Springtime in Belgrade: A Musical Journey Through Serbia’s Exuberant Capital

It’s Springtime in Belgrade and the weather is threatening rain. The Serbian capital’s fabled nightlife scene feels a bit sleepy as the seasons turn from the indoor clubs of winter to the summer ‘splav’ boat parties on the Danube. Easter weekend finds many locals leaving the city to visit relatives in the countryside. Bright sunsets from the heights of Kalemegdan Fortress give way to grey skies, sudden freezing sleet storms and desolate streets. Too much time is spent peering at dodgy GPS looking for dodgy speakeasies in the dead of night.

Still, fun can be found for those who seek it — in the edges and corners of this gritty city with the fractured history and vibrant late-night culture. The legendary boat club 2044 is celebrating its eighth anniversary with an ambitious program of events, from international DJ Ivan Smagghe to an inspired set of slow-burning live-tronica from Serbian mainstays Tapan. The weather squeezes everyone into the red-lit main room, where a dense fog of cigarette smoke and Chuck Taylors adds to the atmosphere. A few days later, the Resonate Conference brings together the worlds of avant-tech and avant-music with artists ranging from metal minimalist Stephen O’Malley to the hip-hop performance art of Mykki Blanco.

Belgrade _ 2044 packed house 8th anniversary _ Lawrence Lui _

2044 packed house 8th anniversary. Image by Lawrence Lui.

Dance music — especially the techno and psychedelic trance varieties — has always held a special place in Belgrade’s cultural DNA. In the ‘90s, Serbian youths danced at underground parties as NATO bombs fell in an iconic moment of defiance and abandon. The rise of worldwide dance music culture roughly coincided with the lifting of sanctions, and was among the first sounds to pierce Serbia’s years of isolation. The Prodigy were granted the keys the city just for playing there. While the indigenous pop of Turbo Folk represented a nationalistic turn inward, techno was the sound of liberation and of Serbia opening up to the world.

Belgrade scenes Yugovinyl _ Lawrence Lui _

Yugovinyl, one of Belgrade’s finest record shops. Image by Lawrence Lui.

Today, the scene is more atomized, with some key impresarios and crews running the show from behind the scenes. So there are the hipster kids at 2044, the techno-heads at Drugstore, the bottle service crowd at Brankow and the summery deep house of the Prodavnica collective. Beyond the dance floor, there’s the Yugo-rock nostalgia of a bygone Socialist era, kept alive by old timers and record stores like Yugovinyl. There’s even a nascent slowcore scene with artists like Stray Dogg, Ana Curcin and Wooden Ambulance.

Belgrade scenes _ Prodavnica bar, Cetinjska _ Lawrence Lui _

Prodavnica Bar, Cetinjska. Image by Lawrence Lui.

In today’s Belgrade, every corner bar is brimming with character and the promise of adventure, all weird lamps in windows and spiral staircases to secret nooks. Bars and clubs can be found embedded in apartments, record stores, youth centers, rooftops and converted slaughter houses. Venues go in and out of business at a rapid clip. Some say that there are not enough paying punters to sustain the scene, making it difficult for musicians to earn a consistent living here.

Indeed, for many Belgradians, the future can’t come fast enough. The city that the international press has touted as the ‘new Berlin’ is still in some ways mired in the corruption of the past. During this glum week in April, demonstrators clamored in the streets, banging drums and blasting speed metal, protesting unfair elections and stagnant economic conditions.

Live in Belgrade _ Woo at Dom Omladine, Resonate Festival

Live in Belgrade:  Woo at Dom Omladine, Resonate Festival. Image by Lawrence Lui

For many young people, money is tight. Dreams are big and mostly revolve around the idea of escape. Not just escape into the blur of a big night out (although there is plenty of that), but escape from a country where opportunity is limited compared to its more prosperous EU neighbors. Musicians talk of label deals in Italy; aspiring YouTubers hone their editing skills and calculate living costs in Thailand; and students rhapsodize about seeing the glittering sprawls of silicon valley. While Serbian pride runs deep, there is also an underlying frustration with the system. The promised land always seems a plane ticket or a visa application away.

season closing party at club brankow danijel cehranov.jpg

Season closing party at Club Brankow with Danijel Cehranov. Image by Lawrence Lui.

In the meantime, there are signs of a sort of cross-migration, as the city becomes a magnet for an international cadre of creatives, digital nomads, and tourists, coming for the party, the cheap lifestyle, the unique urban space. The city is safe and expat-friendly. Flights have become more affordable and plentiful. The first direct New York City flights started recently, around the time the New York Times did their piece on the city. As for the locals, they don’t have time to wait for their city become the next Budapest, Berlin or Prague; their lives are happening right now. According to producer/DJ Marko Nastic this is not necessarily a bad thing. In his view, “Serbians need to travel and see the world, and take in those influences and vibes. Then they can come back and make the scene better. Like when I went to Ibiza years ago, and saw what could be.”

Here are a few sights and sounds to experience in this city at the crossroads of change:

Best place to pre-game: Cetinjska
A discreet complex located in the old part of town, Cetinjska is sort of nightlife town square surrounded by a plethora of bars, clubs and cafes. Try out Zaokret for a low-key drink with friends, or Foodporn for a sex-themed meal, or Kenozoik for a more Berlin-style clubbing experience. Most venues close at midnight due to noise ordinances, so pre-game here, then head to…

Best one-stop nightlife destination: The building at Karađorđeva 44
In the Savamala district, there is single nameless building that serves a sort of nightlife emporium, housing multiple venues for every taste under one roof. In the mood for a posh jazzy experience? Gajba on the top floor is your spot. Do your preferences run towards more top 40 singalongs? Head to Ludost with your mates. Into tasteful house music? Find the discreet door in the bathroom to access Mladost. Want a more underground techno vibe? Descend to Gadost located in the basement. Can’t decide? Bar crawl through all of them, partying in Belgrade is all about attaining maximum efficiency.

Belgrade scenes _ Food Porn, Cetinjska _ Lawrence Lui _

Foodporn, Cetinjska. Image by Lawrence Lui.

Best place to see a rock show: Dom Omladine
A cultural center founded in the ‘60s in the heart of the city, Dom Omladine’s main auditorium boasts immersive state of the art sound, and was the musical hub of the innovative Resonate Festival.

Best mixologists: Bar Centrale
World champion drink-makers serve an attractive crowd, gamely accepting orders like “something with vodka that’s not too sweet.”

Best ‘social club’: Ljubicica
A quirky, cozy, artfully decorated don’t-call-it-a-bar located inside an apartment. At one point, the music was abruptly turned off and the patrons politely asked to be quiet because the police were nearby.

Best hangover cure: Pržionica Kafe
A shot of espresso at this bespoke coffee shop does wonders for the frazzled constitution. The tiny space boasts a Funktion-one sound system and parties that spill out into the street on Sundays during the summer.

Best 10-minute art break: The Salon of the Museum Of Contemporary Art
This single room, single-exhibition gallery is located directly opposite Kalemegdan fortress, but is easy to miss amid the tourist scrum. The intimate space is an edifying respite, showcasing provocative new art installations. Worth a quick visit and it’s free.

Lawrence Lui (@lawrencelui) lives and works in New York City. Special thanks to Milan Cvijic, Aleksandra Savic, Marija Pavlovic, Marko Nastic.

Lawrence Lui

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