Irish Folk Music is Incredibly Popular in Serbia

Serbian Folk

Back in the mid 1980s, you couldn’t go to a party in suburban Belgrade without hearing The Pogues album Rum, Sodomy & the Lash blast from a third-generation cassette player. Toothless and disorderly, Shane McGowan and his band of drunkards arrived in Serbian hearts like a bolt from the blue. We were working-class children raised on punk rock, and up till then anything reminiscent of folk music was a no-no. But then Shane came along, and soon after it “Irish Heartbeat” by Van Morrison & the Chieftains was topping the charts. The Pogues and their rebel drinking songs stirred something deep within us, and our ears were irrevocably retuned.

Fast forward to the early 90s. It was a period defined by a lot of weird crossovers in popular music. Jazz got a sour prefix as it morphed into acid jazz; hip-hop fooled around with psychedelics and ecstasy and became trip-hop and hip-house respectively; country lured indie rockers into the stagnant waters of alt country; the Red Hot Chili Peppers put their penises in some socks and somehow funk metal was born. A similar mutation was underway in Serbia, where traditional folk music had pliers attached to its nostrils and was blasted with relentless 4-4 beats and slapdash Whitesnake guitar riffs, all while a girl in a short skirt with long legs wailed in a way that was meant to be vaguely Mediterranean over the top. This was turbofolk. It remains hugely popular to this day, though its popularity opened up a schism – Serbian rock musicians looked down their noses at a scene they saw as parochial and too eager to draw on national folklore for inspiration.

This rift widened after the biggest turbofolk star of the day, Ceca, married Željko Ražnatović – better known to the world and its various international security agencies as simply “Arkan”. Ražnatović was a notorious man, who managed to pull off the dubious triumph of being Serbia’s biggest Mafia boss and paramilitary warlord simultaneously. With things as they were, allowing even the slightest hint of Serbian folklore motifs into a rock song in the 90s was taken as evidence that a band had made a pact with the devil.

It was natural, then, for some Serbian musicians to seek ways around this problem. In 1992, Dušan Živanović, drummer for the mainstream rock band Roze Poze, came up with the idea of getting a band together to play covers of traditional Irish folk songs in Belgrade pubs. He invited the violinist Ana Đokić, mandolin player Dejan Lalić and vocalist Aleksandar Petrović – AKA Aca Celtic – to join the group, which they named The Orthodox Celts.

Starting out as an acoustic pub-rock cover group, The Orthodox Celts gradually evolved into a major seven-piece rock band, transcending the local scene to become internationally appreciated. They released six albums, the most recent of which – Many Mouths Shut – contains seven original songs and six covers of Irish folk standards.

“We began playing Irish folk because we loved it and knew it well – but we never thought we’d end up recording anything,“ says Aca Celtic. Now, The Orthodox Celts attract thousands of fans to the shows they play every March on Saint Patrick's Day and every August at the Belgrade Beer Fest. They have fan clubs in Italy, Brazil and Japan, their albums chart in Portugal and Scotland, and they have millions of viewers from all over the world on YouTube.

“There must be something in the music we play that people subconsciously recognise as a part of a pan-European or even pan-human cultural heritage,“ concludes Aca Celtic, musing on their success.

That success has had a hand in encouraging several other Serbs to start Celtic folk bands, such as Tir Na N'og, Irish Stew of Sindidun, Scordisci, Slavic Bard and Cassidy's Brewery.

Irish Stew of Sindidun are the most successful of the younger generation. Formed in 2003, and with three albums released so far, they predominantly perform original songs, bar a few traditional standards. The group’s singer, songwriter and whistle player, Bojan Petrović, also played whistles and sang backing vocals in The Orthodox Celts up until last year.

Almost 22 centuries after Caesar crushed the Celts in the battle of Alesia, historical justice is underway. A Celtic revolution is taking place – and it’s starting out in the streets of Belgrade.