Dortjol Festival

A road trip to Belgrade’s Dortjol Festival

by Maria Flip

Dortjol Festival is a mixed music genre festival, where world artists from eight countries together with artists from Serbia cross genres of jazz, ethno and classical music. The Dortjol Festival, with its cultural exchange program, musical performances and educational programs, is the embodiment of intercultural and international harmony.

By Maria Filippou

The moment I set my foot out of the apartment an overwhelming storm stroke. The dawn didn’t even get a chance to break, thunders and waterfalls showered the overall warm morning. Taking advantage of the opportunity created by the extreme weather, we packed the equipment and ourselves meticulously for two more hours, while drinking coffee and ticking checklists. Around 07:30 the rain had ceased; the car was ready and the 13-hour drive to Belgrade began. Final destination Dorćol.

We rode by the rain and in two and a half hours we reached our first pit stop, Almiros. The rain had passed through the valley of Thessaly, but the asphalt was already dry and the temperature was rising. The drive through the Athinon-Lamias highway was smooth and nature was blooming in autumn colours.

We passed Thessaloniki around 12:00 and followed the rugged throughway to the border with North Macedonia. The rain seemed to be following us while the sun was glistening ahead of us. The Mini Cooper I was driving was pure delight and gliding through North Macedonia was an out of body experience. The highway is situated between the West Vardar/Pelagoniamountain range and the Osogovo-Belasica mountain chain. The majestic scenery between the mountains was breathtaking. The national road was great and there were barely any cars on the way to Skopje.

Every dozens of kilometers’ rivers and streams interrupted the alpine panorama, while the golden and brown surroundings had left us dumbfounded. It was about 14:00 when we passed Skopje and in about 40 minutes, we reached the Serbian border. Although passing from Greece to North Macedonia was fast and with no particular hustle, when we reached the Serbian checkpoints, under a gray sky –still driving away from a storm that never got us, the lines in passport control were long and it took us 20 minutes to reach the counter.

The police officer inspected us, looking at the passports, looking at the car, looking at the trunk, and insisted on asking us whether we carried any drugs or marijuana. The whole process lasted for about 10 minutes, while two other officers were checking our passports and the car, and we finally moved on to Serbian ground. The highway was in a significantly different state. The road was old and all of a sudden there were considerably more cars driving. The signs were sparse and didn’t display the kilometric distance to the capital. At some points, there were no signs at all designating our final destination, Belgrade.

The climate had changed radically and the long drive had frayed our enthusiasm. We had four and a half more hours to go and the entire Morava Valley ahead of us. The route was following the trail of the South and West Morava rivers, where their tributaries were intersecting with the highway and the water element was constantly felt in a distance. Serbian radio transmitted the Balkan spirit and the program varied from traditional folk songs to Serbian pop. It was our faithful companion for the last part of our journey.

As we approached the city the traffic augmented gradually while the city lights spread giving shape to the city of Belgrade. By the time we hit the downtown area, it was already pitch-dark and the fact that we didn’t have roaming on our phones gave us a hard time to locate Dorćol, which is a very central neighbourhood. A friendly couple was more than happy to create a hotspot for us to connect to and we found our way to the house that was booked for us for the night.

Finally, we made it to Despota Durda 11, one of Dortjol Festival’s sites. There we met my friend and mastermind behind this venture, Hayden Chisholm, who warmly welcomed us and provided us with shelter after what seemed like a never-ending drive. He poured us some rakija (Serbian plum snaps) and offered his own apartment for us to lie down for a bit. We had just a couple of hours to rest before hitting the last show of the day: The Agios Lavrentios Brass Band, playing at the Sweet House on the River next to the Nebojša tower.

Dortjol Festival
Hayden Chisholm, worldwide known saxophonist, composer and multi-instrumentalist.

After a hot shower and some Serbian pizza, we hit the road. The weather was sweet and the 20-minute walk to the river was splendid. We passed by the Belgrade Zoo, the Rosary Church (Crkva Ružica), the complex of the East Gate of the Lower Town, the gate of Charles VI. When we crossed Nebojša tower, we could already hear the sound of saxophones coming from the shore where the boat-hotel-bar-restaurant was docked.

Agios Lavrentios Brass Band: the world’s only brass band that does not include any brass instruments. The room was blasting when we got there and the crowd was dancing intensely. The set consisted of Balkan songs and New Orleans rhythms. Saxophones of all sorts and sizes and a strong rhythm section was setting the pace for the remaining festival. Familiar sounds of Romani tradition, along with gospel hymns and Balkan classics. The tunes were sprayed out through the night, following the curves of Danube. Rakija flowed and the party endured until the late hours. The dawn found us seeking shelter in our room, exhausted and happy.

The next morning the smell of cevapis (Serbian kebab) was tickling my nostrils and motivated me to overcome my hangover and get to the Kafana (traditional all-day java shop)right next door, to have the typical Serbian breakfast: coffee, cevapis and rakija. The morning was cloudy and carried the energy of exciting festivities. While enjoying the lazy afternoon I got to meet the other two masterminds behind this otherworldly festival: Yamasaki Vukelic and Dragana Perovanovic.

The musicians slowly gathered for the midday concert at the local cultural center. The young Nikola Tesla Ensemble GSP would be performing for us some traditional Serbian dances. The five-minute walk from the Kafana to the cultural center led me into a warm, quadrangle dance room with a wooden floor and a huge mirror. The young dancers were already warming up along with the band. Colourful costumes and shy smiles filled the room. And after a brief introduction by Saki (Yamasaki), parents, festival visitors and musicians started recording the joyful event. I found a bit of my own Greek heritage in the folk dances, full of jumps and upbeat movement. 45 minutes later we indolently moved back to the Kafana, where a photography exhibition had been setup in the car wash sharing the property.

As Hayden later shared with me, besides the Dortjol Festival, and other festival concerts that he had organised the last years, more than 50 concerts had already taken place in the Kafana, building a strong fanbase that follows the festival’s revelries. Dean Coady, an Irish photographer, and Belgrade resident, documented these concerts in black and white. His partner Luciana de los Andes Ramos curated the exhibition called KAFANA-My Smoky Destiny inside the carwash that co-exists with the otherworldly bar. A black and white panorama of the music scene of Belgrade paraded on the white tiles and yellow walls of the car wash. Following the opening which consisted of some live tunes by the fabulous Agios Lavrentios Brass Band, followed by a musically accompanied auction of the photographs, where people were buying pieces off the walls.

After some more rakija, Dragana (her name translates dear/loved one) and Saki explained to me the difference between the spelling of the district’s and the festival’s name. Apparently, the festival’s name derives directly from the original Turkish name Dortjol meaning crossroads. The fair is comprised by a wide variety of genres including jazz, classical, ethnic and gypsy, as well as traditional Serbian groups apace with the suburb of Dorćol, which traditionally was a neighbourhood of rich ethnic mix. When I asked them how they got involved in the organization of the festival, since both of them come from such different backgrounds -Yamasaki works for the Japanese Embassy in Belgrade, and Dragana is a freelance archaeologist- they both admitted that their shared love for music played a decisive role in their involvement with the project.

Dortjol Festival is a mixed-music-genre festival, held in Belgrade, Serbia, where world artists from eight countries gather once a year, will we see you there next year?


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