One summer’s day of 2016, I was walking home in the center of Belgrade with my guitar on my back when I happened upon a tall man boasting wild red hair and a beard, dressed like a biker with an assortment of tattoos and resembling some cross between pirate and viking. As I passed by him, he decided to say hello. Somehow I knew it was coming.
He told me his name was Joker from Saint Petersburg, Russia and remarkably, it was his first day ever to visit Belgrade. I also learned that he was a musician, so we had some common ground.
After a couple hours of hanging out in the park, talking, playing guitar, and discussing Belgrade, we went back to his hostel where he was staying to get his guitar, not far from my place. As I was waiting there, I met an American guy I had met some days before named Brian. The three of us decided to hang out in the park with the guitars until the sun arrived. After some nice jams and conversations on various topics, Brian went back to the hostel to sleep and Joker and I continued on our merry way well into the morning.
It must have been six or seven am by that time on a weekday. The sun was out and people were starting their day. Not tired in the slightest, I took the opportunity to show Joker one of Belgrade’s most famous and enjoyable features, Kalamegdan park, also known as the Belgrade Fortress. Situated on a higher elevation just south of where two rivers meet, the Sava and Danube, it’s the perfect place to take in Belgrade’s scenic beauty and get some fresh air.
After wandering the fortress and drinking the ‘holy’ spring water from one quaint little church on the far Northeastern wall, we popped into the Belgrade Zoo located next to the Fortress for a few hours.
Finally, we concluded our excursion around noon and I went home to get some rest.
The following day – Journey to Rainbow Gathering
The following day of our journey actually begins a full twenty-four hours later after getting some much needed sleep and relaxation. We decided to leave early one Thursday morning to join our brothers and sisters at the Rainbow Gathering Serbia, about a half hour’s train ride from Belgrade. For those that may not be familiar, Rainbow Gatherings are temporary loosely knit communities of people who congregate annually in remote forests around the world for one or more weeks at a time. For those who haven’t been, it’s a kind of free-form hippie gathering welcoming people from all walks of life, for those that have been; however, it is more difficult to describe what it really is.
It was Joker’s first time to attend but for me it was the fourth time. Last summer, I attended both one in South Serbia and the following month there was one in Macedonia. They usually last for thirty days but typically people come and go for briefer periods. The free form lifestyle there can be very refreshing break from the city life and the opportunity to meet more like-minded peoples from all over the world is a great reason to attend. This year, the Serbian gathering took place near the Danube river and although it’s a nice spot in the nature, the location is well-inhabited by our blood-sucking friends Culiseta longiareolata – otherwise known as the mosquito.
For an event in which it is not uncommon for participants to freely walk around naked during the day, the overwhelming presence of these little bugs turned this years event into a test of will and perseverance. Impressively, the people there still continue to grin and bear it for the remainder of this month. All in all, it’s not the worst thing ever but for some, it’s enough to pack up and leave after a day or two. Thus, we decided to leave the following morning and head to Novi Sad where the EXIT festival had just commenced, taking the opportunity to play on the street, earn a little money, and meet some interesting folks.
Novi Sad – Adventures in the “New Now”
I’m not sure how they came up with the name Novi Sad, but it’s literal translation into English would be “New Now.” So, we rolled into the ‘New Now’ on a sunny Friday afternoon. It was the first day of the increasingly popular annual EXIT Festival and the city was buzzing with people. The festival takes place inside the Petrovaradin Fortress, another historic fortress similar to the one in Belgrade. We didn’t have tickets to get through the festival gates but we were close enough to catch the sounds coming from within, some great bands and DJ’s were present this year.
Joker and I setup on the main street of Novi Sad and played all the instruments we had with us, hand-drums such as the Djembe, Rainfall drum and a big booming shamanic drum, as well as our two guitars and some percussive shakers. It didn’t take long before we were joined by a local homeless Albanian gypsy man wandering near, perhaps attracted by the music. It was difficult to understand his speech and words. Clearly he had some problems, but wow he sure could play the drums! He sat down on the Djembe and the three of us played on the street for a couple hours. (Instagram video – talking with gypsy drummer guy)
Later that night, we camped outside near the riverbanks. I slept outside while Joker slept in the tent with all our belongings. We woke up the next morning to a beautiful view by the river Danube and went for a nice refreshing morning swim. The strong current of the river is itself something fun to experience. It doesn’t seem like much from the side of the river but once you’re in, its pretty impressive. It could easily carry you away if you are not careful.
