A history of reggae in the Balkans

Serbian Reggae

Reggae music and the subculture that surrounds it arrived in the Balkans in the early 1970s. Despite not seeming like the most natural fit, the scene there has been blossoming ever since, finding a large and devoted audience with its message of social justice, freedom and equality.

Back in the 1970s, the President Tito-led Yugoslavia was unlike any other country in the world. A bridge between the East and West, it was the founder of the Non-Aligned Movement – an alliance of Third World countries looking to prolong their fresh liberation from imperial yoke. Yugoslavia was a cosmopolitan place, a liberal, socialist country able to take in artistic, cultural and philosophical influences from both the Western world and the Soviet Bloc, and that enjoyed ties to Africa, Asia and Latin America. One of the co-founders of the Non-Aligned Movement was HRH Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, and as such he was a frequent guest of Tito’s. It was an unlikely but strong friendship: The dandy communist guerrilla leader with Ray-Ban shades and Liz Taylor in his phonebook, and the messianic monarch of Rastafari religion.

The unlikely story of reggae’s popularity in the Balkans begins at an unlikely source, with the Yugoslav prog rock bands of the 1970s. Among their myriad influences was the music of Bob Marley and every so often they’d release one or two songs that took cues from the production and performance techniques deployed in reggae, albeit the tunes were less about Babylon and Jah and more about cars and women. Examples include “Vracala se Jelena” [Jelena Returned Home] by Izazov and “Igraj Rege” [Dance to the Reggae] by Zlatni Prsti.

In 1981, the seminal Yugoslav new wave record Paket Aranzman – a compilation of three Belgrade acts – included three reggae-informed hits: “Ona Se Budi” [She Is Waking Up] and “Niko Kao Ja” [No One Like Me] by Šarlo Akrobata, and the Slavic ska tune “Maljciki” [Boys] by Idoli. At the same time, several other new wave reggae and ska songs hit the charts – such as “Moja Prva Ljubav” [My First Love] by Haustor, “Obična Ljubavna Pjesma” [Simple Love Song] by Aerodrom and “Ne Veruj u Idole” [Don’t Believe In Idols] by Piloti.

The new wave bands were much more deeply into reggae than the prog rockers of the 70s – still, they were more hooked on the new wave-filtered reggae and ska tunes coming out of the UK than anything original to Jamaica, The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” and “Ghost Town” by The Specials proving particularly popular.

Belgrade new wave band Du Du A were the first to sneak the word “Babylon” into a song title, but it was Zagreb’s Haustor who led the way in immersing themselves totally in reggae poetics, creating their Jah-tinged masterpiece Treci Svijet [Third World] in 1984. The album was marked by singer-lyricist Darko Rundek’s determination to fill it with all the common iconography of reggae music, fusing it with lyrics that dealt in polymorphic, subversive Biblical imagery.

In the mid-80s, several pivotal roots reggae bands were active in the Balkans – Serbia’s Del Arno Band, the Bulgarian act Root Souljah, Fundracar from Greece and Ladanybene 27 of Hungary. These bands blazed a trail out of Babylon, schooling and spawning dozens of other reggae musicians and bands in their home countries.

Today, the reggae scene in the Balkans is thriving; the Belgrade singer-trombonist Hornsman Coyote has collaborated with the likes of Lee Scratch Perry and Lutan Fyah, while ethno-dub acts such as Sopot and Dubioza Kolektiv from Bosnia & Herzegovina, the Belgrade-based SARS, Macedonia’s Brooka Band and the Croatian acts Bamwise and Radikal Dub Kolektiv lead the way. Rather than remain a detached impression of the original Jamaican sound, Balkan reggae is now rich in various subgenres. It sounds modern, is well played and produced, and the community across the region is well connected. So far, there have been three Balkan reggae compilation albums – Balkanfarraj vol 1 and 2 and Balkan Reggae Connection, while at least one Balkan reggae festival is making moves. While Balkan countries and their inhabitants are a constantly quarrelling crowd, the Balkan reggae scene is a wonderful exception capable of raising hope.