Robert Soko is among the fathers of Balkanbeats – a genre of party music that is taking some of the most exciting Southeast European sounds and bringing them to a global audience. Soko grew up in former Yugoslavia listening to western-influenced guitar music and spent his early twenties “wandering Europe and learning languages”. On 3 October 1990 – the momentous day when German reunification healed one Europe’s deepest wounds of division – he arrived in Berlin.
Playing DJ sets that brought together east and west in a city that was itself the ultimate melting pot of formerly divided continent, Soko tapped into a special energy. He plays regular Balkanbeats nights in Berlin, Budapest, Paris and London (soon to expand to Rome and Ljubljana), and is playing one-off shows everywhere from Belgrade to New York.
Chatting in his Berlin flat while his mother – visiting from Belgrade – busied herself with a home-cooked feast next door, I asked Robert how he defines his complex cultural identity.
My father is a Bosnian Croat and my mother is a Serb from Belgrade. I grew up in Zenica, which is a Muslim-dominated city. My best friend since childhood is a Muslim guy, my father is Catholic and my mother is Orthodox. So I have a really mixed background. I am Southeast European and I am a Bosnian-Berliner. I have a Croatian passport and a Bosnian sense of humour. I love the European identity for its variety.
Do you think your mixed cultural heritage has influenced the music you play?
Absolutely, I think it plays a big role in what I’m doing nowadays. When the war in former Yugoslavia broke out I was confused because I couldn’t take sides. I didn’t want to take sides. I was just a young man who defined himself as Yugoslav and all of a sudden I was exposed to all these issues. Music was definitely a way to resist. I didn’t consider it as a political response at the time, but in a way it was.
Where are most of the records you play produced?
As well as Balkan music I play a lot of music produced in Western Europe, but with Balkan influences. And what does Balkan mean? It’s a peninsula in Southeast Europe and at the same time it’s a mixture. There are so many influences; oriental influences, influences from the Middle East and the Islamic world. Jewish music is present and then there are urban influences; punk rock. And I play electronic music. Balkanbeats is a European experience. It’s a broad mix of east meets west.
How did you first start playing Balkan music in Berlin?
I stared DJing in 1993 while I was working as a cab driver. In the beginning I was spinning punk rock vinyl and Yugoslav rock n’ roll. And gradually ethnic music came into the mix somehow. And I saw how German people – and people from all over the world – were amazed by this music. They found it more interesting than Yugoslavian guitar music, which was basically familiar western styles in another language. When I played traditional music it created this atmosphere that people loved. And so it started to dominate my sets.
How would you describe the people who come to your nights?
The crowd is mixed, but in general, if I have to describe my audience I use three words: intellectual – because most are students or intellectually motivated in some way – multilingual, and sexy. Because sixty or seventy per cent of my audience are women. They love to come and shake their hips to these oriental sounds. Having lots of women there makes for a great atmosphere and doesn’t allow for any aggression.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
We – that is young people from the Yugoslav cities – mostly rejected traditional stuff. But with age – and maybe with the distance that came from leaving the former Yugoslavia – I realised that there was a value in this music that should be appreciated. Living in the western world and looking back to my roots definitely made a difference.
Having grown up on a diet of western-influenced music how does it feel to see young people in Western Europe going crazy for Southeast European sounds?
It’s an amazing feeling. I’m so happy to see young people enjoying Balkan music. The former Yugoslavia had very bad connotations during the 1990s. Talking about the Balkans conjured images of confrontation, war and poverty. It was for like that for ten years. And then around the turn of the millennium you saw something nice and sexy come up and western Europeans began to regard us differently.
The eastern influence in western music is growing and ever more western musicians are falling in love with Balkan sounds. And this makes me really happy. In a way, my DJ nights are part of a struggle to represent something positive and very European about the Balkans.
So you believe that music can play an important role in cross-cultural understanding?
Yes, absolutely. It brings nations and cultures closer together. Definitely. Once you start listening to a culture’s music, and you love it and you dance to it, there is a certain sympathy for that culture. Maybe you will try to get more information about where the music comes from, and – above all – it works to dismantle prejudices.