A week in the life: Montenegro

We spent a week in Montenegro, a country which has only known independence for seven years, to understand the struggle for a national identity through personal narratives of some of its cultural players. Interviews by Max Dax and Lisa Blanning.


Since declaring independence on June 3, 2006, the tiny ex-Yugoslavian Republic of Montenegro has had aspirations of becoming the Adriatic’s next St. Tropéz, wooing the rich, beautiful and famous to its shores by investing heavily in elite tourism. But until this utopian vision becomes reality and the country lives up to its on-screen depiction from Casino Royale (filmed on location), Montenegrins have been hedging their bets in search of alternate national identities, turning to everyone from national football coach Branko Brnovic and various celebrated turbo-folk outfits to find out which way is up. In Podgorica, it’s get rich or sigh trying, as we recently learned from some of the city’s prominent protagonists. Main photo: Hand painted real estate advertisements adorn the highway outside Podgorica.


Monday, Kotor: Coffee with Dudduh and Noyz of Who See?, Montenegrin rap duo and participants in 2013’s Eurovision Song Contest.


Noyz (Mario Đordevic, left) and Dedduh (Dejan Dedovic) of Montenegrin rap duo Who See?.

Our band Who See? never felt like part of the Montenegrin music scene, which is very small and produces a lot of garbage called Montenegrin “turbo folk”. In fact, we have always only listened to international music, especially American hip hop. Since we founded the band in 2000, we have seen ourselves as part of an international hip hop underground which goes back to the mid-nineties when we started listening to that music—particularly Ice-T, Ice Cube and gangsta rap. At the time, it was very difficult to get any original music in the country. This was also a result of the economic embargo against Serbia and Montenegro that came into effect in 1992 during the war with Bosnia and Herzegovina. We had to ask tourists from the West who looked like hip hop fans if they could give us some music that we then would copy onto cassettes.

Today, there are probably only fifty people who do hip hop in the entire ex-Yugoslavia, and we most likely know them all. As natives of Kotor Bay, we were originally inspired by a hip hop duo known as the politically incorrect “Monteniggers”. The group was popular throughout the nineties until Nebojša “Nebo” Saveljic was tragically killed in a car accident in 1999. Certainly, MTV Adria has made huge efforts when it comes to promoting hip hop in ex-Yugoslavia. The video to our song “Reggaeton Montenegro” from 2012 may not be known outside of the region, but along the Adriatic it had massive success, receiving double platinum status for more than eight hundred plays on MTV. Having studied graphic design at the faculty of fine arts in Cetinje, this was a huge accomplishment as we had edited the video all by ourselves. And yet despite this regional success, we were surprised when we heard that we were nominated to represent Montenegro at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö. After all, it’s only the country’s fifth time participating since independence. And we didn’t expect that a hip hop track such as “Igranka”, featuring our dear friend and singer Nina Žižic, could ever be considered representative of what Montenegro is about. Back when Serbia and Montenegro were still participating together, a hip hop track would have simply been impossible because it wouldn’t have been familiar enough for the authorities. But one thing that we have learned about our home country is that things simply happen the way they do, be it arbitrarily or for totally practical reasons, like sending us to Eurovision to save money. You have to know that since 2006, the Montenegrin understanding of participating in the Eurovision Song Contest meant to spend crazy amounts of money to produce some fancy-ass music they thought would blow the rest of the world away, which of course it didn’t. So when we finally received the unexpected phone call from the director of Montenegro Public Broadcasting Service inviting us, we were just happy to not have that happen again. We knew that Eurovision reaches hundreds of millions of spectators, so for us it meant a chance to perform our music in front of a huge international audience. Naturally we accepted the offer. We also hadn’t planned anything else: no holidays booked, no work to do, no recording sessions. Last but not least, we’d never been to Sweden before. That we lost in the first round—well, that’s another story.


Tuesday, Sveti Stefan: Tour Guide Extraordinaire Andrijana Nikic takes us for a seaside drive along the Adriatic.


