Dortjol Festival

Belgrade’s Dortjol Festival – an unforgettable musical journey

by Maria Flip

Dortjol Festival takes place in Belgrade, Serbia. An event of diverse styles of jazz, ethno and classical music presented by world-renowned artists from Serbia, Georgia, Greece, Germany, Italy, Spain, New Zealand and Portugal.

By Maria Filippou

Part Two (Go here for part one)

I got to meet the other two masterminds behind this otherworldly festival: Yamasaki Vukelic and Dragana Perovanovic.

Over a bowl of hot chicken soup, I asked Dragana what were her thoughts on the broad reach of Balkan music, beyond the geographic boundaries of the Balkan Peninsula.

“It is very hard to define what Balkan music is, although one could easily recognize its rhythm, groove and mood. It’s definitely a mix of local musical patterns and musical influences that came from many sides and cultures, West and East. The Balkans have a very dynamic history, they inherited the traditions of many different cultures, lifestyles, ideas, and religions and that reflects in music,” she explained.

“We can recognize parts of Central European, Turkish and near east music idioms, Orthodox and Islamic music tradition, Jewish and Gypsy specifics, among many others,” she added. 

Slightly tipsy and very excited by the conversations, I embarked on a journey to the next venue: The Museum of Science and Technology.

Dortjol Festival
Museum of Science and Technology

I walked alone for a while in the misty night and was found a while later in the warm atmosphere of the museum. On the second floor I encountered a wonderland of technological history; a spacious and very modern place. Musical instruments, telephone consoles, microscopes, even a very old dive boat. The stage was set in front of a beautiful pipe organ –the only one existing in Belgrade. The lights dimmed and Saki did the honours of a brief introduction to the concerts. Hayden Chisholm, his saxophone and his shruti box (an instrument originating from the Indian subcontinent) entered the stage and for half an hour time ceased to exist. A transcending phonic voyage of a man and his two instruments.

Gradually the concert space was full and the museum manager was adding more chairs for the newcomers. Following a brief intermission, Federico Pascucci on saxophone, Pedja Milatinovic on drums, Milan Nikolic on double bass and Hayden Chisholm on alto saxophone took the stage on an attempt to transform a series of songs from The Balkan Songbook. Familiar melodies -at least for the natives- were morphed into a divergent sound that invited us to even sing along. I observed the people’s faces, melancholic and excited with every new note that drew from their heritage. It was obvious that they murmured the melodies or lyrics and were ready to sing whenever they could feel comfortable. I felt my eyes fill up, but Pascucci’s solo and the entrance of Victor Wolf and Bastian Duncker on saxophones snapped me out of my head.

I remained seated for a while after the concert, watching the musicians wrap up and the audience scattering in the room and moving towards the exit and it felt as a mystical experience had just concluded. I followed the musicians outside and together we walked to the next venue. The last concert of the festival was about to begin in the Sweet House on The River and rumor had it that the afterparty was going to be wild. But for the time being, we just walked through misty Belgrade singing gospels and giggling around at the castle.

Dortjol Festival
Program Map

We reached our destination just in time to grab a drink before the concert started. On the boat terrace while sipping some wine and smoking some Davidoff’s I was introduced to Dubie Bacino, the fourth mastermind behind Dortjol Festival. Coming from a digital marketing and PR background she is a valuable member of the team and was more than happy to share her stories with me.

When I asked her how do all these people from all over the world find themselves connected under the Balkan tunes, she disarmingly replied: “In the end boys and girls just want to have fun. There is a deeper meaning to be found in making it possible for people of different cultures and backgrounds to come together in their shared appreciation of music”.
And with these thoughts in my head I was lured inside the boat by the sound of bagpipes. 

The experiences I had in this festival exceeded my expectations and extended my musical and cultural horizons. Taro Kadooka’s set was one of these experiences, reaffirming that there are no boundaries when it comes to art. Seeing a Japanese musician playing the Serbian bagpipe (Gajda) left me speechless. I was mesmerised by the ease of his movements and started observing him play, when I realised that the bagpipe was modified and an air pump was connected to the sack of the instrument. A moment later I understood why, when he started singing as well. A beautiful melody accompanied by a steady voice. The audience was thrilled and so was I.

The crowd was gathering and tension was building up, so I slowly moved to the back of the boat listening to the tunes and enjoying some local wine. Backstage, The Agios Lavrentios Brass Band was preparing for the commence of the fiesta. The night was still and the view of the Danube from the back of the boat was outstanding. I made myself comfortable and waited for the launch. While I was sitting there, I got to meet Vanja Stonjov, a member of the other band playing: The D.K. Heroes. He didn’t speak any English but we managed to communicate in Italian, exchanging kind words and drinking shots backstage. Hayden briefly explained the lineup: a collective of gypsy musicians hailing from Dorćol, featuring the local violin legend Paganini. The group consists of the first-call Kafana and wedding musicians in the city and himself. 

I was about to witness the revelation that the Balkan party is. Zelko “Paganini” Stefanović on violin, Vania Stojnov on guitar, Miroslav Mitrović on keyboards and Hayden Chisholm on saxophone, and a group of fanatic listeners. A pagan experience of skilled musical execution and extraordinary sound. Later on, The Agios Lavrentios Brass Band joined the band and the boat was blasting off. We danced and danced and danced and the tunes kept on going and the musicians mingled together and there was only one band: all of us.

“Playing music beyond one specific genre transcends freedom, honesty, and love through the music, which brings the audience to ecstatic levels. At our festival, musicians often play, not on stages but among audiences, which makes it feel as a creative collective in the moment. That is something precious for all -for the musicians, for the audience- to be connected with pure joy.” That is what Dragana shared with me the next evening in our Airbnb dining room. The night was cold and the few people that didn’t leave early in the morning were resting in the shared living space, while listening to some more music and bonding over mutual harmonies and shared interests.

The way back to Athens the next morning was long and our experiences had some time to sink in before getting back to reality. It’s already been a few months now since our road trip to Belgrade and I can still grasp the sensations aroused by my residence at the Dortjol Festival. Sweet tunes and new friends and a complete hope that the world is not only war and dispute. People still meet, commute and share. Humans who try to find common ground and fight against what divides us. The outcome is simply sublime.



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