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Last Balkan Tango

How does a Serbian musician build bridges to his Hungarian neighbors?

April 24, 2004

How does a Serbian musician build bridges to his Hungarian neighbors?

The NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 was a momentous event in a tragic decade. It was, perhaps, the second-to-last Balkan domino to crash, before the October 2000 revolution that ousted Serbian president and indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic.

Though many places in Serbia were damaged in NATO's successful efforts to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad saw the greatest destruction.

Not only did the city sustain damage — but its links to the rest of Serbia were cut when NATO bombers destroyed the three main bridges that connected Novi Sad to the rest of the country.

As a city, Novi Sad only dates back to the 17th Century. Yet, there is evidence that the area has been settled for thousands of years.

Novi Sad's position on the Danube, on the southern Pannonian plain, has ensured that it is a crossroads for numerous Balkan cultures of the past and present, including the Romans, the Magyars — and the Ottomans.

From the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 through World War I and World War II — and then the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s — numerous nationalist-based efforts to "cleanse" the Balkans of various peoples and cultures have been attempted.

Some of these efforts have succeeded. Vast swathes of territory were "ethnically cleansed" in the recent Yugoslav wars, as well as in the other wars of the century — and have been reversed only with great difficulty. Belgrade — a city once known for its Ottoman minarets — now only contains one mosque.

The music of the Balkans, however, is a different story. One can hear traces of all cultures embedded in the notes played in Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and elsewhere.

The music of the Roma (or "Gypsies") sits in juxtaposition with the waltzes of Vienna. Echoes of the minaret calls of muezzin resound in the brass bands of Serbia.

One contemporary master of the Balkan sound is Novi Sad's Boris Kovac, who resides at the virtual crossroads of Balkan music.

On his recent CDs recorded with the LaDaABa Orchest, “The Last Balkan Tango” and “Ballads at the End of Time,” Kovac weaves the despair of a contemporary Balkans broken by war and strife with the color and passion of its music.

The starting point of Kovac's recent work is the feeling of desolation and apocalypse that accompanied the NATO bombing.

The Last Balkan Tango is subtitled "An Apocalyptic Dance Party," and the mood of both albums swings precariously from delicate Austrian waltzes to the frenzied folk call and response songs of the villages of Serbia.

Geography is history, destiny and metaphor in Kovac's music. He uses Argentina's tango as a musical parallel to the sadness and eroticism in Balkan culture.

The cover of The Last Balkan Tango is a painting by Otto Dix, the Weimar-era painter who captured the desperate twilight party of Berlin before the Nazi regime on canvas. The music of Istanbul clashes with the cha cha on Ballads at the End of Time.

In his liner notes to The Last Balkan Tango, Relja Knezevic compares Kovac's music to the famous Orient Express, which was notably traveled by Hercule Poirot and James Bond.

"His 'Orient Express,' writes Knezevic, "travels according to the following itinerary: … Budapest-Szeged-Novi Sad-Sofia-Istanbul." It is the route that Roma and Ottoman music traveled in the Balkans, first in conquest and then in retreat.

Yet, Knezevic also acknowledges the historical import of the clash of that music with the music of Austria. "Vienna was the secret center of the Balkans," he writes.

"Therefore, Kovac's composition (train) passes through Vienna on the way to the East…" Again, geography becomes history, destiny and metaphor. The Viennese Heuriger, or wine tavern, also becomes the kafana, or coffee bar, or the Balkans.

The music of Boris Kovac contains loud echoes of the bombs and destroyed bridges of 1999. It also encapsulates the desperation and exhaustion that all of the wars of that era brought to the Balkans.

It could just as easily be the music of Sarajevo, Skopje and Zagreb as it is the music of Belgrade and Novi Sad.

Yet, the hope that lingers in the sweet notes of Kovac's saxophone is the hope of music as a bridge. The bridges of Novi Sad may have been destroyed, but the bridges between the many cultures of the Balkan Peninsula remain strong and open in the music of Boris Kovac.