Beograd: An Illicit Grooves Story From The White City

Belgrade, what a city.  My first time there and definitely not going to be my last.  I write this 24 hours after returning home from one of the best weekends I’ve ever had in the more than 25 years since the start of The Return of the Illicit Groove and The Illicit Grooves Radio Show.

I was in the ‘White City’ ostensibly as the overseas guest DJ for The IV Funk Kongres organised by Loud Minority (Belgrade); a collective of DJs, record collectors, broadcasters, record shop owners, venue owners and black music aficionados based in Belgrade, wider Serbia and the Balkans.

Top of the Hub 1
At the IV Funk Kongres with Milena and Zorana from Loud Minority (Belgrade)

Invited by Milena Ni and Zorana Radic, two members of the collective and real powerhouses in the organisation of the Funk Kongres, I arrived in the city on Thursday the 13th.  The first gig of the weekend was that very night in a Belgrade institution, the bar and record shop Leila Records.

Leila 1
DJing in Leila Records

What a great place.  Run by husband and wife team Sasa and Jovona Jaramaz, Leila Records has a great selection of vinyl and the best plum brandy Rakija you could ask for.  Also, one of those cafe style venues in European cities that being invited to play in has a certain cache. Think Spiritland in London or Le Melletron in Paris.  Leila has a real atmosphere about it, a real look that I can only describe as suitable for a location in a European Noir film.  I loved it in there and was to return a few times over the weekend to drink the excellent coffee, listen to tunes and sip ‘just one more Rakija’.

Leila 3
DJing in Leila with Aki offering more Rakija.  I said yes.

 

So what of my set that night.  I played it low key, mixed Soul and Funk with some House and  few bits of Jazz-Funk and responded to the very wonderful laid back atmosphere of the venue and the patrons.  Talking of the patrons, it really was good to see such a wide age range across the sexes.  From 20somethings to those of us who are no longer in our first flushes, an equal mix of men and women and a real appreciation and knowledge of music.

It was at Leila I was also introduced to Aki, the founder of Loud Minority (Belgrade) and Marko, the owner of the next night’s venue; Strogi Centar.

Now Strogi Centar is possibly one of the venues that on first encountering I just couldn’t wait to play there.  After the Leila gig, I guess around 1am we headed to Strogi and I found myself being led through a front entrance of what I though was a squat in a dilapidated house.

Strogi Outside 2
Outside Strogi Centre.

Wow, once inside though, it was clear that this was more than a club, it was like being in some kind of radical leftist commune but with a great sound system and great music.  As an aside, and I must thank Jelena from Jelena’s Belgrade Tours for this information; the house is in what was the the well-to-do Jewish quarter of the city and it’s history has included being stolen from the original family by the invading Nazis,  occupied by the liberating Partizans, then by the Communist government, restored back to the family in the early 90s and now run by Marko as this brilliant venue.

strogi interior
Inside the Strogi Centar

That night’s entertainment was a jam session featuring Jazz students from the Belgrade Music School, and against the backdrop of the brilliant murals of Fela Kuti, Nina Simone and others, these student musicians did a night of improvised Jazz that was somewhat comparable to Deptford’s Steamdown gigs in its concept and age range of the audience.

Friday Night I went on the decks just on the stroke of midnight and played a full on Illicit Grooves set.  Finishing just after 3am I was able to play Jazz Fusion, Soul, Hip-Hop, Latin, Boogie, Salsoul, Disco, House, Rare Groove and Reggae.  With music ranging from Norman Connors to Stetsasonic to Alison Limerick to Yazoo to The Herbaliser to Steel Pulse the esoteric and eclectic nature of the venue inspired a set which went #AcrossTheTracks*, including tracks from the Lost Set as featured in a previous blog. Definitely a venue where I would love to play again and a venue where part of the joy was seeing so many young people into their soul, funk and jazz.  An open minded group who clearly love to dance.

*when an Illicit Grooves set goes #AcrossTheTracks it means anything can happen

Strogi 1
DJing in Strogi Centar

So to the main event on the Saturday night.  With previous incarnations of The Funk Kongres having been held in a city centre Army restaurant the increase in popularity and numbers meant that the organisers needed somewhere bigger.  Set in Novi-Beograd (New Belgrade) the Top of the Hub is sited near the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers and is an impressive piece of modern architecture.

Top of the Hub exterior
The Top of the Hub building dominating the skyline.  Hit by Cruise missiles some 20 years ago, now somewhere people come to dance and have fun.  That’s payback.

Historically the home to the Central Committee of then President Slobodan Milosevic’s party it was bombed by NATO during the war against Serbia in the 1990s.  Now, I’ve DJed in many different venues in my time; in fields, in barns, in a stone circle, out of the back of a converted horse box, on stages in theatres, in a Parisian wine cellar,  on the street, in clubs and bars but , as far as I know, never in a venue that has been hit by Tomahawk Cruise Missiles.  Whatever its history, it is a really impressive venue and commands superb views across the city.

A 700 capacity crowd enjoyed DJs, dancers and bands from Belgrade and across Serbia in an event that was part club night but also part live radio show as famous faces from the Yugoslavian and Balkan music scenes were interviewed.  Highlight for me in terms of the live acts was the band Belgrade Funk Combo and I loved the set from DJ Timbe who played such a wicked set that I completely changed my mind as to what I would play.

Bob and Timbe
Waiting to go on at IV Funk Kongres and loving DJ Timbe’s set.  All played on 7″ singles

For the record the tunes I recall playing were Freda Payne (Unhooked Generation), Sounds of Blackness (Optimistic), Juggy Jones (Inside America), Starvue (Body Fusion), the Illicit Grooves Re-Edit of Steve Arrington’s Feel So Real, The Equals (Funky Like A Train) and the track which really caused the most reaction Michael Kiwanuka’s Black Man In A White World, definitely an anthem for our times.

Would I go back to Belgrade? Would I love to play there again? Would I recommend Belgrade? Would I recommend Leila, Strogi Centre and Funk Kongres? – YES, YES and thrice YES.

Just go there and see for yourselves – it’s a fucking brilliant city and the music, the food (pickled vegetables are the bomb), the histories, the people and the nightlife are just some of the reasons why I’ll be returning.

Oh and the favourite TV show in Serbia?  Only Fools and Horses. Cushty.

Don’t forget to vote in The Illicit Grooves 2018 Awards and Poll here.

shortlist cover

 

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