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Popular Folk Music Strikes a Bad Chord among Serb Leaders

Article excerpt

IN a recent sell-out concert, a helicopter lowers Serbian folk music icon Lepa Brena onto an outdoor stage in the center of Belgrade. Thousands of fans, their enthusiasm undimmed by steady drizzle and blustery winds, chant the star's name as she warbles her opening number.

Throughout Serbia, folk gigs eclipse top football games as crowd-pulling spectacles. Leading performers such as Lepa, Dragana, and Ceca have become feted celebrities. Television and radio stations play their latest hits virtually around-the-clock. "Folkotheques" are fast replacing discotheques in many towns.

The authorities initially encouraged this rather kitsch, some would say trashy, musical genre - a blend of hip-hop, techno-rhythms, and oriental-sounding lilts - to foster nationalism and then to sedate the war-weary population. But chauvinistic dirges have given way to dismal love songs and vapid nonsense.

Driven by mafia money and rapacious demand, the folk wave has reached tidal proportions, swamping other forms of music and culture to the consternation of liberals, the more enlightened members of the ruling Socialist Party and, most notably, Mirjana Markovic, the highly influential wife of president Slobodan Milosevic. Ms. Markovic has repeatedly denounced the musical phenomenon as an "invasion of primitivism" that must be stopped, which, some observers believe, has prompted the authorities to take up her battle cry.

The new Serbian culture minister, Nada Popovic-Perisic, a literature professor, announced last month that she intends to break the folk hold. In her office, decorated with elegant fin de siecle Serbian furniture and contemporary art, Mrs. …