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Turbo-Folk Tycoon

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November 15, 2011

In Croatia it takes a strongman like Alen Borbas—security tycoon and nightclub owner—to open up a nationalist music to outside talent.

Aikins-575.jpgPhotograph by Sasha Colic

At only about five-foot-six, Alen Borbas was still an imposing man. With his thick legs, long, muscled arms and low center of gravity, it was easy to see how, at eighteen, Borbas was one of the Yugoslav Army’s karate champions, and why he would later go on to win international shotokan sparring tournaments in the U.S., Australia, and Japan. The top of his shaved, bald head was shaped like the hull of a Merkava tank, while under his black tank top bulged the hard, convex abdomen of a world-class athlete past his physical prime.

At this moment, he was smiling, a slightly crooked, Eastern-dentistry smile, pleased perhaps that a foreign journalist had come to his remote corner of Croatia to pay him homage. Or maybe Alen Borbas was just in a great mood. He had every right to be happy. That year, 2008—his thirty-seventh—had been a good one, perhaps his best ever.

His first child, Iva, had been born in February, weighing in at a healthy three and a half kilos, to his 26-year-old wife, Ivana, whom he met here in his night club where he hosted topless dancers, the city’s wealthies and wannabes, and, most importantly, turbo-folk artists from all over the Balkans. Turbo-folk, that peculiar Balkan pop familiar to kitsch aficionados the world over, had been the rising star to which Borbas had hitched his wagon. His music business was growing rapidly into a modest empire. That April, he had unveiled the first monthly issue of Folk Magazin, now being distributed in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia. The satellite television station that he co-founded, Balkanika TV, was beginning to rival MTV as one the Balkans’ most popular music stations.

His yearly showcase of turbo-folk artists, Folk Hit Godine (Folk Hit of the Year) had its highest attendance yet. It was, for the first time, held in Osijek’s biggest arena, Zrinjevac, denied to him last year by the town’s mayor, Anto Dapic, a hardline nationalist who was that year out of a job as a result of the region’s constantly shifting political coalitions.

Midway down, the stairs doubled back on themselves and there, on the landing, was a large, black iron cage, shaped like a birdcage but big enough for one, maybe two, girls.

Never mind the fans of the local football club, Kohorta, who spray-painted, on walls outside the venue that are still pockmarked from fifteen-year-old shells, messages such as “There is no room for chetnik music in the Unconquerable City,” references to the brutal Serb irregulars known as chetniks, and also to the city’s nickname, “Nepokoreni Grad,” acquired during the months when it bore the brunt of Serbia’s northern offensive.

Never mind Borbas’s detractors on the right, like Dapic, who called turbo-folk fans traitors for the music’s past associations with the Milosevic regime. Never mind his detractors on the left, who scorned turbo-folk as a “musical tumor” for its vapid lyrics and hyper-materialism. None of that mattered, because Borbas was thriving. He has seen the future of pop in Croatia, and that future is turbo-folk. And who better to be behind it all than him, a shining example of the New Balkan Businessman?

                 *                      *                     *

To get into the OKS Nightclub, you needed to go around the back of Osijek’s Studenski Centar, through a side door and then down a wide set of rubberized black stairs. Midway down, the stairs doubled back on themselves and there, on the landing, was a large, black iron cage, shaped like a birdcage but big enough for one, maybe two, girls.

At the landing, you entered the nightclub proper. At night you would have to pass by a member of Borbas Security, who would be dressed in black paratrooper pants, a black patent leather belt, and a black shirt with epaulets and a red, blue and white armband—Croatia’s national colors. He would probably be a former soldier or karate fighter, or perhaps both. The nightclub itself was a standard affair: a low, black ceiling, disco lights, plastic beer flags from the local brewery, Osjecko, more cages and dancing poles, and a crossed pair of gleaming axes above the central bar. On the hot July afternoon that I visited, there were about a dozen female dancers practicing in front of the mirrors in the club’s secondary dance hall, most of them long-limbed beauties who would be extraordinary anywhere else but are common here in a region where blood from east and west has mixed for millennia.

A back door in the club gave access to Borbas’s modern studio furnished in red and black. The gear here was a step up from the dingy equipment common in businesses and government offices in Osijek. There were two big Apple flat-screen LCDs, and a hoard of expensive recording gear. One corner held a red bench press with 130 kilos on it, and a large window looked into an adjacent, soundproofed room with a microphone set up.

Borbas sat down in an office chair and fiddled with a computer for a moment. This was his command center. After a moment, he turned and addressed himself to me. Borbas, affable and direct, had an imposing presence, but not an unpleasant one: when he grinned, which was frequently, it was hard not to smile in return. He liked sly, locker-room humor and gesturing vigorously with his meat-cleaver hands.