Above: Passionate tour guide Andrijana Nikic lives to help visitors navigate their way around the impressive Montenegrin landscape.

Growing up in Montenegro and loving music, I welcome pretty much every concert that takes place here. Unfortunately, there weren’t that many in the past. Almost no major artists or groups come to perform. So I was quite surprised when The Rolling Stones, Madonna and Lenny Kravitz played in Budva in 2007 and 2008, even though it was an exception. Every other artist—including Depeche Mode—will usually only have Belgrade and Zagreb on their tour schedule. I often get asked if a music scene exists in Montenegro at all, and surely you can hardly find a DJ who has his own style. If people go dancing, they go to the big discotheques where mainly turbo-folk is being played. It’s a strange phenomenon because this music pretends to be of Balkan origin but in reality is a plagiarism of Turkish and Greek dance music, mixed with sexed-up lyrics that hardly make any sense at all. The other day I heard a girl singing some silly line in a turbo-folk song: “I am so hot that you can boil coffee on my body”—obviously not the words of a feminist. And everybody goes to these turbo-folk events because mass culture always has the positive side effect that you’ll meet all the people you know. Still, I will never understand how this music could be so commercially successful and cast such a shadow on the traditional music of Montenegro, which is actually quite beautiful and made with a kind of lyre called a gusle. When I listen to the old music, I feel something like love for my country. But that’s as far as it goes.

Apart from that, people are very patriotic in Montenegro. It doesn’t matter where they live, Montenegro will forever remain their first love. They will gladly defend their homeland when foreigners dare to criticize its absurd bureaucracy, poorly performing economy or lack of contemporary youth culture. It’s as if other opinions are not welcome. Having said that, I don’t feel that patriotic at all, maybe because I’ve lived a couple of years in the US and in Paris and have seen systems that are way better organized. My hometown Sveti Stefan was a celebrity resort in the sixties frequently visited by the likes of Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren. But all I see today are things that could effortlessly be improved. But nobody seems to care. So yes, this tiny country has huge potential, but the people here mostly don’t give a shit. I’d actually describe the overall mentality of the Montenegrins as passive, but not lazy. As a rule of thumb, everybody always expects somebody else to start something. No one ever makes the first move. The results can mostly be seen in our stagnating economy.

You have to know this if you want to understand people of my generation. As children and young adults we witnessed two decades of transition, including a war, a referendum, a declaration of independence and finally turbo-capitalism. On the political level, we currently have the Monty Python-esque situation that almost every political party carries the word “socialist” in their name. The ruling party is the Democratic Party of Socialists, with the opposition made up of the Socialist People’s Party and the Social Democratic Party. They all claim socialist ideals, as if they want to nourish the people’s need for nostalgic socialist continuity in post-Tito Yugoslavia. But if you take a closer look at their political agendas, you’ll notice that they all stand for the various forms of neoliberalism.

You can see this easily in the way our cities were rebuilt in the two decades after the end of Yugoslavia: huge residential complexes were erected in cities like Budva or Podgorica, but nobody ever invests a thought into the infrastructural and urban planning around it. Suffice to say, we sold or privatized basically everything that was formerly owned by the state. As a result, Montenegro, apart from its wine industry, has almost no national production or exports to speak of. No politician has ever addressed sustainability as an issue, and we’re left with hoping that beach tourism will solve all our problems three months out of the year.

Perhaps the worst thing is that the two decades of “transition” have also changed the moral values of the people who live here. Money has become the new religion, people are getting greedy and they’ve even started believing that the war never happened. If you’d ask people on the street, some say that the bad things started when Montenegro gave up its independence and became part of Serbia in 1918. They almost like the idea that our country had been occupied for almost ninety years, because it allows them to blame all the bad things on Serbia. Of course, if you go to Bosnia, Serbia or Croatia you’ll hear a completely different take on history. They talk more about communism than the Balkan war of the nineties, but ultimately they’d discuss it all. I don’t like Montenegrin hypocrisy. If you ask me, this country is currently undergoing a crisis of spirituality.


