Popular Folk Music Strikes a Bad Chord Among Serb Leaders

IN a recent sell-out concert, a helicopter lowers Serbian folk music icon Lepa Brena onto an outdoor stage in the center of Belgrade. Thousands of fans, their enthusiasm undimmed by steady drizzle and blustery winds, chant the star's name as she warbles her opening number.

Throughout Serbia, folk gigs eclipse top football games as crowd-pulling spectacles. Leading performers such as Lepa, Dragana, and Ceca have become feted celebrities. Television and radio stations play their latest hits virtually around-the-clock. ``Folkotheques'' are fast replacing discotheques in many towns.

The authorities initially encouraged this rather kitsch, some would say trashy, musical genre - a blend of hip-hop, techno-rhythms, and oriental-sounding lilts - to foster nationalism and then to sedate the war-weary population. But chauvinistic dirges have given way to dismal love songs and vapid nonsense.

Driven by mafia money and rapacious demand, the folk wave has reached tidal proportions, swamping other forms of music and culture to the consternation of liberals, the more enlightened members of the ruling Socialist Party and, most notably, Mirjana Markovic, the highly influential wife of president Slobodan Milosevic. Ms. Markovic has repeatedly denounced the musical phenomenon as an ``invasion of primitivism'' that must be stopped, which, some observers believe, has prompted the authorities to take up her battle cry.

The new Serbian culture minister, Nada Popovic-Perisic, a literature professor, announced last month that she intends to break the folk hold. In her office, decorated with elegant fin de siecle Serbian furniture and contemporary art, Mrs. Popovic-Perisic rails against the ``tasteless nouveau riche'' - a reference to the burgeoning mafia - who, she says, are the principal financial backers of ``psuedo'' folk.

``They are aggressive people, grown rich overnight. This is reflected in the music they promote. I've nothing against old folk ballads, but what they promote has no authenticity or value. [The music is] an example of what is wrong with our culture, which has become spiritually poor,'' she says.

To redress the cultural balance, Popovic-Perisic plans to call for heavy taxes on folk music, introduce a bill that would end its monopoly on state television, and set up regional art centers to support classical music, jazz, opera, and theater, which have been largely neglected outside of Belgrade. She admits she faces an uphill struggle: ``Of course it's difficult to change national tastes. But if we're to communicate with the outside world, our culture must be more universal.''

The minister's prospects are doubtable. The day she launched her cultural crusade, Belgrade TV broadcast extensive highlights of a huge folk concert close to the capital, which ``looked like a mini Serbian `Woodstock,' '' according to veteran Belgrade rock critic Petar Lukovic, who despises the music.

He says her efforts have little chance of success: ``Folk is simply a reflection of our society, which has become primitive, kitsch, and xenophobic. The regime has tried to censor it before, but failed because it is a consequence of their policies.''

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