“Okay,” he said in decent English. “What do you want to know? You will see… I am a simple, local guy. Everybody knows me as that.”

His childhood certainly began that way. Borbas (pronounced Bor-bash; borba, coincidentally, means “fight” in Croatian) grew up in Jug II, a rough, industrial suburb of Osijek, as a citizen of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a unified, Communist federation of the now-independent countries of Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia. His father, Zvonko Borbas, worked as a security guard at a state-owned shoe factory, but his real passion was karate. A former Yugoslav champion, Zvonko started training his son at the age of four and by the time he reached his teens, young Borbas was winning competitions throughout the East. At first, he competed in both fights and skill displays, called katas, but soon turned exclusively to fighting. “I always said that katas were for girls,” Borbas said with a grin.

Like all healthy Yugoslav men, when he reached the legal age he reported for compulsory military service and was posted, according to custom, outside of Croatia. Because he was a star karate fighter in the army, he was given a job at a military hospital in central Serbia, allowing him to focus on his training.

This was at the beginning of the 1990s, and Yugoslavia was on the brink of collapse. Serbia’s president, Slobodan Milosevic, who dominated the federation’s collective presidency, was attempting to concentrate power in Belgrade while at the same time Slovenia and Croatia were pushing hard for more autonomy. Civil war seemed increasingly likely and when, on June 5, 1991, Croatia declared independence, Borbas, like many non-Serb conscripts in the Yugoslav National Army, deserted, and furtively returned home by bus. He was nineteen.

These were desperate times in Slavonia. Open warfare had broken out between Croatia and the rump Yugoslavia and this ethnically-mixed region—the only place where Serbia and Croatia share a border—would see some of the war’s heaviest fighting. At the time of Borbas’s arrival home, the Croatian city of Vukovar to the east was already besieged by Yugoslav army units and Serb paramilitaries. By October, Vukovar would be destroyed, its remaining defenders captured (several hundred of whom were murdered), and Osijek would find itself at the front line, under heavy shelling.

But the war was a formative time for Borbas. It was here in Osijek that he would form his most important political connections, and meet many of the men who would later work for his security company. After arriving from Serbia, Borbas enlisted with the newly formed Croatian National Guard and was soon transferred to the military police, where his karate skills were of obvious use.

There Borbas was often assigned to provide security for top military and political figures, and in this way he met Branimir Glavas, one of the principal organizers of the defense of Osijek from Serbia. After the war, Glavas would go on to to become a leading political figure in Croatia, and, despite his later conviction by a Croatian war crimes court for his role in the torture and killing of local ethnic Serb civilians, he remained in 2008 both a member of parliament and a prime regional power in Slavonia, where he was revered for his military service. “Glavas stood up for Osijek,” Borbas said. “He’s okay.”

Borbas’s connections with Glavas and the HDZ—Croatia’s right-wing nationalist party led by the country’s founding president, Franjo Tudman—would prove essential to him in the tumultuous years following the war, when the Croatian state was in an embryonic stage and much of its property was up for grabs. Prior to the war, Borbas had worked as bouncer at nightclubs in order to fund his karate tournaments, and in 1997, when Croatia passed its privatization laws after the war, Borbas and his father founded Borbas Security, drawing their manpower from Borbas’s karate and military contacts.

At a time when the country was awash with weaponry, paramilitary groups, and political turmoil, security companies like Borbas’s were in high demand. He was soon providing his services for officials, singers, and stars (he proudly mentions model Nina Moric, a paramour of Ricky Martin) and was able to secure a number of contracts with local banks and government offices. Eventually, Borbas Security evolved into a quasi-paramilitary operation in its own right—an asset seized upon by Glavas during an internal crisis in the HDZ precipitated by the death of Franjo Tudman and the party’s subsequent loss of power in the 2000 national elections.

At that time, Ivo Sanader, who eventually rose to be Croatia’s prime minister, was seeking to purge the party of its hardline rightists and take the HDZ in a more pro-European, center-right direction. He was challenged at the party’s 2002 convention by Ivic Pasalic, who represented the hardcore right. Though Glavas was himself one of the HDZ’s most nationalist and right-wing politicians, he took the opportunity to ally with Sanader and contracted Borbas’s company to provide security at the convention. Borbas’s black-clad armed guards stood watch over the meetings and ballot boxes; the result of the convention was a victory for Sanader. Later, a disgruntled former HDZ member of parliament, Ivan Drmic, has claimed to have witnessed ballot stuffing at the convention. In any case, in 2003, Sanader led the HDZ back into power and would serve two terms before resigning in 2009 after facing charges of corruption, for which he is currently on trial.