Wednesday, Podgorica: Sit-down with cultural event manager Nina Redzepagic.


Nina Redzepagic is the person to talk to should you want to shoot a film, find a stuntman or organize a larger concert in Montenegro.

I studied at the University of Bologna in the Department of History. After that I graduated from the Film School ESRA where I studied directing and where I’m currently attending a Master’s program in production. I’m the owner and director of the production company OR and I run it together with my colleague Edin Jašarović. OR deals with theatre, film and music production and creates commercials for international brands. Last year we produced Electronic Beats Festival in Podgorica, which was held at the Montenegrin National Theatre and—according to the views of the audience—was very successful. Also, in collaboration with Mainframe Production from Croatia, we were the executive producers of the road trip movie Move On, which was a real challenge considering the fact that it was an action movie with a lot of stunts. For the needs of the shoot we provided full local support in terms of security—I would like to mention here that these projects would not be possible without the great help of the government, local administration, municipalities and the Ministry of Culture of Montenegro, which are always open for cooperation and fully understand our needs and requests. When complicated scenes were filmed, Montenegrin police also showed great professionalism and cooperation.

What is important to mention here is the image of Montenegro as an attractive filming destination which has the capacity to host major international film productions. Montenegro is a small country in terms of its territory; it has a population of about 670,000 people and boasts incredible natural beauty. You can see the entire country from the north and drive from its snow-covered mountains to the warm sea of the Adriatic coast in two hours. This is exactly what makes Montenegro an prime location for shooting films. A country with so many different landscapes will always reduce the costs of transporting the film crew to remote destinations.

When it comes to music in the post-war years, a major problem in the popular culture of Montenegro is the growing turbo-folk scene which is showing signs of becoming a national epidemic. This kind of music is a dominant cultural model and a pattern of behavior and it comes to define the identity of the people who consume it to a large extent.

After the abolition of the embargo many young people have started looking for the alternative. Being able to travel without visas has allowed them to see things from a different perspective and to develop a different musical sensibility and taste. It’s interesting to see how these two dominant models of culture clash in Montenegro. On the other hand, since the declaration of independence of Montenegro, progress has been made not only in terms of identity but also in terms of economic independence of the country. Montenegro is a country with huge potential and it’s undeniable that exciting challenges are ahead of us especially in the light of its candidacy in the pre-accession negotiations with the European Union. Everything seems possible, and everybody who works for this young state is still motivated to make things happen. I cannot wait for the day Montenegro will become a full member of the European Union, opening the gates for even more investors than we have now. I see a bright future.


Thursday, Cetinje: Meeting with Bojan Martinović, Assistant Dean of the National Music Academy.


 Bojan Martinovic is assistant dean of Montenegro’s Music Academy, located in the former British Embassy in Cetinje.

The first vinyl LP I ever bought was The Man-Machine by Kraftwerk, which was released here on the Yugoslavian label Jugoton. I actually bought it at the official Jugoton store in Podgorica, at a time when I was playing violin. A lot of Kraftwerk albums were released in Yugoslavia and every new album was clearly understood as a step in a new direction, so you basically had to own it if you wanted to participate in discussions about popular music. Even though I am the assistant dean of the Montenegro Music Academy, I would go so far to say that Kraftwerk are as influential as Karlheinz Stockhausen or Olivier Messiaen when it comes to the field of electronic music. I wish we had influential musicians and composers like that in Montenegro.

