Happy days in Novi Sad

What be­gan eight years ago as a post-war, anti-Milo­se­vic mu­sic event has evolved into Ser­bia’s big­gest mu­sic fes­ti­val, and one of Europe’s best, writes Jim Car­roll

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

IT BE­GAN as an act of de­fi­ance. Back in 2000, three stu­dents de­cided to hold a mu­sic fes­ti­val in the north­ern Ser­bian city of Novi Sad. It was a year af­ter Nato forces had bombed the city and a few months be­fore that year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The or­gan­is­ers de­cided it was time to make a protest about the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, so they booked some bands.

To avoid draw­ing un­due at­ten­tion from the au­thor­i­ties, that in­au­gu­ral EXIT gath­er­ing was not billed as an anti-Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic protest, but the in­tent was clear to all. A fes­ti­val with a slo­gan of “EXIT out of 10 years of mad­ness” was never just go­ing to be about he­do­nism.

Over the course of three months, a huge num­ber of bands and per­form­ers played on var­i­ous stages in the city, while au­di­ences were en­cour­aged by ac­tivists from the Ot­por youth move­ment to think about how the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem could be used to end the Milo­se­vic era. The Septem­ber elec­tion was the first step in that process, and EXIT went on to be­come an an­nual gath­er­ing for Ser­bian youth.

There’s still sedi­tion of a kind in the air at EXIT. “Re­bel­lion is the only thing that keeps you alive,” pro­claims a fes­ti­val-site poster. The poster, how­ever, is not call­ing for the re­moval of an un­pop­u­lar politi­cian; rather, it is ad­ver­tis­ing a brand of footwear.

Such brand­ing is just one sign of how much has changed around th­ese parts. Car man­u­fac­tur­ers, beer brands and tele­com com­pa­nies were not around for the first EXIT, but they’re mak­ing up for lost time now by seek­ing to at­tach their lo­gos to ev­ery avail­able space.Af­ter all, this is where their tar­get au­di­ence are. The num­bers in at­ten­dance are tes­ta­ment to EXIT’s po­si­tion as one of the big­gest fes­ti­vals in Europe. This year, more than 50,000 peo­ple came through the gates ev­ery night.

At least half of the au­di­ence came from over­seas, with re­search last year in­di­cat­ing that there were 52 dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties present. Or­gan­is­ers es­ti­mate at least 8,000 trav­elled from Bri­tain this year and say there were about 500 ad­vance week­end ticket sales from Ire­land.

Th­ese vis­i­tors are usu­ally jaded by the same old fes­ti­val fare on of­fer at home and are keen to ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent abroad. The trick for EXIT in the com­ing years will be to con­tinue to ap­peal to them, while also en­sur­ing that the in­creas­ing cor­po­rate buy-in doesn’t change the fes­ti­val.

The lo­cal econ­omy is also a sig­nif­i­cant stake­holder in the event. Be­sides the an­nual fi­nan­cial boost for lo­cal pock­ets, fes­ti­val tourism means longer-term gains as fans go away with pos­i­tive im­pres­sions of Ser­bia and spread the word. And it’s hard not to be im­pressed by what’s on of­fer in Novi Sad be­cause EXIT re­ally is a fes­ti­val with lots of the wow fac­tor.

For a start, there’s the venue, a true star in the pro­ceed­ings. The mag­nif­i­cent me­dieval Petrovaradin fortress over­looks the Danube, and the city and is eas­ily one of the most strik­ing fes­ti­val sites in Europe. The fortress pro­vided a strate­gic strong­hold against Turk­ish and Aus­trian in­vaders through­out its his­tory, but few of them can have been as rau­cous or as good-na­tured as the EXIT­go­ers who take it over four nights ev­ery July.

There are about two dozen stages lo­cated in ev­ery nook and cranny of the site. You sim­ply fol­low the hordes as they climb up steps onto walls or walk through tun­nels to get from stage to stage. Just when you think you’ve got to ev­ery sin­gle stage on the site, you find an­other one sit­u­ated where you least ex­pect it.

What­ever about the two main stages where the big­ger acts per­form, it’s the smaller stages which pro­vide the most sur­prises. Th­ese cater for all mu­si­cal tastes, from Latin, reg­gae and indie rock to happy hard­core, live elec­tron­ica, cheesy trance and a cou­ple of dozen metal/punk bands mak­ing the fiercest, an­gri­est racket imag­in­able. In their midst, you’ll find ex­cit­ing bands such as Vrelo, Orkestra del Sol and the Pan­nonia All Stars do­ing their thing.

It’s not all mu­sic, though. In keep­ing with EXIT’s po­lit­i­cal roots, there are dozens of stalls vo­cif­er­ously ad­vo­cat­ing an as­sort­ment of causes. You’ll be handed anti-vivi­sec­tion and anti-traf­fick­ing leaflets, along with more on veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, gay rights, women’s refug- es, re­cy­cling, why Ser­bia needs to be in the EU and the im­por­tance of keep­ing Novi Sad a Nazi-free zone. There is also some­one at­tempt­ing to pro­mote the ben­e­fits of yoga, but there are few tak­ers.

While the bulk of the acts and DJs on the smaller stages may not be house­hold names be­yond the Balkans, EXIT does still draw the big names. This year, Manu Chao caused road-blocks around the main stage when he and his band per­formed last Satur­day night.

Oth­ers who rose to the oc­ca­sion in­cluded The Gos­sip (whose new ma­te­rial sounds fan­tas­tic), the ex­cel­lent Go­gol Bor­dello (a sort of home­com­ing for the New York gypsy punk band), Min­istry (the in­dus­trial metal band play­ing one of their fi­nal shows ever), The Hives and a re­ju­ve­nated Paul Weller, com­plete with a blis­ter­ing make-over for Eton Ri­fles.

Some, though, did not fare quite so well. Phar­rell Wil­liams from NERD had sound is­sues which led him to petu­lantly fling his mi­cro­phone at some poor, un­for­tu­nate roadie. Both Pri­mal Scream and The Streets also failed to siz­zle or con­nect with the au­di­ence, while Roni Size and Reprazent seemed a tad lost on that big stage.

Fes­ti­val head­lin­ers the Sex Pis­tols may have drawn a big crowd, but a muddy sound and pretty tired ren­di­tions of the clas­sics meant peo­ple be­gan to stream away from the stage af­ter about three songs.

Over on the dance stage, it was Au­dion’s sub­tle, sexy, tweaked house, Fran­cois K’s mas­ter­class in mood-set­ting, the sleazy elec­tro of Claude VonStroke, a live set from Booka Shade and an epic set from Swedish house pro­ducer Axwell which took all the plau­dits.

As the thou­sands left the site in the early hours of Mon­day morn­ing, the last thing they saw was a re­minder about next year. In July 2009, EXIT will cel­e­brate its 10th an­niver­sary. That re­ally should be the great­est rock’n’rave week­end of the year.

Clock­wise from above: Beth Ditto of The Gos­sip, Pelle Almqvist of the Hives and Paul Weller

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