New East Digital Archive

Musician Robert Soko rose to fame in the 00s as the godfather of Balkan Beats. But as the trend slowly died away, he began searching for new inspiration — by joining forces with a new generation of migrants and refugees reaching Europe's shores.

17 January 2022

There was always something about Robert Soko’s backstory that begged for cinematic treatment. A Berlin taxi driver from war-torn Yugoslavia, he spent his days in the 90s driving a cab, and his nights DJing for a hard-drinking refugee crowd at a Kreuzberg punk club called Arcanoa. As the parties grew in popularity, Soko discovered Gypsy brass, blending the harsh rasp of trumpet into his sets alongside smooth dance music. Eventually, he was rocketed to world-wide fame as godfather of Balkan Beats — a label Soko actually trademarked. He describes the sound in his manifesto as “traditional Balkan sounds, mixed with modern electronic beats, hitting the party crowd like a lightning bolt, rough and full of emotion, weeping and laughing at the same time.”

Filmmaker Sergej Kreso isn’t the first director to put Soko’s story on the big screen (Marko Valić saw to that when he made Soko the subject of his 2005 docu-film thesis Balkan Beats Berlin). But Kreso’s 2020 documentary, Here We Move Here We Groove, is the first to talk about Soko’s life beyond the Balkan Beats fad.

It follows Soko’s next steps in the final years of the 2010s as he works alongside a new generation of war refugees and artists from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “I identify with people in trouble,” says Soko, “with people who have left their homes and are in search of a better future, which is the most natural human impulse… And I am welcoming these people, all of these people.”

Like many of the new generation of refugees arriving in Germany, Soko knows what it is like to see one’s homeland consumed by war. In 1990, with few career prospects in Bosnia, he emigrated to Germany, putting in time at various construction sites and started working as a taxi driver in a newly-reunited Berlin.

Two years after Soko’s arrival in the German capital, war broke out in Bosnia and refugees poured into the city. Some of them — a small elect clique — gravitated to a German punk bar called Arcanoa, in the alternative district of Kreuzberg. Here, refugees made their Stammkneipe, their home away from home, playing their own music in environs that encouraged coexistence between nationalities: Muslim, Croat, and Serb.

Read more Letter from Gornji Vakuf-Uskoplje: the Bosnian former frontline town blighted by lingering ethnic divides

Soko was part of the regular crowd at Arcanoa. Eventually, he persuaded the proprietress to let him play Yugo punk and New Wave for fifty Deutschmarks a pop and a free beer — kickstarting his DJ career. The parties quickly snowballed, drawing Germans, enchanted by the no-holds-barred Yugo way of partying. Soon enough, the parties evolved from “a diaspora cosmos”, in Soko’s words, to the talk of the town, welcoming anybody and everybody.

At some point in the mid-90s Soko picked up on the music of one Goran Bregović, the Sarajevan musician and founder of legendary Yugo band Bijelo Dugme, who had made a name for himself composing Gypsy-inspired music for the films of Emir Kusturica. Gradually the punk and New Wave fell more and more by the wayside and Gypsy brass and ethno music came more to the fore.

“People were freaking out,” said Soko. “I thought they were going to abandon me [when I started playing this new music]. Normally, I played rock, punk, guitar music, Western guitar music in Yugoslavia with Yugo lyrics — rock, punk rock. And then we would put this on. Out of curiosity. And out of irony. Like, let’s see what happens. And what happened was amazing. And then I started thinking, wow, maybe it’s not so bad. And obviously it goes down really well, people love it.”

As Soko’s audience swelled in the late 90s and early 00s, his parties quickly exploded the narrow confines of the Arcanoa. Soko was offered a bimonthly slot at the cellar club in Berlin’s old Jewish quarter, by New York nightclub impresario, Steve Maas.

A still from Here We Move Here We Groove (2021), dir. Sergej Kreso

A still from Here We Move Here We Groove (2021), dir. Sergej Kreso

By 2007, Soko was riding the Balkan wave, taking his show on the road to Paris, Prague, London, and Madrid. He played in New York and Hollywood, and became big in Japan. He gradually garnered an unlikely cache of celebrity fans. Joe Jackson, five times Grammy award nominee and Balkan music aficionado, who would pop in occasionally and observe the scene discreetly from a corner. Soko became the epitome of the European Balkan DJ.

At some point, however, the good times came to an end. The popularity of the Balkan Wave petered out somewhere around 2012, and Soko suddenly faced an existential midlife crisis, unsure of where to go next.

“To be honest, I got a little bit fed up with Gypsy music, with Balkan music,” he said. “For me, [DJing] became just a job. I mean I loved it, but the enthusiasm was missing. Now everyone was trying to do the same thing in every little city in Germany. There was nothing bad about that, but the Balkan hype had reached a point, a peak. I didn’t think it was going to die, but I had the feeling it wouldn’t go higher.”

“I could see us, the Yugo crowd, in these young Arab artists trying to make space for themselves in Berlin”

Yet while Soko stagnated artistically, the Balkans had become famous for something else: “the Balkan Route”, or a long, footsore migration path stretching from Istanbul through Bulgaria and Greece into Serbia, and from there into Hungary. In 2015-16 scores of Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi refugees fleeing war at home streamed into Western Europe via the Balkan route, heading to different Western cities — but especially to Berlin.