If I turn on the radio, I only hear turbo-folk, and it’s an absolutely atrocious sound to my ears. To me it’s comparable to musical genocide, as it’s completely flooding the country. I would love to turn on the radio and listen to good electronic or twelve-tone music. But every time I’m driving I feel like a prisoner of bad melodies and horrid words, gazing at other cars with customized color jobs. This music was invented to lower the intellectual level of the population. It is a huge enterprise and the market has since exceeded one billion euros in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. If you’d call that large-scale brainwashing, I wouldn’t disagree, as I am fully aware of the fact that the music you hear often determines important aspects of your life. And turbo-folk is a prime example of how greed and corruption could damage the ears of generations in most of the Balkans—and not only the ears. This music leads to more strokes, more tumors, more crimes, more prisoners, more fights on the street. It vulgarizes entire populations, especially when consumed together with enormous amounts of cheap lager.

At the same time, musicologists have long been able to show how great music can heal people, if not nations. This applies to classical music, New Music, Chicago house or abstract electronic music in the same manner. In our academy I try to teach this to the students. I try to give them a clear vision that studying, composing and performing music can heal human beings on a spiritual level. It’s like in poetry. You’re either infiltrated by reading the hate-filled and vulgar language of the tabloids, or you read the wonderful and tender poetry of Jorge Luis Borges. My job is to educate and to teach people to believe in non-functional music that brings the world forward—fully knowing and acknowledging that this is only a very small country and that we are talking about a handful of students at the academy that represent the average non-brainwashed Montenegrin.


Friday, Podgorica: Meeting with Janko Ljumović, director of Montenegro’s National Theater.


Janko Ljumovic, the director of Montenegro’s National Theater in Podgorica, believes that critical contemporary theater can help reunite spiritually divided Montenegrins.

The National Theater in Podgorica is the central meeting point for contemporary theater in Montenegro. It is an untypical institution when it comes to drama because we focus entirely on contemporary pieces—both in terms of artistic expression as well as in terms of poetry. We invite innovative directors from other theaters, mostly Serbia, to show their plays in Podgorica. Just recently, at the Biennial of Montenegrin Theatre in November 2012, we invited Boris Liješevic, who is of Montenegrin descent but lives and works in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city. He is now working on a postdramatic documentary piece showing how the influence of money in the capitalist system has changed the people in the Balkans during the period of transition. Ask anybody on the street, and they will agree that new money has destroyed something inside of us. Liješevic’s piece essentially is a monetary history, beginning from the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990 until today, all represented in a post-narrative fashion.

Theater has always been political in the Balkans and this especially goes for the era of Tito. Indeed, contemporary critical culture has undeniably had an impact on the course of events here, in particular when it comes to the referendum and the following declaration of independence. At the National Theater we want to reflect Montenegrin reality. We seek to provoke and create awareness for the frightening new times that we’re living in. That’s why we are not staging any classical repertoire pieces, but only critical contemporary theater. Even though you will notice that most Montenegrins love their country, the pieces presented in the National Theater don’t follow any nationalist agenda. This is worth mentioning as Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro all speak the same Slavic language, even though these are partially different ethnic groups who had fought against each other in the Bosnian War from 1992 to 1995. Staging modern, experimental plays from Croatian or Serbian playwrights or from Montenegrins who live abroad in ex-Yugoslavia, is also of major interest for us.  We promote our theater as a “hub” for current ideas.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I truly believe the theaters were the only institutions in former Yugoslavia that perceived themselves as cultural ambassadors whose goal was to reunite the people after all the hatred, killing, ethnic cleansing and mass rapes that defined the war. Our institution was one of the very first that made steps towards reconciliation. In that regard I am very happy to see that we attract a mainly younger audience. To me it shows that the generation that grew up with the war is strong enough to prefer peace and not nationalism as a way of life.


Saturday, Podgorica: Dinner with Dzijo lekić, owner of restaurant Pod Volat.

Montenegro-Dzijo-Lekic-Electronic-BeatsIf you haven’t dined at Dzijo Lekic’s restaurant Pod Volat (run together with his brother Nedzad), then you probably aren’t part of Podgorica’s cultural vanguard.

