Bell-bottomed revellers clad in shining shirts, dancing the night away, were a familiar sight in the party capitals of the world circa 1970. But in brutalist New Belgrade, it was a brand new experience: in the basement of a sports hall, the first discotheque in socialist Yugoslavia was born.
The country no longer exists, having splintered into fragments following war in the 1990s. But before economic and ethnic fault lines appeared, and when the good times rolled, the country straddled the line between east and west – a successful socialist experiment, for a time, with an open society and vibrant cultural life. Yugoslavian disco, post-punk and electronic music thrived in the 1970s and 1980s – yet was mostly forgotten until recent efforts by hobby archivists and specialist record labels.
Cratedigging obsessives have flocked to this forgotten corner of pop, reissuing it (such as Light in the Attic’s Pop Not Pop compilation) or posting it on YouTube, where channels packed with “Yugo” sounds receive views in the hundreds of thousands. This music even reached Kendrick Lamar when producer 9th Wonder sampled Yugoslav supergroup September’s 1976 song Ostavi Trag for the Lamar track Duckworth.
It all began back in that New Belgrade sports hall. Promoter and DJ Boban Petrović opened the club in 1967 to secure peace, “Brotherhood and Unity” – the slogan of the Balkan states led by Marshal Tito, the antifascist partisan who was president of the country from 1953 until his death in 1980 – and was one of the first to bring funk, boogie and disco to the country’s masses.
Petrović worked hard to create a welcoming environment. “It wasn’t simply a place for dancing – it was creating the taste for music and fashion,” he says. “I was trying to copy the atmosphere from mine and my friends’ birthday parties – I even opted for furniture similar to my living room.”
As a child, Petrović played his parents’ imported Elvis and Glenn Miller records out of the window of their apartment. “In this way, I was probably the first DJ in the area,” he says wryly. An aspiring footballer, at 18 he was on the verge of signing with Red Star Belgrade, but a career-ending knee injury hurtled him back to music, and he formed a disco-pop band Zdravo (Hello), in which he sang and played keyboards. Petrović also enjoyed a local reputation as a solo artist, releasing 10 singles and two albums of funk, pop and disco, but his international aspirations were dashed when talks with record executives in London fell through.
Petrović’s final solo album, 1984’s Zora, “was a goodbye album to music and my previous life”; he left a rapidly destabilising Yugoslavia to start a steel business in Cyprus and eventually moved to Marbella where he bought a local football team (though Ride, a track he produced with his daughter Ana Ann, reached the UK Top 40 in 2002, and he now records with cellist wife Jela Cello, who he hopes will perform at next year’s Proms).
For others in the early 1980s, the uncertainty in the air was sparking something else – Novi Talas (or Novi Val), a grassroots Yugoslavian new wave playing post-punk and experimental electronics, fuelled by similar sounds in Britain. “A tremendous energy and a new sense of freedom exploded” among young people in Belgrade, Zagreb, and Ljubljana, say Luka Novakovic and Vanja Todorovic, who reissue Petrović and other Yugoslavian rarities on their label Discom.
A surge of bands – such as Haustor and Boa from Zagreb, Električni Orgazam and Idoli from Belgrade, and Videosex from Ljubljana – gained a small amount of traction in international music press like Melody Maker and NME. Electronic music was, at first, “totally underground,” say the Discom owners, with artists “searching for new possibilities in how to express themselves. The lack of equipment – there was just one Roland TR-808 in Belgrade – forced musicians to be creative.”
This 808 – the iconic drum machine of early hip-hop, electro, and house – belonged to two pioneers of electronics in Belgrade. Equipment was expensive and hard to come by, but much of it was introduced to the city by Zoran Vračević and Zoran Jevtić, friends since 14 whose musical lives completely changed when they heard Depeche Mode and Soft Cell for the first time.
“As soon as we heard the electronics coming out of the UK, I thought: I have to forget real drums,” says Vračević. “I got a drum machine, then the old hexagonal Siemens kit, the first one in the Balkans. All of a sudden, it was a completely new world.”
They soon formed Data, a Yellow Magic Orchestra-inspired electronics duo, and later put together the Bananarama-esque Šizike and the Master Scratch Band, Yugoslavia’s first electro/hip-hop group. They’d make trips over to London every few months to load up on vinyl and new gear, and because they spoke English, they’d translate manuals for other artists and teach their contemporaries how to use the instruments. The limited access created a deep sense of camaraderie in the nascent electronics scene. “If somebody got something new, as soon as they learned how to use it, it was given to somebody else,” Vračević says. The circle of musicians was small; about 50 people, all attending each other’s live shows and homes.
Vračević and Jevtić had no access to samplers, and had to be inventive to achieve their sound – capturing samples through roundabout methods like using triggers at the back of delay units connected to their drum machines, or chopping and re-constituting tapes. As there were no computers like today, the approach was painstaking. “People thought repeating sounds couldn’t be done without a sampler, but we could,” says Jevtić. “It was ridiculous; it was amazing. That whole DIY approach was where the creativity was because it made you think completely differently. We couldn’t use presets – there were no presets!”
