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Serbia’s State Of Exit 04: Better & Better ::

Reported by Trackitdown TID on July 20, 2004

“What makes Exit so important is the fact that there's nothing else substantial in Serbia that challenges the past or offers local people a viable reason to think things could be better. When the artists visit they love it because it’s a great gig though most don't even realise that they're helping to make history.”

With Serbia’s recent history including ethnic cleansing, genocide and war, British promoter Paxton Talbot’s claims are neither overblown nor exaggerated, though he’s wrong about at least one of the artists on this year’s bill.

“What makes this gig particularly interesting is the fact that we were bombing Belgrade and Novi Sad just three or four years ago,” says breakbeat pioneer Howie B.

“It’s mad when you find out what the fuck we’ve done to these places; or rather, what others have done to them.”

The ‘we’ or ‘others’ Howie’s referring to are NATO and the most visible sign of their handiwork in Novi Sad today is the still severed Sloboda (‘Freedom’) Bridge, whose disconnected ends slope at 45º angles into the murky Danube river. Blown up by three cruise missiles at 8pm on the night of 3 April 1999, the clinically cut former 6 lane highway remains a powerful reminder of just how recently ‘the West’ was at war with the citizens of Novi Sad; the same people now flocking to an event headlined by a Western bunch of performers. As German philosopher Martin Luther presciently put it, in the Middle Ages; ‘music is a gift of God. Satan hates music: he knows how it drives the evil spirit out of us.’

And Exit itself almost literally began as a contemporary battle between good and evil, with festival founder Dusan Kovacevic helping transform the first event in 2000 into a bloodless coup that eventually ousted tyrannical Serb  leader Slobodan Milosevic. Four years on Milosevic is still fighting war crime charges in the Hague, while in Serbia, Exit is now primarily about music, specifically four nights worth of music from a cast of hundreds of performers and DJs.

The festival’s other key raison d’etre is leisure, ie the opportunity to (over) indulge in Novi Sad’s extremely cheap food, booze and lodging as well as the chance to meet the locals, a proud, good looking, friendly bunch of people, all of whom seem to speak English fluently. Newcastle native Simon Stuart, who’s been coming to Exit for 4 years as one of the festival’s resident DJ, is an enthusiastic advocate of the locals’ charms, both as people and discerning lovers of music.

“Serbian’s party hard, but they know their shit too, “ he explains.

“I can’t say I know of any crowds where both those qualities exist, it’s really an absolute pleasure to play for them every time I come here.”

Simon reckons word of mouth shouts from DJs who played there previously  (including the likes of Darren Emerson and Lottie) have boosted this year’s bill, and it’s certainly a star packed plane that jets off from London’s Heathrow airport on a sunny Thursday July morning. While headliners Massive Attack sit on their own up front in Business Class the likes of Adam Freeland and Way Out West rub shoulders with journos in economy, all heading to test Exit’s increasingly recognised reputation as ‘Glastonbury in a Fortress’.

Thank God It’s Friday

Thursday night’s opener is subdued (many of the 40,000 revellers seem intent on strolling round the whole massive open air site) though in the dance tent, US DJ Roger Sanchez provides some light relief. Spinning funky (rather bland) US style house, the Ali G lookalike surveys the thousands gathered in the dance arena (he’s perched on a split scaffolding tower, facing a field enclosed by 10 metre high ramparts), while from behind, he never stops shaking his ass. Whether his Beyonce’ style impersonation is intended to entertain the hacks clustered to his rear remains unclear, though he’s already successfully curried favour by locking them out of the VIP bar area, a rule that becomes permanent on following nights.

Meanwhile, up on the main stage, Massive Attack’s 1am set has drawn the first mega-crowd of the event, though their ponderously heavy, somewhat subdued dub style fails to ignite the crowd, many of whom have vanished by the time the show stops at 2. Adam Freeland steps up to pick up the pieces at 3 and though he’s both a poster boy and hero of the UK’s most hyped genre of the year, breaks, he’s also these days wilfully and cheerfully ‘eclectic’. Spinning electro, (some) breaks and his take-no-prisoners remix of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, he whips up a storm in typical fashion, living up to his billing as one of Exit’s hey names. It’s not really until Friday, however, that the festival truly starts buzzing.

Entering the dance arena around midnight, there’s an immediately tangible sense of static in the air, that’s unaffected and even enhanced by a highly unseasonable English style downpour. Like Glastonbury, Exit’s open air and vast, though unlike the English event, Exit’s in a Southern European fortress that’s built on a giant (mud-resistant) slab of volcanic rock, so even though it ends up raining all night, the air remains warm while the ground stays dry. Few if any revellers seem to care about the rain anyway, leaving progressive types Sander Kleinenberg and (the unexpectedly moody) Steve Lawler and a phalanx of drop dead gorgeous podium dancers to crank up the vibe seamlessly.

Marshalling the dancing girls is Snezana Pletel, a fierce looking though intriguing blonde who runs her own business booking the dancers into clubs and festivals throughout the region. Surveying the crowd, she’s happy and, in common with her girls, friendly and open.

“Serbian people like to celebrate everything we can and if someone comes here as a guest we want to make sure they feel like a guest,” she muses.

“It’s not important whether that person is black, white, Chinese, whatever, if they have a good spirit, then everything is possible, we love being hosts”.