If you haven’t at least once tasted meso ispod saca, then you haven’t really been to Montenegro. It’s one of the most traditional dishes the country has to offer and can generally be described as an ancient way of cooking lamb, veal, or goat under an iron lid covered with glowing coal. I use an old recipe from my grandmother, and until only a couple of years ago, you couldn’t find a single restaurant that would offer one of these old dishes. All the people who work in my restaurant had to learn how to cook it, and of course they were being watched closely by my mother.

If you really want to deliver the best food for a reasonable price, you have to perfectly conduct every single step of the process. For instance, we only buy meat from one specific butcher who also happens to be one of my cousins. He knows what we need and how we want to have our meat cut. Only if you build up reliable supply sources can you offer better quality for a lower price. I learned a lot in 1998 when I stayed in the United States for two years, cooking in Las Vegas at the MGM Hotel and in New York in an Italian and a Turkish restaurant. When I returned to Podgorica, I immediately changed the concept of my restaurant, the Pod Volat, turning it into the popular buffet eatery that it is today—I added new dishes, redecorated and made it more attractive for families. In New York, I had also learned that you need a distinctive wine list to balance out an ambitious and yet affordable menu. We offer 165 different wines from different countries with prices ranging from low to very high. This way nobody is excluded.


Sunday, Podgorica: Interview with Montenegro head football coach Branko Brnović following the 1:1 draw with England


Montenegro’s head football coach Branko Brnovic has faith that his team will participate at next year’s World Cup in Brazil. By guiding Montenegro to the top of their qualifying group, Brnovic has become key in helping shape the young country’s national identity.

Football is the largest and one of the most impressive forms of theater imaginable; the floodlights, drama and amount of passion shown by fans are unique. Football especially plays an important role in light of Montenegro’s recently gained independence. That we are currently leading group H in the qualifying campaign for the World Cup is a testament to the time and effort invested in forming our very first gathering of this national team. The Football Association of Montenegro, led by Mr. Dejan Savicević, has provided us with excellent conditions for training, which we have gladly taken advantage of. Our two matches against England were prime examples of how football can unite a nation. The home match in Podgorica against England in particular saw our players and coaching staff drawing our small nation together like a single living being, all dreaming the same dream. However I do not see myself as a representative of the state. For instance, I do TV interviews only for professional reasons in moments when my association and my team need me to do it. I always leave the leading role to my players, because they are the ones who are properly responsible for the success. When it comes to football and strategy, all the players breath and think as one. Of course, nothing would be possible without hard work, and that’s probably the reason why there is a saying that, among many unimportant things in the world, football is the most important one. Football is a unique experience—it has the passion, devotion, drama, skills and many other ingredients that every person on this earth should, at least once in their lifetime, experience. Being part of the football spectacle is like nothing else, from whichever perspective you view it: at home, on the field, in the stadium, on the sidelines, or in your dreams. ~


This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 34 (2, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com here. And find out details for our EB Autumn 2013 Festival in Podgorica here.

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24 hours in Budapest: Ábel Zsendovits (part six of six)

Nowhere is the contrast between the progressive drive of Hungary’s creative class and the current government’s reactionary politics more visible than in the sprawling capital Budapest. The city is known as the Paris of the East for its art nouveau architecture and flâneur-friendly boulevards, though extreme budget cuts and rampant racism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party are rapidly degrading its potential as a creative hub in what many see as an only nominally united Europan Union. We met six protagonists from the city’s varied art, music and cultural scenes who remain cautiously optimistic about their individual futures amidst the collective crisis. This is the final part of a six-part series. Click here for parts one, two, three, four and five. All photos by Rosalia Kullick.

Ábel Zsendovits is one of the four founders of the city’s oldest “ruin” bar, the Szimpla, in Budapest’s downtown 7th district. The bar’s combination of carefully maintained decaying architectural ecclecticism and alcohol provide Bohemian respite from the country’s current wave of reactionary politics.


