Balkan beat parties in the centre of Berlin: Music as a cultural heritage that connects peoples
Balkan street festival in Neunkolln. Picture by the author.
Ich bin ein Berliner! The first sentence that most people learn when they visit or come to live or work in Berlin. Everybody would say, ‘Berlin is an open city, where you can be what you want and do what you want’. Having all of this in mind, I made the decision to move there. I wanted to feel the enormous energy of a big and open city that embraces everyone equally. Unfortunately, in the beginning, it was very difficult for me to adjust to the work atmosphere and different social space. Everybody around me was talking in German; when I wanted to say something, I was always very direct, and every time I got the same reaction: ‘Dejan, why are you shouting, we can hear you’. I realised that everybody thought that I was rude, even though that was not my intention. It was just the way I was raised back in Serbia: to speak loud, making short sentences, so that everyone can understand me.
After some time, all of this made me very lonely and I felt unwanted in a city as big as Berlin. When I talked with random people about Balkan culture and asked them what their first association was when it came to the Balkans, most of them would tell me: good food, cheap liquor and folk music. This kind of portray of the Balkans can be seen as a form of orientalism, to them, the Balkans was a place where people are just having fun all the time and don’t think about tomorrow.
One thing I was not aware of when I came to live and work in Berlin was that I would meet so many people from the Balkans, such as Bosnians, Albanians and Croatians, who are perceived as enemies of Serbs, because of all the civil wars that took place in the last two decades, followed by the dissolution of the former Yugoslavian state. Everything started when my only Macedonian friend from the office invited me to a Balkan beat party. I did not want to go, since at that moment I did not like Balkan music at all. However, I thought it would be rude to say no, so I went with him. The experience was wonderful. Soon, I realised that I knew most of the Bulgarian, Macedonian and Croatian songs. I met so many people on my first night out. I was a little bit hesitant to say that I am from Serbia, but a group of Croatian people came and said to me: ‘We do not like each other back home, but here we have to stick together’; and we did.
Urban side of contemporary Balkan music;Picture by the author.
Music was a crucial element in getting to know people and making social connections. We talked about food and had funny arguments about whether ‘burek’ is a Serbian, Bosnian or Albanian dish. We realised that we had so much in common. We were strangers to Germans, but we understood each other on so many different levels.
After a few months, this became a sort of ritual for us. First, on Friday nights, we would go out to eat ‘cevapcici’ (a Serbian, Albanian, Bosnian, and Croatian dish), and after that we would go to some German bar, where we would meet other people who would sometimes join our table, often opening different intercultural discussions. Then we would go to a Balkan music party. There, we would make a circle, hugging each other and singing loudly the lyrics of the songs. I felt that I belonged there. Everybody could speak my native language, everybody had the same taste in music, and all of them were talking really loud, which I really missed. The music was the main connection between us, and then came the language and same taste in homemade Balkan food. I had realised that I was not alone anymore, and that is how I met some of my best friends – some of whom are actually Germans who just enjoy Balkan sounds.
Step by step, I was introduced to a whole new side of Berlin, the side I would have never met without going to Balkan beat parties. After that, we started talking about our experiences as immigrants and we realised that we shared more than an interest in music. In the meantime, I also met German friends and I started to create my own social networks. I needed time to realise that we were a bit different and that my loud voice was unpleasant to some. I started ‘learning the German culture’ and soon I did feel as ‘ein real Berliner’. I could speak German quietly, my colleagues understood me, but every Friday night was reserved for Balkan music, food and everything we missed from our own countries. I realised that every human being has to find a place where he/she can feel safe, in a quest for belonging to a social group with which we share some similarities. This is especially important if you are an immigrant, living far away from your home, family and friends. Meeting new people with similar interests or background is crucial for feeling happier and creating a less stressful life in the host country.
Dejan holds a Master’s degree in Migration and Intercultural Relations (EMMIR), an Erasmus Mundus programme, issued by the University of Oldenburg. Previously, Dejan obtained a Bachelor's degree in Ethnology and Sociocultural Anthropology from the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Belgrade. Dejan was selected as a participant in the European Voluntary Service (EVS) and he spent one year in Berlin, working at the youth and migrant centre. An activist for social change, Dejan has lived and worked in Kosovo, North Macedonia, Norway, Germany and Sweden. Currently, he works as an international migration consultant and researcher at Westminster Foundation for Democracy in Belgrade.