Switzerland and the Balkans

When it comes to music from the Balkans, most of the concert organisers, music journalists and audiences in Switzerland ask for musical «diversity». They select certain musicians and ensembles, which they believe to be traditional. Or they jump on the latest trends in club culture, and book DJ’s and producers who melt electronic beats with «traditional» Balkan melodies and instruments. The losers are – as elsewhere in the world of music - the musicians and composers who try to create more complex, contemporary, well developed musical languages. And: The musicians who do not know how to sell themselves, how to network successfully, how to contact foreign arts councils.

However, many examples show that there are changes, and new possibilities. There are more and more personal, small and independent links and networks between Switzerland and the Balkans. And: There are more and more music producers, concert organisers, music journalists and international arts councils who are interested in «Urban Music» and «Avantgarde Music» in the still so-called «peripheries» of the world. More and more people believe, that new, fresh and vibrant music is no longer coming from the UK, the US, Berlin or Paris exclusively, but more and more from urban spaces in China, India, Africa, the Middle East, and maybe the Balkans. I hope and somehow believe that the musicians and composers in these «peripheries» could or might become tomorrow’s first experts in discussing the processes of localisation and globalisation on a musical and artistic level.

Does this sound like utopia? I don’t think so. But I see that there are a lot of obstacles that we – or the musicians – have to cross first.

Let me first pinpoint some of the major obstacles we are dealing with today. I’m going to speak out of my own experiences as an ethnomusicologist, freelance music journalist and board member of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia. Working as a journalist and for an arts council means that I have to make choices and judgements – sometimes this is rather delicate. Which music should be supported? Which music not?

Whenever I want to sell an article about independent music in foreign countries to German speaking newspapers and world music magazines, the editors of these papers often ask me two questions: Do these musicians have a label or distribution deal in Switzerland or Germany? And, are these artists going to give concerts in our region any time soon? Whenever my answers are «no», it’s much more difficult to sell the article – especially in the case of «world music magazines» who finance themselves partly through adds from the world music industry. It helps a lot for selling the article when the country I visited is in a war or in a transition period, and if the musicians I focus on are engaged in political and social processes. But music for music, art for art – very difficult to create an interest for. To put it short: It’s either the music market or world politics that decide what we consider as interesting and worth writing about. A musician without a label neither gets media coverage nor a tour agent; a concert organiser in Switzerland however can’t afford the risk to book an artist without media coverage, and he quite often has no time to organise a tour for not well-known artists in order to split costs between different organisers. And: He quite often does not have the time to search online for new artists lets say from the Balkans. So, at the end of the day, it’s the market and not the music that decides which musicians cross from the Balkans to Switzerland. We mainly get light versions of Gypsy-Music for the World Music market; and musicians like Goran Bregovic who are very clever in fusing popular music with Balkan flavours and know how to market it; and new trends like «Bucovina Club» who fuse Electronic beats with – again – Balkan flavours – old stereotypes in a new look.

So Where Does my Optimism Come from?

1) There is a new generation of curators, ethnomusicologists and music journalists coming up – my generation, if I may say so. We do not believe in the concepts of «West» versus «East». We want to discover places in their diversities. And we are interested in the critical and the experimental voices from these places.

2) More and More musicians with foreign roots in London, Paris, Zurich, Geneva, Bern or Basel start experimenting with musical forms from their or their parents’ home countries. It’s becoming more and more chick to be «modern» and «local» at the same time. And some of the experiments go deep.

3) Today’s musicians are able to produce their music for a small amount of money by themselves. They can reach new audiences through clever networking via Internet.

4) As I said: The often so-called «alternative» music scenes in Europe and the US are searching for new styles, combinations and trends. And they are more and more looking towards new places. There is for instance a growing interest for new sounds from Beirut, where I’ve been working for almost two years now: Free experimental Music, Rap, electro-acoustic experiments, Musique Concrète, Jazz, etc.

Musicians of Balkan Origin in Switzerland

Let me introduce you now to some musicians of Balkan origin in Switzerland, and let me show you how these musicians try to connect and network with musicians and music circles in the Balkans. I’m going to focus on new «Urban Music» and «Contemporary Art Music». – This does no mean that I exclude «traditional» music making from my thinking, as some people quite often assume too fast. Even if as a music lover I’m critical about many new developments in music, I still think it is important to discover the work of new generations of musicians and composers and not to put them into the category «Westernized» too fast.

