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Turbo-folk music is the sound of Serbia feeling sorry for itself

A product of the criminal Milosevic era, its odd nostalgia is the soundtrack to a new wave of nationalism.

By Nicole ItanoCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 5, 2008

Diva of nationalism: Svetlana Raznatovic – ‘Ceca’ – is Serbia’s most famous star of turbo-folk. As much aesthetic as sound, the genre drips with the emotional martyrdom of a wounded nation and the commercialism of sex.

Srdjan Ilic/ap

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BELGRADE, Serbia

The women parade across the stage, stiletto heels clacking as they croon songs of love and loss – ballads of village girls and heroic battles, of unrequited love and faithless men.

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"Wherever I go, I always end up in the same place," goes the final medley, sung by a squadron of buxom, scantily-clad women to the accompaniment of accordions and brass. "Who can tear Kosovo away from my soul?"

The crowd cheers, waves heart-shaped balloons, and joins in. "Serbia, Serbia!" they chant.

This is the beat of nationalism in Serbia, the mournful, pumped-up tunes of turbo-folk, a genre born in the dark days of Yugoslavia's disintegration. And as Serbia confronts a resurgent nationalism – fueled by economic troubles and anger over Kosovo's declaration of independence – the rhythms of the Milosevic era are again playing on the political stage.

Turbo-folk is a flippant – oxymoronic – term that stuck to a genre of traditionally inspired folk songs set to a techno-pop beat. Associated with the brutal nationalism of the 1990s when Serbia was under the sway of the late Slobodan Milosevic, it is as much an aesthetic as a sound, one that is aggressive, brazenly sexual, and dripping with patriotic pride and victimhood.

"Turbo-folk," explains Milos Trninic, a local singer who plays in turbo-folk clubs, "sells emotion."

At the Amsterdam, a popular boat-cafe on the Danube River, young women in six-inch heels totter in, with ever-so-short skirts over fishnet stockings. Plunging necklines are de rigueur and platinum-dyed hair glints in the blinking lights. The men are less flashily dressed; in this world of new-money ostentatiousness, it's the thickness of their wallets that matters most.

Turbo-folk, according to Serbian academic Ivana Kronja, who has written a book on the music, glorified a newly emergent criminal class in Serbia – tied to Mr. Milosevic – that rose to power and prominence in the 1990s. Svetlana Raznatovic – the most famous turbo-folk singer, nicknamed Ceca – is the widow of the notorious Serbian paramilitary leader "Arkan," who was indicted on genocide charges by The Hague tribunal for Bosnian war crimes. She herself was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003.

Once again, these are troubled times for Serbia, which is awash with rage over the Feb. 17 declaration of independence by Kosovo. After the traumatic 1990s – when Serbia lost four wars, was bombed by NATO, and faced international condemnation and isolation – the chastened country seemed to be slowly creeping toward a Western orbit.

But western support for Kosovo's independence has strained ties between Serbia and Western Europe and reopened old wounds.The fragile governing coalition collapsed in the wake of Kosovo's independence declaration.

Now, as the country heads into yet another round of elections on May 11, there's a strong possibility that Serbia's next government will be a coalition with a strongly nationalistic flavor, between the center-right Democratic Party of Serbia and the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, which wants closer ties to Russia.

So, licking its wounds again, Serbia is feeling the resurgence of the turbo-folk beat.

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