Robert Šoko in interview for GLE online magazine – by Vladimir Krakov ⎜Belgrade September 2016
If you believed the idea of promoting brass bands music from Balkans came exclusively from Goran Bregović and Emir Kusturica, you are not completely right. One of the people who did a lot for promotion of Balkan music is Robert Soko, a DJ and a music producer from Berlin, of former Yugoslav descent. Since the year of 2000 up to date, Soko threw hundreds of notoriously awesome club parties in Berlin and around the globe, and he coined the term Balkanbeat, to define an emerging music genre. Since 2005 he released a series of compilation albums titled “Balkan Beats Selected By Robert Soko”, thus establishing the genre in a global musical industry. The reason for this interview is the release of the new, sixth volume of Balkan Beats compilation, the first one released by a record label from Balkans – Belgrade based Balkanosapiens Recordings, a sublabel of Ammonite Records.
1. How was Balkanbeats born back in 1993?
– In the 1990s, Berlin was full of young Yugoslav refugees “lost in translation“. Whilst at home the country was being divided up, we Yugoslavs in Berlin did not necessarily identify with that process or know where to stand. These parties were an opportunity for us to be together, dancing on tunes of our youth or on our folk music. It was also in the 1990s that the likes of Kusturica and Bregović gave a new life to our culture and put it somewhere on an international stage. This is when I decided to have a DJ set dedicated to our music. It worked locally to soon become a European phenomenon. 10 years later, it became a genre and now it is known globally. Personally, I had chosen the term “BalkanBeats“ because back then, the word “Balkan“ was mostly mentioned in the context of war, and I wanted to put the focus somewhere else.
2. Since then, you threw hundreds of Balkanbeat parties worldwide, defined a new musical genre – Balkanbeat, and created six compilation albums titled Balkan Beats. How do people react to Balkanbeat around the world?
– I don’t know what it is about our music, but from Mexico to Japan, over and over again, crowds will go crazy and jump everywhere. It still amazes me actually, and this is what keeps me going. When I play „evo banke zigane moj“ in Fukushima and see Japanese dancers pouring their souls out to the beat of that song, I believe in humanity. It is fascinating how music is without borders.
3. There is something strangely appealing in Balkan music, for people who don’t originate from Balkans. Can you define what is that „factor X”?
– First, the rhythm in brass music is actually very similar to ska. BalkanBeats comes in a context of world music, which already opened up mentalities. People’s bodies recognise these rhythms. The rest of course is the magic of the trumpet, which deeply speaks to the human soul. Aside from jumpy brass songs, I believe the reason why our music is so universal is because it mixes up Western and Eastern culture. This means that a broad range of people identify with it, from Italian lovers of tarantella to Mexican cumbia dancers or Algerian rai listeners.
4. Balkanbeat is not widely embraced by musicians, producers and the audience in Balkans – not even close to the “career” this genre has elsewhere. Why?
– I think it is a pretty common phenomenon. As the saying goes (taken from Luke’s Evangile), no man is a prophet in his own country. Why are artists such as Bregović or Almodovar beloved around the world and not in their own homeland? Maybe because their art crystallises an aspect of their culture which their countrymen are reluctant to identify with. In Belgrade, the youth may embrace Californian rock music and perceive Balkan music as backwards, when in trendy Berlin my parties may be far more popular than an all rock night. To finish with another saying, the grass is always greener at the neighbour’s. We all look for what is exotic, I guess. Yet I wished the youth in the Balkan would come to perceive how cool their home music is. Some do and I am grateful to Balkan made bands such as Dubioza Kollektiv or Shazalakazoo for their work on that front.
5. Do you think Balkanbeat is just a fad, or is it here to stay?
– We’ve already had our ups and downs (smiling), so I think we are here to stay. Maybe precisely because we are not beloved by the Balkan crowds. When I start a party series somewhere new, club owners always ask me the same question: is the Balkan community in that city big enough for the party to sustain. And every time, I have to explain that that community has nothing to do with it. Most want to listen to either American hits or Turbofolk music, not to Balkanbeat. Balkanbeat truly is a genre within world music, something which generated itself and will only survive in cosmopolitan culture.