Those familiar with the Eurovision Song Contest could guess at the levels of kitsch achieved by turbo-folk, but the music must really be seen and heard to be believed.

Borbas was proud of his role in the 2002 convention. “You can read what they say on the Internet—that I won the convention for Sanader,” he said. But he downplayed the benefit he has received from his political connections. “I don’t use it how I could use it,” he said, waving his palm in the air. “They once were saying I would be chief of police here. Everybody says I am crazy not to use it more, but I like to be here in my disco with friends.”

After the war, Borbas acquired the disco—and a Yugoslav-era nuclear shelter downtown that he was using for his gym and karate club—from the government under opaque circumstances. Indeed, the club still technically belonged to the students of Osijek (in Croatian, OKS stands for Osijek Student Club), though Borbas had signed an agreement that gave him perpetual control. “In the book it is Studenski Centar, but everything here is mine. I have it for next 100 years,” he said, breaking out into laughter. He explained that the agreement was in both parties’ interest. “Back then, the security situation was bad, I was the only one who could make it secure and put anything on here.”

Back then in early 1995, OKS was just another regular nightclub playing pop and dance on the weekends. The turbo-folk scene didn’t exist in Croatia, though it was becoming wildly popular in Serbia. Borbas hardly knew the music, and didn’t much care for it. “I liked hip-hop before the war—Public Enemy, Snap. I didn’t like folk music,” he said. That would change.

                 *                     *                     *

You didn’t have to go far from the OKS nightclub to find yourself outside turbo-folk territory. A few blocks from the Studenski Centar was K-Bar, which everyone knows as Kesten. Kesten is typical of the many kavane scattered around Osijek—a cramped little interior and a large outdoor patio with lawn furniture, tables, and an awning sponsored by a brewery.

The bar was a popular hangout for the town’s punks and metalheads. As such, it was a bastion of more liberal sentiment, though in Slavonia this could have its limits. “I am a punk but I am also a nationalist,” one of the patrons, wearing a Rancid T-shirt, explained. “I love Serbs, but if someone fucks with my country then I have to fuck them up.” Predictably, nothing brought out nationalism like football and when I visited the bar was crowded with people watching a game via satellite. It was the Germany-Turkey semifinals in the Euro 2008 tournament, and the locals were shouting their vilest epithets at the Turks, who had knocked out Croatia in the quarterfinals and who also, as part of the Ottoman Empire, occupied the Balkans for centuries. (Turkey lost the game.)

At the back of the patio, attentively watching the game, was Tin Kovacic, a tall, slender young man with a mop of dirty blond hair and thick glasses that he had to wear after nearly losing his left eye in a freak football accident as a child. Kovacic was a reporter with a local TV station, Osijecka, and the lead singer with Debeli Precjednik (Fat Prezident), one of Slavonia’s better-known hardcore punk bands. He used to work for Osijek’s football club, but lost his job there after Glavas found out that some of his songs were about the Cellophane Incident, where a local Serb civilian was found floating dead in the Drava River with his mouth taped over, and the Garage Incident, where a local Serb civilian was forced to drink battery acid and then shot.

“Turbo-folk—it’s really not my scene,” said Kovacic. “The music is cheap trash. We have a word for it: sund. That means there’s no artistic value.”

Those familiar with the Eurovision Song Contest could guess at the levels of kitsch achieved by turbo-folk, but the music must really be seen and heard to be believed. In its postmodern excess it rivaled Japanese interpretations of Western pop culture, but in this case the operative memes were sex and money. In turbo-folk videos, surgically enhanced singers dressed and behaved like porn starlets while the men, who were invariably older, boasted enormous gold chains and luxury cars.

It’s a parade of hormones and machismo, but the lyrics are always about melodramatic love. “You should really read through some of them,” Kovacic said. “I heard one lately that was great, something like, ‘I wallpapered the room with my tears for you.’”

These lyrics were the result of turbo-folk’s abiding links with traditional Balkan folk, from which it evolved in the late 1980s; besides a fixation on heartbreak, it kept the keening, ululating vocal style (which bears a slight resemblance to flamenco singing) and accordion riffs, while adding a heavy drum-machine beat. In turbo-folk, however, the vocals were heavily synthesized and most of the instrumentation was done electronically.