11:34pm: A drink with Ábel Zsendovits

The cities of Berlin and Budapest have a mutual connection that dates back to the ’20s. The whole idea of turning an abandoned building into an improvised “ruin” bar was inspired by spaces like the famous Tacheles squat in Germany’s capital. Ten years ago there simply weren’t any bars in downtown Budapest where young people could go, other than the usual and pleasant beer gardens where everybody would hang out. Only after we opened the Szimpla, things started to change. Today the whole seventh district is covered with ruin bars, each trying, more or less, to recreate our success. The other day I actually counted them and it was more than thirty bars. But still, we were the first. When we moved to the premises in 2003 the building was already partly demolished. I even took photos of the crane with the wrecking ball. We then started to rebuild the rear part of the building by setting up a plastic tent in the debris, renovating all the remainders of the original structure until we eventually completed the roof. We furnished all the different parts of the complex with liveliness and with functionality.

In my opinion, the story of Szimpla accurately mirrors the last ten years of nightlife in Budapest. To put it simply: I feel we had instigated a new clubbing culture. Before Szimpla, you’d just drink in an average pub, but after we set up the bar, drinking became socially connected to a location, a place with real music that soon became recognized as a meeting point for the city’s hipsters. Also, this eventually became a destination for the young tourists. Of course, the immense expansion of ruin bars in the seventh district also led to some problems with the neighbors. I guess you could call it a kind of gentrification as many of the old neighbors felt forced out because they couldn’t stand the masses of drunken people night after night any longer. A new, younger generation that’s attracted to the same lively club scene that scared the old tenants away has filled the vacant flats since then.

Even though Szimpla has been an astounding success, the last few months have been a struggle for us. The municipality wanted to impose a curfew on all ruin bars to clear the noisy crowds from the streets at night. They wanted us to close our bars at midnight—an act that would have effectively meant the end of all the ruin bars, as our evenings don’t really start until then. Say what you want against the current government and the municipality, we only realized recently that if all the bars join forces we can put pressure on the authorities. Together, the city’s ruin bars have the economic power to set our own terms and conditions, forcing them to understand that they can’t invent laws that compromise our freedom to open our bars whenever we want. We have to pay a new tax now, but at least we’re allowed to stay open. The other day I was asked how this could have happened, and the answer is easy: tourism seems to be the only industry in the country that is still making money. Budapest has 2.7 million tourists a year. They spend approximately 2.79 nights in the city. It’s simply a textbook case of economics, I would say. ~


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24 hours in Budapest: Gábor Szilágyi (part five of six)

Nowhere is the contrast between the progressive drive of Hungary’s creative class and the current government’s reactionary politics more visible than in the sprawling capital Budapest. The city is known as the Paris of the East for its art nouveau architecture and flâneur-friendly boulevards, though extreme budget cuts and rampant racism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party are rapidly degrading its potential as a creative hub in what many see as an only nominally united Europan Union. We met six protagonists from the city’s varied art, music and cultural scenes who remain cautiously optimistic about their individual futures amidst the collective crisis. This is the fifth of a six-part series. Read part four here and part six hereAll photos by Rosalia Kullick.

Gábor Szilágyi is a curator who has felt the financial strain of the current government’s funding policies, which have included pulling money from projects not considered representative enough of the Hungarian state and culture.


8:30pm: Dinner with Gábor Szilágyi

Budapest’s cultural scene is facing a kind of exodus at the moment. Many creative people are leaving town to start again elsewhere, be it Berlin, Vienna or London. For most of us, the future in Hungary is extremely uncertain, but those who complain about the terrible past two years tend to forget that it wasn’t much better before. If you want to understand Hungary—and therefore Budapest—you have to realize that every government we’ve had since the fall of the Iron Curtain has been more corrupt than the next. They lacked democratic legitimation to say the least, and Hungary’s problems come from these upsetting continuities in its political culture; every government over the last two decades has played a role in the disastrous financial crisis the country is going through at the moment.

