A Rock Pilgrim’s Progress

Students doing foreign study generally don’t like to see themselves as tourists, and in my first week in Belgrade, I thought of myself as a pilgrim. Anyone who has ever drawn parallels between religion and rock music ought to appreciate the history of rock in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ). During the new wave (novi talas) moment of the late 70s/early 80s, Belgrade-based artists in particular were self-consciously drawn to religious and spiritual themes as an exploration of identity formation and reflection upon the apocalyptic atmosphere of the waning years of the SFRJ. This is something I hope to write about in my future academic work, but for now, I’m a neophyte come to this temple to pay my respects and learn from the elders.

One of my only firm and certain goals for this trip (besides learning the language) was to find vinyl records from the Yugoslav novi talas. I didn’t have a good idea of how easy or difficult this endeavor might be, but I had noticed when I first looked up the address of my homestay on Google Maps was that it was about four blocks from a record store called YUGOVINYL, so I knew where to start.

As soon as the disorientation and fatigue of travelling to a new country had faded enough that I felt able to go out and explore the neighborhood on my own (2 1/2 days), I went out to look for YUGOVINYL. I couldn’t find the listed address from the street and just as I was beginning to lose hope, I poked my head into the parking lot that opened onto the street where I’d expected to find the store. I noticed that the parking lot was much more expansive than it seemed from the street and was lined with cafes. I went inside and felt like I’d stepped through a door into my own dreams. When I’d dreamed (in both the waking and sleeping senses) of Belgrade, I had vague visions of old off-street courtyards lined with storefronts based on my memories of Russia and Ukraine. This place, known by its shared address Cetinjska 15, is something like that, but its storefronts are an eclectic array of café bars and clubs. My head spun as I looked from the huge mural of Etta James that graces Blues I Pivo, to the bright and colorful patio of Dvorištance, to spray-painted replica of Andy Warhol’s banana graphic on the all-black exterior of Prodavnica. I didn’t – couldn’t – take everything in my first time and kept my focus on finding YUGOVINYL.

And there it was, a little, one-room storefront with a patio café. I was initially saddened by the small size – my experience in America both working and shopping at record stores was such that I didn’t expect small stores to have a very extensive selection, especially in the area that interested me most, alternative new wave and post-punk. But a few minutes of digging through crates later, I was deliriously stunned to find that this place had as comprehensive a selection of offbeat and rare ‘80s gems as the sort of multi-story music megastore that you can only find in California or New York. Still jet-lagged and in an unusually mystical state of mind, I marveled that the rules governing space as well as time seem to work differently out here.

And of course their selection of vintage new wave records by Yugoslav groups was as comprehensive as their selection of such records from the US and UK. I came home from my first trip to YUGOVINYL with one of the albums I was most hoping to find, Paket aranžman, and several others. Paket aranžman was the first full-length LP to come out of the Belgrade new wave scene in 1980, and represents the collective efforts of three just-formed bands, Idoli, Električni orgazam, and Šarlo Akrobata, and the young visionary producer Enco Lesić.

My rock pilgrimage in Belgrade did not stop with YUGOVINYL. A couple days later, I went out for an evening walk through the main pedestrian zone of the Old City (Stari grad) and soon found myself digging through the crates of a street vender couple selling records and books. In their 5 wooden crates, they had an even more concentrated treasure trove of ex-Yu new wave records. When I asked for the price of a particularly historic LP (the first solo EP by the band Idoli), one of the vendors replied that it was a very special album, so 1000 dinars (about $9). I was floored by this bargain (I had payed about twice that for most of the records from YUGOVINYL, which to be fair were in better condition) and immediately agreed to the price. I didn’t have enough cash on me to get all the records I wanted to take home that night, so I labored through my bad Serbian to tell the vendors I would return the next day for others. I resolved to come back with some prepared phrases so I could talk to the vendors about my interest in this music. They had seem somewhat bewildered that a young person with limited Serbian was so determined to buy up all their Idoli and Azra LPs. The next day, I had a very nice conversation with the vendors and came away with even more records. The vendors told me I spoke Serbian well and had great taste in music. The former was flattery, but the latter absolutely true.

In my two weeks in Belgrade, I’ve already attended 3 rock concerts. The first was a big all-night festival in an outdoor arena that was unfortunately marred by a violent altercation in the moshpit, but I escaped unharmed and armed with a better sense of what sort of crowds and venues to avoid. Since then, I’ve already found what might be my favorite venue, the small club called ElektroPionir right next door to YUGO Vinyl, which hosts small alternative music concerts. I attended two over this weekend. The first was a gig by three young, local indie groups and the second a concert given by a cult 80s No Wave/art rock band from Zagreb, Trobecove krušne peći. I loved every minute and felt right at home in the crowds that came for these acts.

The latest stop on my Belgrade rock pilgrimage was a trip to the big flea market (buvljak) in Zemun. I had to take two buses clear to the other side of Belgrade first thing in the morning, my ears still ringing from the previous night’s very loud concert, but ye gods was I rewarded for the effort. I found another cache of excellent vintage new wave records, including a Yugoslav pressing of David Bowie’s Heroes. Even more amazing than this was the book of photos and essays Drugom Stranom: Almanah novog talas u SFRJ (The Other Side: An Almanac of the new wave in the SFRJ), edited by the writer David Albahari. I immediately recognized the trio on the book’s cover as the founding members of my favorite Belgrade band, Idoli, and struck up a conversation with the vendor, whose only wares were that book and two matchbox cars from the ‘70s.

I came to this city with love and reverence for its musical history. I am now in awe of Belgrade as a living, creating, generous city which so richly rewards its seekers with  treasures both material and immaterial. I look forward to continuing my journey of discovery and learning here, and eagerly anticipate a future time when I may begin to return the favors of the city and its brilliant artists by promoting them in my work.

By: Maya Garcia

Program: Balkan Language Initiative

Term: Summer 2017

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