Belgrade’s underground nightlife scene is thriving, but as DJ Tijana T explains, you still have to “fight for your right to party”
It’s Friday night in Belgrade and the city – discordant, concrete and rain-soaked – isn’t looking its best. Entering Opservatorijum, however, is like stepping into a peaceful bubble. The tiny white-walled art gallery and bar is resonating with ambient electronic music from a DJ behind a laptop. Solo guests listen silently inside, seated in an almost trancelike state. It feels like an unlikely start to an evening touring the city’s clubs, but the space, which opened earlier this year, typifies the avant garde nature of the city’s underground scene.
I’m there to meet Tijana T (real name Tijana Todorovic), a DJ who’s been involved with Belgrade’s nightlife since 2000, when she made a name for herself as a music TV presenter and the face of Serbia’s biggest cultural export, EXIT festival. In those days, recovering from years of conflict and the trauma of Milosovic’s rule, Serbia was understandably lagging creatively behind the rest of Europe. “Everything got to Serbia three years late,” says Todorovic. “Even three years ago, if you mentioned something mainstream in London, it would be underground here. Now it’s happening at the same time.”
While Belgrade’s electronic music output is thriving – even Chicago’s seminal Teklife crew have a branch in the city, with Mystic Stylez putting on regular footwork nights – there’s also an appetite among young people to open venues, despite the obstacles. “To start a bar, cultural centre or club, you need to have great personal connections or bribe everyone,” says Tijana. It wasn’t until 2009 that Belgrade got its first independent culture centre, KC Grad. “But I think in the past few years people just flipped. These young people grew up in total anarchy and chaos, so they’re used to it.”
We head out of Opservatorijum (which hosts a highly recommended Sunday afternoon vinyl listening party) into the drizzle, moving from one of the city’s newest spots to one of its long-running ones, KGB Caffe. You’d think the basement-level wooden pub, which has been open since the 1990s and has walls covered with constructivist poster art, would be a warm-up drinking spot, but it was recently taken over by twin sisters who, I’m told, really like to party. “People dance on the bars,” says Tijana. “It can get so crazy, it’s actually scary – people go mad.” Even though it’s not a late opener, the pub gets DJs in to play every weekend: tonight the decks are loaded with disco and house punctuated with African brass. “I like it when places survive,” Tijana tells me as we leave, reminding me of the insecurity most venues live with. “This place has been here for 15 years and it hasn’t changed inside.”
Another long-running club worthy of a mention is The Tube, while across the road Tijana points out a new club, Sveta, run by a much-loved former barman at Belgrade’s legendary boat venue Klub 20/44 (we’ll come to that later) – before we walk down to another popular alt bar, Bivsi. More like a living room than a bar, the tiny place, with retro furniture and a huge poster of Heironymous Bosch’s Inferno on one wall, still manages to fit in a set of decks. A relaxed mid-week watering hole, the venue crams people in for parties on the weekend. “Normally, it’s so busy you can’t breathe because of the smoke,” says Tijana. (For now at least, Serbia keeps it old-school when it comes to cigarettes – so if you’re planning a night out, brace yourself for some second-hand smoke.)
Next up is a club which has either the best or the worst name ever, depending on your sense of humour. WATS, or We Are The Shit, opened around a year ago, boldly branded with a turquoise cartoon of, well, you can work it out. The venue, however, is classy. On the upper floor of an old shopping mall, it consists of one long room with coloured strip lighting. It’s around midnight and people are dancing to house in laid-back bar-groove style. What really makes the venue are the huge glass windows along one side looking out over the city (and Tijana’s old high school) – in summer it’s a place to watch the sun set as you warm up your night.
At 2am, it’s time to head to Klub 20/44, which everyone just refers to as “the boat”. Opened soon after KC Grad, marking the birth of Belgrade’s underground scene, the club is a former strip joint in a rickety ship on the Sava river. Inside there are still red velvet curtains and poles, as well as brilliantly surreal touches like a gold statue of John Cleese doing “that walk” on the top deck. “The thing that made it so important was that it was the first club that was completely independent,” says Tijana, as the DJ drops another timeless disco edit behind us. “They even had it as a policy: no sponsors, no patrons. They were the first really honest club owners. I just get goosebumps everytime I think about it. I just love to be there, to play there. It’s magic.”
We’re joined by one of its founders, Milivoje Bozovic, who is tall and lean with wild hair and the well-earned nickname “goofy”. “For a long time, we weren’t able to travel,” he explains. “We wanted to bring international DJs to the people here, to make people here feel like they’re also part of the world.” Even though they were rarely able to pay DJs competitive rates, the draw – or magic – of the boat was so strong that DJs actually started asking to play there. The music policy is diverse – everything from funk to grime to footwork. Tijana dreamily recounts a summer party there when she DJd till noon: “No one ever left. The waiters were begging people to stop …”
This time, however, the boat is not our final port of call. We hop in a taxi to one of the city’s biggest and most ambitious underground clubs, Drugstore. It reopened in its current space last spring, after a brief period of homelessness (things open up and close down again in Belgrade with alarming frequency), and now occupies a vast former slaughterhouse. “I think the whole chaotic system we live in somehow works in favour of nightlife,” says Tijana. “People can get incredible spaces so cheap, but everything is so corrupt, it’s hard to maintain anything.”
The entrance to the club is up a metal staircase – you definitely wouldn’t want to stumble out of this place – and the interior is dark; some sections are pitch black apart from the orange glow of cigarettes in the darkness. With the thumping kick drums echoing around the derelict interior, it’s an environment that would be terrifying if it wasn’t so exciting. It’s the kind of venue post-industrial dystopian rave dreams are made of. Inside the smaller room, the Banda Panda art and DJ collective are playing tunes behind the lazers. The main room, however, is a straight-up techno cathedral – a huge arched chamber with a stage at one end and, above the entrance, a Jesus-like sculpture of a man with arms spread.
The following evening our plans to hear Tijana play at another venue are abruptly cancelled when the police show up at the venue before the event. This isn’t unusual: Tijana tells me about another recent party that was raided and everyone checked, before the police apologised to the DJs for interrupting the night and left. And only the week after my visit armed police raided clubs across the city.
After some phone calls, we wind up back at Drugstore and Tijana gets to play a set anyway – dropping thumping techno to a steadily filling room. What Belgrade’s nightlife scene lacks in stability it makes up for in enviable tightness – everyone seems to look out for each other in a way that’s rarely necessary in your average clubbing city. “I tend to compare Belgrade with Berlin as I know both cities quite well,” Tijana tells me. “Berlin is so perfectly organised, and everything is so smooth that as a partygoer or a DJ you just have to relax and do your thing. In Belgrade it’s more like ‘you gotta fight for your right to party’.”