Saturday – Street Performances, Spontaneous Jams, and Gypsy Style Camping
The rest of the Saturday played out in a lackadaisical manner as we continued to wander around the beautiful city of Novi Sad; drinking coffee in the local cafe with the money we earned the previous night. As nightfall approached we setup again to do some street performing, this time in the local park where many people were gathering.
Performing on the street is a funny thing, it’s like an unofficial show, totally unsanctioned, unexpected and unpredictable. You look around for a nice place where people seem to be passing and then just setup shop with as much courage as you can muster. Getting started is always the hardest part, but when you’ve done it enough times it gets a little easier. That being said, it’s still a little bit nerve-wracking in the very beginning every single time.
One of the things I notice most often when playing on the street is that the best audience you could possibly have is a large group of children. Children simply ‘get it’ – much more than adults do. They feel the vibe and parents who are present enough to notice what their kids are actually interested in usually stop and listen for a little while.
It’s a great joy to perform for kids because you really feel like they are truly listening and truly being present at that moment. By contrast, most adults just pass right by, sometimes they drop some money in the magic hat but rarely stop to listen, unless of course you have a large group of people performing together on the street; that’s a different story.
Playing on the street is not very lucrative in Serbia, where the average income totals to about three-hundred euros, so it’s not exactly a viable means to support oneself, but still it’s fun and can be done just about any day or time. I know some musicians here who play on the street regularly, perform in two or three bands, and still they are struggling to make ends meet. It’s not an easy life, but it’s a humbling one.
That Saturday evening was a real blast. As more and more people gathered in the park, spontaneous jams started to break out. Joker and I found ourselves jamming with a group of young guys and before you know it, I was there singing ex-Yugoslavia rock songs with them and a crowd had gathered. At one point, a guy walked by with a portable amplifier and microphone and held it up to my face so I could sing. All of this just sort of happening, no plan, no script, just spontaneous free flowing fun.
After the jam died down and people started to make their way to the EXIT festival in the fortress, I had the pleasure of meeting a few awesome people, one of whom works for the local television studio in Novi Sad. We talked about doing an interview sometime so perhaps that will be the subject of a future post.
A funny thing happened later after we decided to call it a night and find a good place to camp. After wandering around some parts of the city with all our stuff and not finding any suitable place, we took a taxi to the EXIT campgrounds after the driver assured us that he was ninety-nine percent sure it was free to camp there. “I like those odds,” I told him as we got out of the cab.
A few minutes later, we discovered it was more like ‘not free at all’ and that it would cost around forty euros just to stay for one night, along with silly forms to fill out and other unnecessary things. Taking a look around, it became clear too that I never would have wanted to stay there anyway. People and their tents were packed in like sardines and the level of noise and partying going on would have been something of a nuisance.
At that point, it became clear we didn’t really have any place to stay. We spent the next hour taking turns looking for a suitable spot. Neither of us found anything but we eventually decided to just walk further down the riverwalk southward along the Danube. Feeling super tired and a bit sore from carrying all the stuff with us, we finally found a nice spot and clandestinely setup the tent in the surrounding shrubbery…
Sunday – Gypsy Swimming Hole and The Last Day of EXIT
The next morning, we awoke to the sounds of two gypsy kids swimming in the river on a nice little slice of riverbank, a part of the river with cute little houses on the water and small wooden docks with various kinds of boats. We spent the next couple hours relaxing and swimming and I think for both of us it was one of the best parts of the trip. After the previous night of lugging around a bunch of stuff, being rejected by the official EXIT camp and struggling to find a good place to stay, it was a little miracle to wake up the next morning in this magic place.
We weren’t too far from EXIT camp and the public beach next door so we gathered our stuff and went for a coffee. It was cool to see lots of people hanging out there and some of the DJ’s from EXIT were doing their thing in the beach clubs. We spent the next few hours just hanging out there and at one point, I had the sudden urge to write down some lyrics and poetry, or as Joker put it, the muse found me.
In the evening, we again went to the park and did some street performing. At one point, the homeless gypsy guy from the previous days showed up, sat down on the bench with us, and mumbled some unintelligible words. Then, in a flash, he jumped up and attacked some young guy walking by with two girls. The guy brushed him off and kept walking away as the man yelled at him from afar. I really have no idea what he was saying or why he would try to fight the stranger, totally unprovoked, again just something wasn’t quite right with him I guess. Right after that, he jumped on the Djembe drum and started banging out some mean rhythms. Joker and I were both in awe just witnessing the rapid changes of behavior displayed by this man.