In Croatia, turbo-folk—originally a pejorative term coined by Montenegrin rock legend Rambo Amadeus, but later universally adopted—was strongly associated with Serbia under the Milosevic regime, where the worlds of politics, organized crime, and entertainment often fused into one glitzy mess. The music first became popular there during the 1990s, and its biggest star, the Madonna of turbo-folk, Ceca, was closely associated with the regime and married Arkan, the notorious warlord-cum-mobster whose paramilitaries participated in mass rapes and ethnic cleansing throughout Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

Times changed, though, and while most of the turbo-folk music industry was still centered in Belgrade, by the late 2000s the singers and their fans were just as likely to come from Bulgaria or Macedonia as Serbia. Arguably, the music scene had evolved and diversified into a sort of pan-Balkan ethnopop. Even in Croatia, where resentment against Serbia runs deepest because of its past connection to the war, turbo-folk had reached a near ubiquity among young people, who blasted it from their cars and danced to it in the clubs—though it was still being vilified by politicians and the media. It was Alen Borbas who started to put on some of the country’s first turbo-folk concerts with Serbian and Bosnian artists. “He’s the godfather of the Croatian folk scene,” said Kovacic.

There was a perverse irony in the fact that OKS has become the pulsing heart of turbo-folk. In its days as a student club, OKS was home to some of the best punk acts around, a thriving, grungy mecca for the underground, non-commercial scene in Yugoslavia. Borbas, in fact, had worked there as a bouncer before the war, occasionally cracking the heads of punks who stepped out of line. After the war, he took on a more managerial role at the club, and then, one day, it was his.

“Everybody knew what was happening, and no one did a damn thing,” said Kovacic bitterly. “We just gave it away.” But he insisted he had nothing against Borbas personally. ”I really have no feelings about him. I think he’s a smart businessman.”

Kovacic had done business with Borbas before. Before he undertook an extensive renovation of his venue, Borbas had allowed it to be used occasionally for punk shows on slow nights. “He’s very professional and very easy to deal with,” said Kovacic. “Better than most punk club owners, in fact.”

Another patron sitting near Kovacic took a more sanguinary approach. “If I could, I would throw a Molotov into that place,” he said, sloshing his beer around in his glass.

                 *                     *                     *

“My favorite is Ceca,” Ivana told me. “I want to be like her, she is so beautiful.” Ivana was a nineteen-year-old student who came with her friends to OKS frequently; turbo-folk was her favorite music. Tonight, they were celebrating her friend Marija’s twentieth birthday. They were drinking a Balkan favorite, rakija, a potent liquor distilled from fruit, which here costed 10 kunas, the equivalent of $1.80. Two men in their forties were buying the rakija for the girls. One of them stood behind Marija, caressing her thighs. He had his black V-neck shirt pulled up to reveal his hairy, swollen belly (a common enough practice here during the summer heat.) The air in the club was sweltering and blue with cigarette smoke. “I like Alen Borbas,” Ivana said, leaning forward. “He is my friend.”

We were sitting in the VIP corner of OKS, where periodically a waiter would bring over a tray of drinks, which Borbas signed for. Borbas himself no longer drank alcohol, and he had never smoked, which is rare in a nation of heavy drinkers and smokers.

At his table were two young women. One of them, Andrea Akmadzic, was a model and a go-go dancer for Borbas, one of his favorites. She danced in a cage at the Folk Hit Godine that year, and she had appeared on the reality show Croatia’s Next Top Model. Akmadzic, a tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, had legs that reached to Borbas’s bellybutton. She fawned on him, whispering his ear and resting her hand along his thigh. But she was not the only one showering him with attention: throughout the night, a steady stream of women came to see Borbas, greeting him and exchanging a few flirtatious remarks before fading back into the press of the club.

Borbas, who was famous for the girls that surround him, said that his wife (who was at home with his child) understood that all his interactions were just platonic, just business. “She knows that she is number one,” he said. “I am a family man now.” He laughed. “You know, they say my job is to be with girls.”

Performing at the club that night was Drago Matijevic, an Osijek native who functioned as Borbas’s house singer. It was a Wednesday and there was just the standard bare-bones set up: a drum machine, a microphone with heavy reverb on it, and a DJ playing the riffs on a small MIDI keyboard. Simple and inexpensive, these sorts of two-man turbo-folk shows had become popular at weddings and birthday parties, as well as nightclubs.

“I come here to relax,” he explained. “I like this music. Also, I like American country music.” He grinned, and then looked at [model Andrea] Akmadzic wistfully. “They have the best girls here.”

Matijevic toured around with his wireless mic, joshing the crowd like a lounge singer, crooning at the women and winking at the men. At one point, he came up to Borbas and stuck the mic in his face; in response, Borbas ululated some surprisingly good verses about love and heartbreak.