Earlier today I was listening to a radio interview about the history of the Hungarian secret service before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain, how it’s still the same set of people who wield that specific power. In Hungary, ex-secret service members infiltrated the parties, the economy, and the cultural field too. Some of our artist heroes, it turned out, were police informants who wrote reports about other artists in the ’70s and ’80s. Those kind of problems poison society and it’s not finished yet; they leapt from communism to socialism to capitalism, but otherwise nothing has changed in 2013. Whenever money is being spent on changing the city or whenever laws are changed to restructure the country’s cultural scene from top to bottom, these same people are involved.

As a curator I had to bury a lot of dreams and projects when the right wing Fidesz party came into power in 2010. They received a sensational 68 percent of the votes, which essentially means they can rule the country without opposition. Anybody involved in the arts is greatly affected because it means that the government ultimately decides what’s art and what’s not and cuts budgets accordingly. It’s unbelievable how much stress they put on the definition of Hungarian art. The last major project of mine that I had to shelve for this very reason was CoDA, the Budapest Architectural and Design Triennale, which had been in the planning stage. After a very good start and funding from the old government and the European Union, we suddenly faced rejection from the new authorities. The associated Scales exhibition would have dealt with the huge changes European cities went through after the big political shifts in 1956, 1968, 1989 and the EU extension in 2005—a broad and pertinent subject that can be examined from many different angles. Suddenly, all of this didn’t matter anymore.

The big problem when it comes to cultural politics in this country is that everything has to represent Hungary. It’s a shame, but there’s always a new project to invest your energy in. At the moment I’m preparing a science exhibition about volcanoes, again sponsored by the European Union. Did you know that the northern part of Lake Balaton in the west of Hungary was formed by volcanic activities? I like volcanoes; I embrace the idea that every situation can suddenly change—with a loud explosion. ~


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24 hours in Budapest: András G. Varga (part four of six)

Nowhere is the contrast between the progressive drive of Hungary’s creative class and the current government’s reactionary politics more visible than in the sprawling capital Budapest. The city is known as the Paris of the East for its art nouveau architecture and flâneur-friendly boulevards, though extreme budget cuts and rampant racism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party are rapidly degrading its potential as a creative hub in what many see as an only nominally united Europan Union. We met six protagonists from the city’s varied art, music and cultural scenes who remain cautiously optimistic about their individual futures amidst the collective crisis. This is the fourth of a six-part series. Read the third part here, and the fifth part hereAll photos by Rosalia Kullick.

András G. Varga is Electronic Beats’ intrepid Budapest correspondent and a freelance cultural promoter. He recently advised Tyler Brûlé’s Monocle magazine for their editorial on Hungary’s capital.


4:00pm: Coffee with András G. Varga

I have a strong commitment to culture and a keen interest in music and fashion. In 2008 I graduated from Corvinus University in Budapest with a masters degree in start-up management. This means that whenever a small shop or label wants to set up in Budapest’s utterly un-transparent and restrictive cultural environment, I can be of potential help. I’m proud to say that I was the babysitter for many ambitious start-ups and helped entrepreneurs to establish their brands, equipping them with the skills to survive in Hungary’s post-socialist, turbo-capitalist ecosystem.

Today it’s pretty difficult to start an enterprise in Budapest: it requires a lot of capital and the local market is small, isolated and inflexible. However, I remain an optimist and believe that willingness and creativity will go a long way. One thing I always tell my clients is that they not only have to serve the increasing number of tourists in Budapest, but that they also have to think internationally. They have to leave their own language behind and learn English in order to form international networks from the very beginning. In that sense, the A38 people have done just the right thing by opening their business up to an international audience. The same goes for a new generation of DIY record labels like 8ounce and Farbwechsel, fashion brands like NUBU and Nanushka, and many other artists and designers fluent in international business strategy. Not a single one of them would have survived if they’d focused on the Budapest scene alone.

