Balkans," while in Bosnia he is the topic of heated debate among music critics. Serbia's largest commercial TV station reports his exploits in its main news. He is now being invited to sing at weddings, a custom for many former Yugoslavs abroad.

In his native Montenegro, Jevric received a hero's welcome at Podgorica airport last week when he returned home for the first time in 22 years. He has been offered a series of concert dates and has agreed to appear in a reality show, but he declined to comment as he arrived to collect local brides for his four sons who remained in New York with his wife of 25 years, Igbala.

In series of interviews, Jevric described how he worked as a cab driver and construction worker in New York, where "each time I wanted to see some friend his family said he was at work".

He told Bosnian TV that the video, in which he is dressed like the Mafia cronies of Tony Soprano, was made by friends in New York, while the music was composed by an ethnic Albanian friend. Jevric said he had not expected such success, but added that "people obviously recognised what I sing about, the truth".

So far, he has sung the song in dozens of ethnic Yugoslav clubs in the US, from Chicago to St Louis. Videos from these events have achieved another 3 million viewings on YouTube. In the darkness of clubs, he wears sunglasses on top of his head and in one video picks his teeth with a credit card while waiting to climb the improvised stage. Another video shows him singing on a table, surrounded by fans.

Jevric sings in Serbo-Croatian, which is spoken by only about 20 million people, but he thinks a good translation could make his song an international hit. "Maybe [then] I will finally earn some money, because these people from YouTube haven't paid me a cent," he said on one television interview.

His one payment so far has been for playing a tailor in the latest underwear campaign for Dolce & Gabanna, or "Doggana" as he calls it.

But not everyone is impressed. Many former Yugoslavs despise his "primitive simplicity", commenting on YouTube that "he [does] not represent us all".