It was in a club like his own in Serbia that Borbas first became properly introduced to folk music, while returning from a karate tournament in Los Angeles. He became intrigued by the commercial potential of the music and agreed to host a Serbian singer, Dorde Balasevic, on a Wednesday, typically a slow night. The show sold 800 tickets, and so Borbas started bringing over turbo-folk artists from Bosnia and Serbia. He would drive to pick them up at the border in cars laden with men and automatic weapons. “In those days, I had everything in the car with me,” said Borbas.

When word got around that Borbas was safely and professionally hosting foreigners in Croatia, more and more singers started approaching him: Croatia, which has a considerably higher standard of living than Bosnia or Serbia, represented a lucrative market. With a promoter like Borbas, who was politically connected to the right-wing paramilitary groups that might cause trouble for foreign acts, it became a viable destination. Borbas estimated that he was soon providing security for about 80 percent of the turbo-folk singers who came to Croatia. Just as essential as his security force were his connections with the ruling HDZ party, which allowed him to undertake such politically sensitive ventures. “Everybody who started with this music had problems,” Borbas said. “I didn’t have these problems.”

But Borbas wasn’t content simply hosting turbo-folk concerts. He began single-handledy assembling an industry in Croatia, building from the ground up his magazine, television station, and Folk Hit Godine. Now he had plans in the work to form a turbo-folk record label and possibly a turbo-folk radio station, though he admitted that, even for him, getting a radio license would be politically difficult. “That is all I need to have everything,” he said.

Borbas had now become, by Croatian standards, a very rich man. He afforded himself and his family a lavish lifestyle: a fleet of cars, including an Audi TT and a yet-to-be-delivered Hummer; a two-story downtown apartment decorated with crystal chandeliers and leopard-skin couches; a 1-kilo chain with his name spelled out in solid gold block letters. With turbo-folk gaining a new respectability in Croatia, his social capital was on the rise. He was routinely photographed and shown on TV with top entertainers, and the tabloids gushed over his lavish marriage and the recent birth of his daughter. He had become part of Croatia’s nouveau riche, rough around the edges but very much on top of the pile.

It was the same class that has emerged throughout Eastern Europe, where, under Communism, there were no business elites or private property empires, just well-to-do professionals and a handful of high-living apparatchiks. Those who came out rich from the scramble in the 1990s tended to be people with good vertical sense and an ability to make connections. In ex-Yugoslavia, where the old order was shattered by war, this new group’s elevation from their previous lives could be particularly vertiginous; Branimir Glavas, one of Slavonia’s wealthiest men, was a secretary in a high school before the war.

But unlike Glavas, who would be convicted and put in jail, Borbas didn’t soil himself with war crimes or blatant corruption and so had managed to steer his laden galleon into safe commercial harbor. He had understood that the future of business success in Croatia lies with its consumers and had provided a product tailored for the post-war generation currently coming into adulthood, the country’s first to grow up in a market society. They were modern kids, more cynical, more ahistorical, more Westernized, bereft of both the socialist idealism of those who lived in Marshal Tito’s pan-Yugoslavic state, and the inner tension of those whose youths and young adulthoods were brutalized by the war and its horrors.

This group will soon see their country join the European Union, a process that has already led to significant political and economic reforms in Croatia. And, just as Croatia will be inhabited by a generation distant from its past, so too will the current upper class give rise to a generation that has only known legitimate wealth, whose future privilege will be based on their education, connections, and business inheritances. The infant Iva Borbas, heir to her father’s success, will grow up surrounded by cars, clothes, and luxury goods, mute objects that cannot testify to their heritage.

As the night drew to a close, Borbas and Akmadzic got up and started drawing slips out of a box for a promotional giveaway, with prizes like spa days and gift certificates for sports betting shops. Standing off to the side, swaying slightly, was Ivan, a lanky 20-year-old policeman with a wispy goatee. He had been dancing all night with a male friend. “I come here to relax,” he explained. “I like this music. Also, I like American country music.” He grinned, and then looked at Akmadzic wistfully. “They have the best girls here.”

After the draw, a lineup of young women formed in front of Akmadzic. They waited patiently for their turn to stand with her while a friend took a photo with a cellphone or small digicam. Others simply snapped photos of Akmadzic herself. These will be taken home and sent around or uploaded to MySpace and Facebook, talismans of their brush with something above the ordinary.

A version of this article appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2008 issue of Bad Idea magazine.

G

**Matthieu Aikins**’s foreign reporting has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Walrus, and other magazines. He splits his time between New York and Kabul. You can follow him on Twitter: @mattaikins.

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