We ended up calling it a night a bit earlier in order to go watch the Final Championship soccer game between France and Portugal. I’m not a big fan of sports in general but it was a nice little change of scenery for a few hours to hole up in a nice bar for awhile. After the game, we went down to the river again, on the other side across from the Fortress.
Prodigy was the last main act of EXIT and we listened to them from afar and burned some candles by the side of the river. It was quaint little scene. At one point, some young boys and girls came out of nowhere, stripped down to their underwear, took a dip in the river and sang to some really bad music blaring from their telephone. It was funny to witness the sudden contrast between what was for us a nice chill place listening to music from the other side of the river, to this small group of teens having their fun, as if totally oblivious to anyone else there. Eventually they left, the music from EXIT finished up and we again made camp beneath some trees by the river.
Monday – Farewell to Novi Sad or Was It?
The next morning, I was first to wake up. Again, I had slept outside in my sleeping bag while Joker slept in the tent with all of our stuff. I decided to go for a coffee and have some alone time for an hour. There was a nice cafe not too far from us with cheap coffee and good music – rock ‘n’ roll music.
When I returned back to the campsite, I found Joker awake sitting outside the tent. As I approached and said good morning, he stood up and quietly told me that some random guy from Greece had woken him up from inside the tent just moments before and asked him if he wanted a blow job. I thought it was some kind of joke at first but this harmless looking young fellow soon appeared and came to proposition me as well.
“Hey there friend,” he said. “Would you like a blow job?”
“Um, no thanks,” I replied. “I’m good.”
“Why not? Are you sure? It’s free,” he pressed on.
“Thanks for the offer but really I don’t need it.”
“Okay,” he said with a smile and went on his merry way.
What a hell of a funny/strange way to start the day, I thought.
After this little ordeal, we laughed quite a bit, gathered our stuff together and then went for another swim in the river before heading back to the same cafe for another coffee an by mid-afternoon we had made our way back to the train station to catch a train back to the Rainbow gathering for one more day before going to back to Belgrade..
Back to Belgrade to Play a Gig for Oliver Mandic’s Birthday
I had made arrangements to play a gig in Belgrade on July 13th, I woke up feeling pretty refreshed and looking forward to that night’s performance. I had created a gig specifically to celebrate the birthday and music of Oliver Mandic – an ex-Yugoslavia pop-star/musician whose music from the early 80’s I really fell in love with. I enjoy a lot of different artists from that period but his work really stands apart from the others.
It might be hard to understand or appreciate his work if you don’t know the Serbian language but some say he is kind of like the Serbian David Bowie in the persona he had in the 80’s and a bit like Stevie Wonder in his music. While neither is entirely accurate, the comparison might be helpful for those English-speaking readers who aren’t familiar with the music from ex-Yugoslavia.
Rendezvous with Joker, The Gig and The Interview
Joker and I met up a few hours before going to the gig. Overall, the gig was a big success. The cops came twice to shut it down, a bunch of friends came that I didn’t expect, I got paid fairly well considering, and the bartender got jealous and yelled at me at the end of the night because he thought I was hitting on his girl; who incidentally is just my friend. Now, if that’s not a successful gig, then I don’t know what is.
The gig was a combination of me playing guitar and singing the songs of Oliver Mandic and playing a DJ set of Oliver’s first three and only albums. The club certainly wasn’t packed wall to wall but a nice amount of people came, around forty or so. For me and for here, that’s pretty good.
Another highlight of the evening was something of a culmination of Joker and I’s adventures the past several days, perhaps a little more than a week. A local news reporter for Telegraf.rs was in attendance at the show and we were able to have an interview with him which began in earnest that evening but which later concluded the following night with the recording of a few music videos.
The piece was eventually published in Telegraf.rs on July 18th, 2016, featuring a short descriptive text and a montage video of our ‘street performance.’ In the video, there is shamanic drumming, rain drum, guitar, singing and clapping. The title of the video is, by translation, “An American and A Russian Sing a Serbian Song in Belgrade.”
The first part contains the percussion segment and during the latter part, we perform together what is to be my first original Serbo-Croatian rock song called, “Gde Me Put Nanese,” or “Where Life Takes Me,” on English. The lyrics to the song were penned by a noteworthy poet from Croatia, Kresimir Martin Butkovic, who gifted me the lyrics after having been inspired by the content of my first interview from early 2015.
Farewell to Joker
The day after we recorded this video, Joker and I parted ways for the time being. Who knows when or if we will have some more adventures someday. He is currently traveling again on his own, spreading his magic from place to place, playing his shamanic drums and who knows what. We sure had some great times, more than I can fully relate here in words. Wish him well. Thank you for reading.