With the equipment they brought back from London – in some cases costing more than the yearly salaries of their parents – the Zorans helped record 20 albums from 1981 through 1984. “What was funny is neither of us could play at the time,” says Vračević. “We had this old Roland MC4B sequencer. There was no way of inputting notes through the keypad – it looked like a massive calculator. I’d read a shitload of numbers to Zoran, like ‘24, 48, 96’ for five minutes. People are looking at us thinking, what’s going on here? Then he presses play, you hear the bass line going, and it was like: wow.”
A 5,000-copy pressing of the Data EP quickly sold out. Catching wind of this home-grown sound, people spilled out of the queues to Belgrade’s clubs, and at its high points from 1981 to 1985, Vračević and Jevtić attended three to four gigs a week to check out other artists as well as playing shows of their own. Their tracks were picked up by local radio DJs; a magazine ran a competition for one of their shows, receiving tens of thousands of entries. They began to get TV slots on Yugoslavia’s answer to Top of the Pops. If one of their vinyl-hunting trips to London hadn’t turned into a decades-long stay – so enamoured were they with the city – perhaps they would have been huge, Jevtić wonders. Instead, Vračević began making a living with remixes for major labels, while Jevtić became a graphic designer and illustrator.
Meanwhile, in Skopje, Macedonia, another of the few 808s in Yugoslavia was in the possession of Kiril Džajkovski, who formed Bastion with singer Ana Kostovska, lyricist Milcho Manchevski, and Ljubomir Stojsavljević on bass. The group survived for barely any time, but their impact was strongly felt: Flora Pitrolo, who re-issued Bastion’s 1984 LP on her ACC Records imprint in 2018, calls the record “a quick-footed jewel of eclectic, expert synth-wave – it’s genre-curious, but grounded in this bright, glamorous pop sensibility.”
Still in high school and with the help of his parents, Džajkovski, who today is a renowned electronic composer living in Skopje after a time in Australia, acquired one synth, one drum machine, and one four-tape cassette recorder. “That’s all I had to work with,” he says. “But hey, guess what: they were classic pieces of equipment – I had the 808 and a Jupiter-4 Roland synth. I didn’t have any sequencers, so it was all played live on tape when we recorded.
“People get confused – Yugoslavia was never part of the Eastern Bloc,” he continues. “Creatively, it was a really nice period. In my memories, they’re not marred by politics or anything like that.”
Unlike the USSR’s often restrictive approach to culture, authorities in Yugoslavia largely left their musicians alone. When censorship occurred, it was more subtle, according to Petrović, who recalls – after a comment challenging the government about pollution – that his songs mysteriously dropped from the radio.
Tito split from Stalin in 1948, and in the 1950s, Yugoslavia promoted tourism, leading to an open-door policy atypical of socialist countries. With it came cultural exchange, where the influence of western music became more strongly felt (and even a local Mariachi music scene: Yu-Mex). This travelled both ways: one of Yugoslavia’s first stars, Croat crooner Ivo Robić, whose original version of Strangers in the Night predated Sinatra’s by years, helped the Beatles get their foot in the door with Tony Sheridan and Polydor.
But there were ideological roadblocks. The “Yugoslavian Jean-Michel Jarre”, Miha Kralj, struggled to release his first solo record Andromeda – a surprise hit in 1980 – due to its supposedly religious themes, until Slovenian folk composer Vilko Ovsenik recommended the record to the RTB-Belgrade label. Connections were everything, said Kralj, who continues to compose and plans to reissue Andromeda next year along with a new record. Later, a festival was shut down by police for the anti-establishment politics of a band below Kralj in the billing. “This was a story with a bitter aftertaste that I will never forget,” he says.
This kind of repression would intensify with the conflict that was to come. The world’s gaze fell on Yugoslavia in 1991, when the most brutal European conflict since the second world war started to unfold. Lasting nearly a decade, neighbours turned on each other, and the term “ethnic cleansing” entered the English lexicon for the first time. For musicians, the summer clubs of Croatia, Yugoslavia’s longest stretch of coast, were all shut down, but this was the least of most people’s worries, and the wounds of the war still run deep.
“Immediately after independence, the dancefloors by the sea in Croatia were still closed,” Kralj says. “It was difficult for many bands and singers who performed on terraces and clubs in the summer.” He says that following Slovenia’s 10-day war of independence in 1991, most places also avoided playing Yugoslavian Balkan music, and that cultural nostalgia formed only later, as the years went by.
So as well as the current rediscovery of Yugoslavia-era pop, there are also fond memories of the old united country as a whole, which, according to the musicians I speak to, lived its motto of peace, brotherhood and unity. Petrović says that living standards were so good, he’d tell American friends the Californian lifestyle extolled by the Beach Boys could be found more readily in Yugoslavia. Jevtić adds: “My mum was from Croatia, my dad was from Serbia, but we never identified as that. It’s quite tough on all of us who grew up in Yugoslavia truly feeling free, and knowing now that it doesn’t exist. We have nostalgia for the entire thing, let alone the music.”