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
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