One of the problems is that people here still expect support from state subsidies for their creative ventures. I think that instead we have to have initiative and I see it as an integral part of my work to bring people together and to convince them that they can help each other by pooling expertise and creating symbiotic networks, as it’s only through these means that you can grow. When I lived in London, I witnessed a kind of pro-active, community approach to running small businesses, and by contrast I’m always a little shocked when I encounter a certain kind of Hungarian ignorance traceable to a lack of trust and self-confidence. I truly believe Hungarians have many overlooked talents and that they have the potential to achieve great things. Likewise, I am certain that this city will revive itself in a couple of years in the same way that Berlin has regenerated itself over the last two decades. There are many parallels between the two cities, and you can already sense that Budapest could and will ultimately style itself as a hub connecting the west and the east. Yes, we’re going through a dark time at the moment, but I feel that the creative prospects of this great capital will come back stronger than ever. That’s why I’m always eager to help foreign magazines when they’re preparing city guides or editorial spreads about Budapest. I can become almost evangelical when they ask me to introduce them to all the members of the city’s burgeoning contemporary art, music and fashion scenes. There are many, many reasons to remain optimistic.~

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24 hours in Budapest: Zsuzsanna Bende (part three of six)

Nowhere is the contrast between the progressive drive of Hungary’s creative class and the current government’s reactionary politics more visible than in the sprawling capital Budapest. The city is known as the Paris of the East for its art nouveau architecture and flâneur-friendly boulevards, though extreme budget cuts and rampant racism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party are rapidly degrading its potential as a creative hub in what many see as an only nominally united Europan Union. We met six protagonists from the city’s varied art, music and cultural scenes who remain cautiously optimistic about their individual futures amidst the collective crisis. This is the third of a six-part series. Read the second part here, the fourth part hereAll photos by Rosalia Kullick.

Zsuzsanna Bende is the booker at A38. By pulling in larger acts and making serious investments in the soundsystem and club architecture, A38 has survived the wave of extinction that has ravished the city’s club landscape.


2:00pm: Lunch with Zsuzsanna Bende

The A38 was founded in April 2003, almost exactly ten years ago. Back then we had a boat and a love for music, but we didn’t exactly know what our direction was. All we knew was that we wanted to present great international acts, even if we didn’t know how to get them. We had good intentions, but because there was essentially zero basis or expertise, we couldn’t pay fees that would match international standards, nor could we refer to past merits. It was, in short, very, very difficult. To install a challenging program and to build up confidence for a venue in an ex-Eastern Bloc city such as Budapest requires patience and a huge amount of responsibility, and only by properly booking and organizing concerts can you gain credit. Over the years, my strategy of booking primarily international acts paid off very well and today we are known for exactly that. We are proud to say the A38 has become Hungary’s first stop when it comes to current cult international performers, ranging from Jane Birkin to David Lynch to The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble. Of course, we book outstanding Hungarian artists too—DJ Titusz, for instance, has a residency at the A38.

We’ve invested a lot of money into the A38 over the years and we now have a great sound system and capacities to film our concerts professionally. We even have an art exhibition space and a restaurant on the boat. Still, even if we aspire to be a live music space primarily, we also know that the real money comes from organizing parties. To book a DJ is always cheaper than paying a band and their entourage for a gig, so we came up with the idea of double billings on Fridays and Saturdays: first a concert, then the party. This concept has helped us enormously to navigate the brutal financial crisis that our country has seen over the last three years, and now we’re out the other side and very much looking forward into the future. Of course, it helped a lot that we were voted “The World’s Greatest Bar” by the readers of Lonely Planet and this past January we were voted “Best Venue 2012” by the readers of Electronic Beats online, picking up even more votes than the Berghain in Berlin. We’re already noticing the positive effects of these poll results, and as we build a more international audience, we face fewer problems booking for the forthcoming months. But despite these recent developments, the A38 strategy will always remain the same: we have to trust our personal taste as we feel it is our role to survey the market. The A38 never was and never will be a space focused only on one particular kind of music, and that is its strength.~

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