Friday’s high is followed by Saturday’s (relative) low, dominated by Cypress Hill on the Main Stage and straight-ahead house in the Dance Arena(X Press 2, a little off form tonight and Timo Maas, who’s also way off his best).

“It’s always quieter on the Saturday night,” Paxton (the promoter) explains. “People are saving their energy for tomorrow with Iggy.”

Iggy’s Sunday night re-union set with the Stooges goes down a storm (encore I Wanna Be Your Dog sending the giant crowd into rapture) while the dance tent’s techno line-up (including Speedy J live and local hero Marko Nastic) is equally and unsurprisingly) well received (they adore techno here). Exit’s best musical attractions, however, are to be found off the beaten track, at the scores of stages and spaces scattered throughout the Fortress and Novi Sad.

On The Beach:

“Do you smoke pot? No? I don’t believe you!”

Every morning from 5am onwards, tens of thousands start streaming down the hill to the camp sites and hotels of Novi Sad across the river, with hundreds ending up at the daily beach party, at a narrow strip of riverside sand flanked by trees providing merciful shade. Staggering round this Saturday morning, the drunken punk offering us a spliff is astonished when we turn him down, though, despite his generosity, drugs are conspicuously absent.

Serbian police are both numerous and intimidating (partly because of their Guardia Civile style paramilitary uniforms though mainly due to their habit of searching everyone carefully at every festival entrance) though Croatian revellers tell us the main reason for lack of drugs is money. Average local wages of just £150 a month mean pot, E or coke are just too pricey for most and with beer costing 40p a litre and cigarettes 80p for 20, fags and booze win out every time. Not that the Serbs follow British-style drink-to-get-drunk attitudes either; the spliff carrying drunk-punk stands out for his intoxication, as do the Brit revellers sinking pints with abandon. The beach party is good, the Serbian crew of local jocks dropping sunshine house and party anthems for a friendly bunch of sleepless revellers, many of whom stay throughout the afternoon.

Broken Beats

As the Brits overdo the booze (both Q and Mixmag end up getting lost on their way back to their hotels the next night) it’s left to superstar DJ Howie B to steal the title of top Brit-behaving-badly abroad, back up at the Fortress on Saturday night. Attempting to grab hold of MTV’s camera-on-a-boom as it pans across the dance arena crowd, he misses it and lands awkwardly on his ankle, promptly breaking his leg (though he doesn’t actually realise ‘til the next morning).

Admitting the next day that he was behaving ‘like an absolute idiot’, Howie ends up flying home in a wheel chair, though is otherwise ecstatic about the overall event.

“It’s great to go to places like Serbia that have experienced severe trauma and to give something rather than take,” he explains (pointing out that he’s also a regular visitor to Sarajevo, the capital of neighbouring ex-Yugoslavian statelet/ former warzone Bosnia & Herzegovina).

“NATO’s gone into Serbia and taken as has America and Britain, whether you’re talking about lives, jobs and industry, whereas now we’re going in there giving them music which is the best thing we can do right now,” he continues.

“Visiting Serbia makes you start questioning your whole value system.”

The Boat Party

“Exit is a really valuable event for the entire region, because it brings people from all around ex Yugoslavia into Novi Sad as well as many others. And the castle where Exit takes place is an amazing location, truly magical.”

Also well aware of Exit’s cultural significance is Croatian DJ Sergej (one of Zagreb’s main club promoters and electro DJs) who smiles as he dances alongside Serbians, Slovenians, Bosnians and Croats at the VIP boat party on Sunday morning. The event kicks off at 8am each day an hour after the main festival shuts down and today local superstar DJ Marko Nastic is effortlessly mixing breaks, clicks and electro with his Final Scratch enabled laptop. The party has also attracted some seriously heavy looking Muscle Mary types (gangsters or gays or neither or both; Serbian fashions appear generally uniform); whatever, the vibe remains friendly and euphoric.

“These after-parties on the boat are the highlight of the festival and Marko’s probably the best DJ here,” Sergej enthuses.

“His set is creative, up-to-date, experimental, brave, fresh and powerful and most of the international DJs are completely the reverse,” he insists. “I hope the promoters next year will make the line-up more edgy.”

The Future:

“All systems have broken down, there is nothing but the numbing psychological violence of control, cut off from Europe, there are no reference points, just the echo of isolation.” Glaswegian artist Marc J Hawker, describing Serbia under Milosevic in 1996 (in Bill ‘KLF’ Drummond’s latest book 45).

Just four days before this year’s event, Serbia elects Boris Tadic for President, narrowly rejecting Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolav (a man the Financial Times label a ‘hard-line anti-Europe nationalist’ and former ally of Milosevic).

"The victory of the liberal Boris Tadic in the Serbian presidential election is a step forward in the search for lasting peace and stability in the former Yugoslavia,” the FT adds, “but despite Mr. Tadic's considerable political skills, it is only a small advance on what remains a long and difficult road."

While Serbia’s future remains unclear, Exit’s looks assured and music looks certain to play an increasingly important role in the country’s long overdue normalisation. Like Glastonbury, Exit already has a mythology that means it’s something special, though unlike Glastonbury, Exit is both astoundingly cheap and (to a Western European) exotic. The best festival in Europe? Sure. 

Jonty Skrufff (