For the second time in three decades, the German capital was flooded by refugees. But like the Bosnians of the 90s, they also promised to transform the city’s nightlife.

“I could see us, the Yugo crowd, in these young Arab artists trying to make space for themselves in Berlin,” says Soko. He decided to take two younger DJs under his wing. One was Uroš Petković, a Serbian DJ from Belgrade, who had established himself with a DJ outfit called Shazalakazoo, which blended Balkan brass and Gypsy music with break beats and electronica. Petković had moved to Berlin in 2016 and hooked up with Robert Soko’s Balkan Beats parties, sharing the DJ booth with him at Lido.

A still from Here We Move Here We Groove (2021), dir. Sergej Kreso

A still from Here We Move Here We Groove (2021), dir. Sergej Kreso

But the other artist would push him in a whole new musical direction. Rafi Gazani, a Palestinian DJ and self-described “party wizard” from Gaza, had come to Berlin in 2014 as a refugee with high ambitions.

While still languishing in a Berlin refugee home, Gazani set out to explore the city’s nightlife, never quite finding the party that struck his particular fancy. Then he met Uroš Petković. Together, the two of them imagined an Arab-style party that would cater to the specific needs of war-refugees in Berlin, blending traditional ethno music with Western electronic beats.

Read more Lasha Chapel is fusing traditional Georgian music with fresh electronica in a bid to unite a nation

Soko was already familiar with Persian and Algerian music. (“The reason why my [Algerian] partner Hanaa came to speak to me in Paris back in 2010 was because I had played an Algerian song. She says that at that time, nobody dared to do that in Paris in those sorts of clubs.”) When Petkovic and Gazani approached Soko to produce the Arab Beats party night, he jumped at the idea. Growing from the same fertile ground that nurtured the older Balkan Beats scene, Arab Beats blends club savvy beats with ethno-elements: the plucked saz or darbuka, as well as the dabke — a fast-paced microtonal style of keyboard playing indigenous to Syria and the Levant. “We have to understand that Balkan Beats is, musically, very related to [Middle Eastern] music,” says Soko. “It expresses a similar sentiment. We just speed it up a bit. We make it faster. Less longing — more jumping!”

Filmmaker Sergej Kreso attended the very first iteration of Arab Beats at Berlin’s Bi’Nu in the summer of 2018. He had already approached Soko with the idea of a Balkan Beats movie in 2012 — but it was Arab Beats that saw the movie come to life. “I found Soko’s personal story very interesting,” Kreso told The Calvert Journal. “At the same point I saw history repeating itself. Right now, we have this huge wave of refugees coming from the Middle East, especially Syria. It’s almost a Balkan Beats 2.0. My intention is to shed light on this similarity, to dramatise it.”

Kreso uses his lens to capture the heady rush of rebirth inside Berlin’s nightclubs, documenting crowds dabke dancing in circles at Bi’Nu as trains rumble by overhead.

But the director also delves into the real work of discovery that drives nightlife culture forward. From hereon Move Here We Groove is essentially a road movie. We see Soko behind the wheel of a cream-coloured Mercedes, much like the car he would have driven as a cabbie in the early nineties, driving through Berlin.

“There are two sorts of cab drivers,” Soko explains to the camera. “There are those who lie in wait for passengers. And there are those who are hunters; I was a hunter.”

A still from Here We Move Here We Groove (2021), dir. Sergej Kreso

A still from Here We Move Here We Groove (2021), dir. Sergej Kreso

We follow Soko as he hits the road, looking for new European music much as if he were trawling the streets of Berlin by night, looking for cab fares. He travels to Marseille to visit Siska (Sister Ka) of Watcha Clan, an Arab-Jewish world music band whose tracks were remixed by Soko and other Balkan DJs. He watches her moderate a crowd of kids free-style rapping on the Mediterranean seashore, a spontaneous jam session and hip-hop workshop which Soko, Kreso, and the film team stumbled upon by chance. He goes to Greece, to visit singer Aimilia Varanaki. And most importantly, he returns to Zenica in Bosnia, meeting pockets of refugees on the Balkan route itself.

At the end of the film, Soko and his multinational crew forge a Balkan Beats Soundsystem, recording tracks with refugees and Balkan old-hands.

Kreso’s documentary is as much about music and immigration as it is about courage to reinvent oneself personally in order to coexist with a changed world. It is about how a midlife crisis dovetails with an existential, political and musical will to change. Some of the most tender scenes involve Soko befriending a young Afghan refugee and wannabee rapper in Bosnia, and the Afghan’s eventual arrival in Berlin after a footsore journey through the Balkans.

“The movie is about coexistence [within society],” says Soko. “It is, in my opinion, the main takeaway from the movie – to show how togetherness cannot be taken for granted — you have to permanently fight for it.”

Read more

The rise, fall, and rebirth of Balkan Beats

How Ukrainian DJ collective Uklon brought Kyiv-style raves to lockdown New York

The rise, fall, and rebirth of Balkan Beats

Selma Selman is the Bosnian artist breaking down cars, washing machines, and the patriarchy

The rise, fall, and rebirth of Balkan Beats

‘If I could afford to, I’d post myself to Berlin with DHL:’ 2 political Bosnian poems by Faruk Šehić