Belgrade After Dark?ro;”and After Milosevic

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BELGRADE ? A soft blue light suffuses the dim recesses of Belgrade's newly reopened Akademija club, as some young Serbian MCs rap over a brutally funky marriage of techno and old-school beats. My friends Vuksha and Tijana are caught up in the crescendo, dancing together as the music washes through the darkened space.

Fuck it. I stop observing and start dancing. The thumping mix is that irrepressible.

Belgrade was the cultural center of Southeastern Europe before nationalism and Milosevic chased away its cool, or at least drove it underground. During the 90s, the country's airwaves were mostly filled with inane "turbofolk"?kitschy, electrified versions of traditional music augmented by lyrics celebrating Serbia's criminal materialism and criminality. It was the sound that drowned out nearby wars for years, until NATO brought the war to Serbia itself.

Tonight's a perfect illustration of how much things have changed in just the year since Milosevic was swept from power. Before the Balkan wars, Akademija was voted one of the best nightclubs in Europe by now-defunct Brit music mag Melody Maker. The club's reopening tonight is among the strongest signals yet that things are getting back to something resembling normal.

"The toilets are exactly the same," Vuksha says as he emerges from the murky facilities. "They're still terrible."

Akademija is one of Belgrade's bigger venues, but part of the delights in clubbing here are the city's smaller, odder places, many of them consisting of little more than a concept, a DJ with infallible taste and lots of lukewarm Serbian beer?usually Niksicko Pivo or Bip. One of those places is Krivi Stojko (or "Bent Dick")?a club-boat nestled on the Sava River in the south of the city. The night I climbed onto the rickety boat, the place was throbbing to a mix of vintage Fela and samba jazz, with the odd Kraftwerk tune thrown in for good measure. It was the perfect vibe for a warm Friday night, and the place was just getting started at 1 a.m. Another local favorite, Pazi Skola ("Caution! School!") is located in an underground complex of shops. Pazi Skola's crowd regularly spills out of the club and into the arcade as its DJs alternate Yugo-rock faves with old-school hiphop until 4 or 5 in the morning.

The absurdly late hours are a hallmark of Belgrade. Much like Berlin, nothing really happens here until midnight at the very earliest. Venture out earlier and you tend to run into Belgrade's professional drinkers, like the moron who accosted Vuksha, Tijana and me at a bar called Fili. He told us that David Crosby had gotten k.d. lang pregnant. I tried to set him right, but he wasn't having any part of Melissa Etheridge.

Belgrade's scene at the moment is divvied up between a burgeoning dance scene that leans heavily on down-tempo and dub and a hard-charging alternative rock scene featuring groups like Jarboli and E-Play. The dance scene can be heard on two collections put out by radio station B92, Radio Utopia 4: Belgrade Coffee Shop and Belgrade Coffee Shop Sessions Volume 1. The city's DJ culture is much more advanced than its rock culture, and Jazzva and Speed Limit, featured on the second disc, summon up a sophisticated, almost summery blend of dance styles.

Even more interesting stuff emerges when groups like Disciplin A Kitschme (English wordplay on the band's earlier incarnation as "Disciplina Kicme," or "Discipline of the Spine") and Eyesburn try to bridge the gap between the two scenes. Disciplin A Kitschme launch a thunderous assault that veers between hard house and Moby's more rockist moments, and their latest record, Refresh Your Senses Now!, is one of the best I've heard this year, an oddly defiant release that oscillates between moody and dizzy. Eyesburn's latest, Fool Control, is more straightforward and metallic, with its best moments coming as the album steers deep into a heavy dub that would curl Jah Wobble's hair.

Another Belgrade band that's as good or better than anything you'll hear in New York City is Neocekivana sila koja se iznenada pojavljuje i resava stvar?"Unexpected force that appears suddenly and saves the thing." They often go by the less wordy moniker "Sila," and their first two LPs?1999's eponymous collection and a 2000 disc called Hard to Dig It!?are the high-water mark of Belgrade's resurgent club culture. In Sila's music, dub and rock textures wash up against truly sinuous beats. Their brooding, arty music sounds like the product of Lee Perry, Barry Adamson and the Cure, all within a single tune.

At the moment, Belgrade's scene is still a test tube of sorts, isolated from the broader influences that a regular influx of touring bands would bring. Even as its own bands cook up fabulous music, Belgrade only gets visits from minor Aussie punks Cosmic Psychos or dinosaurs like Coldcut, who played a visually stirring but musically inert show in the old Turkish fortress of Kalemegdan the first night that I was in Belgrade. Yet despite its isolation, Belgrade is still pumping out better music than anywhere else in the Balkans. When the normal commerce of rock resumes and bands like Sila, Eyesburn and Disciplin A Kitschme find their way out of Serbia while bands from the U.S. and Britain flood in, Belgrade will be poised for a return to its former musical preeminence.

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