Though the medieval Kingdom of Serbia initially wavered between split and unified states under a succession of rulers who maintained varying relationships of convenience with the Byzantine Empire, the Catholic Church and neighboring kingdoms, it enjoyed a period of prosperity just prior to invasion by Ottoman Turks in the late 1300s. Despite more than 100 years of resistance by the Serbs, they were part of the Ottoman Empire by 1496. Around that time, the migration of Roma (Gypsies) from Rajasthan into the region had begun as well. By and large, it was that Ottoman/Gypsy duality that had the most profound effect on the development of Serbian music in the ensuing centuries.
The Ottomans brought Islam to Serbia in their 400-plus years of rule, accounting for the wailing, Arabic-inflected edge discernible in much Serbian music. More important, they brought the Turkish brass sound that began as military accompaniment but by the 19th century found a home in the pleasures of everyday Balkan life. Large brass bands are today a staple of the music scene in Serbia, so much so that the idea of a celebration (particularly a wedding) without one is a thought best not entertained. The much-acclaimed Boban Markovic Orkestar is Serbia's best known brass band internationally, though within the country there are countless such groups ready to get a party moving.
Gypsies and their lifestyle have, of course, been maligned and stereotyped to the point where it's difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. The Roma contributions to Serbian music are undeniable, though. Since their arrival, they've been the main purveyors and preservers of Serbia's folk traditions, composing, performing and passing along ballads and celebratory songs often reflective of their own persecution and plight but full of depth that non-Roma can empathize with as well. While Gypsies comprise many of Serbia's brass bands, their utilizing of guitar, violin, cimbalom (hammered dulcimer), Arabic percussion and other instruments has established pop and traditional realms that bypass brass and have made their music adaptable to fusions with jazz, rock and techno in the last few decades. Among Serbia's key Gypsy musicians is Saban Bajramovic, a prolific and influential singer who's wryly chronicled modern Roma and Balkan life through his own recordings and his collaborations with Bosnian band Mostar Sevdah Reunion. Other Gypsy notables include Earth-Wheel-Sky Band, who combine traditional instrumentation with deftly intricate arrangements, vocalist Vera Petrovic, who brings smoky jazz touches to her interpretations of folkloric songs, and violin virtuoso Felix Lajko.
Following the fragmentation of Yugoslavia that began in the early 1990s, the states of Serbia and Montenegro united as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. The years of rule under Slobodan Milosevic that came next were accompanied by the sounds of "turbofolk," a musical movement that combined Serbian folk with a pulsating electronic underpinning. The music became linked to the changing, troubled political climate regardless of content, a fact underscored in some measure by the popularity of Ceca Aleksic, a flamboyant, big-haired female turbofolk singer who married paramilitary leader Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic and lost none of her iconic status after his assassination.
An independent spirit that came to fruition with the ouster of Milosevic in 2000 resulted in the establishment of Serbia and Montenegro as a kind of two-in-one republic under a constitution that allowed for the possibility of complete independence for one or the otherwhich Montenegro took advantage of in 2006, peacefully voting to seperate itself from Serbia. Musically, the time since has seen further twists on tradition. One of present-day Serbia's most acclaimed performers is saxophonist and bandleader Boris Kovac, whose apocalyptically themed recent albums combine melancholic but melodic waltzes and tangos, borrowed global sounds and cheeky humor that suggests hope following impending doom.Tom Orr