Urban Music

In 2006 I compiled the CD «Sounds from Home – La Suisse Internationale» with urban music from artists of second or third migrant generation. The musical results are very promising. On the CD one finds three musicians with roots in the Balkan: Mario Batkovic, a highly talented Accordion player of Croatian origin. And the rappers LUL DxE and «Milchmaa» – «Milk man». LUL DxE’s is of Kosovo-Albanian origin. He raps in Swiss dialect and occasionally in Albanian about social issues, problems of integration and racism. He is also very critical about people from his own home country. The other rapper – «Milchmaa» – alias Goran Vulovic raps about his experience as a Swiss with Serbian roots. He attacks prejudices from both his Swiss and his Balkan friends towards each other in a very ironic and sarcastic way. Both rappers neither feel completely at home in their Swiss nor in their Kosovo-Albanian and Serbian environment. They search a more personal identity in between – we see that in their lyrics and in their sounds; «Milchmaa» plays with stereotypical Balkan sounds and contrasts them with very up-to-date and sometimes controversial lyrics. The two rappers have succeeded in getting access to the small Swiss market. The media coverage of LUL DxE is quite impressive – to download his file took me half an hour in Beirut. LUL DxE received prizes by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia.

Contemporary Art Music

Highly active in the field of contemporary art music is the flutist Boris Previsic (see also his articles on He is a co-founder and member of the small Swiss organisation and music ensemble «Pre Art» that is active largely in South-eastern Europe – the ensemble played for example at the Biennale Zagreb. In 2001 Previsic founded SONEMUS, the Society of New Music Sarajevo. With its ensemble he played in many places in the Balkans. A year ago Previsic started a competition for young composers in the region. The idea is to find evolving talents below thirty and to start promoting their works in an international context.

Musicians and composers like Lul DxE, Milchmaa, Boris Previsic and many others are responsible (with other factors) the we find today in Switzerland quite a lot of different programs and initiatives dealing with musicians of foreign origins or roots. Pro Helvetia started the long-term program SWIXX that deals with the «new» Swiss culture. A specialised organisation called «Culture and development» helps artists with foreign roots in Switzerland to set up links with organisers. And the organisation «Swiss Music Export» aims to promote artists with foreign roots within Europe – this year also at the World Music Expo WOMEX.

Nevertheless, the goal to create more possibilities for musicians outside of Switzerland is still difficult to achieve.

Boris Previsic says that his biggest problem was and still is to get in contact and into collaboration with the institutions of contemporary music in the major cities of the Balkans, especially Zagreb and Belgrade. And the two rappers, LUL DxE and Milchmaa, say that their networking with the local scenes especially in Kosovo and Serbia is still in early stages. Milchmaa says that he needs someone to help him set up contacts. Information is spread and received via email and Internet forums like,, but the real contacts on the ground are still difficult to achieve. It’s about: Finding the other artists, finding an organiser, and finding funding.

Successful Networking

Successful networking needs structures and funding possibilities; a musician can’t achieve everything by himself, he has to earn his living, and he can’t just try to get new contacts in other places, hoping to create maybe a project. The work of all the cultural and arts institutions in the countries of the Balkan is therefore crucial.

Switzerland is active in the Balkans through The Swiss Cultural Programme South-East Europe and Ukraine called SCP – a joint initiative of the Arts Council of Switzerland Pro Helvetia and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The SCP encompasses Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia & Montenegro, Kosovo and the Ukraine. The SCP focuses mainly on capacity building and institutional development processes of cultural organizations – at the moment it is running 15 long-term projects, each with a budget of approximately 200’000 Euros. Next to that SCP supports small projects and initiatives.


One of the most important projects concerning music is the CD label Gramofon that was founded in 2003 by the organizers of the Jazz Fest Sarajevo. After the publication of some first CDs they wanted to build up a label with a regular production and larger distribution, thus giving young musicians from the region a chance to present their work. The discography focuses on Jazz and Pop, but also on traditional singers and musicians in order to document the slowly vanishing Bosnian music heritage. In a third production line, Gramofon publishes contemporary classical music in cooperation with the ensemble Sonemus. The project also includes capacity building for the staff in label management, production planning and distribution in order to permit the label to establish itself successfully on the international music market as well as on the still weak music market in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Gramofon is also working as a concert-agency. «The next step of Gramofon will be to work on a good back catalogue and then trying to promote the musicians and groups in Europe», says Patrik Landolt from the Swiss record label Intakt Records, partner of Gramofon.

Obstacles to Overcome

We heard about new musicians in Switzerland and new agents of culture, who try to create new networks. And we heard about capacity building projects in the Balkans. Nevertheless, there are still major obstacles in the way, before artists from the Balkans and from Switzerland can really connect and cross.

There are three major points I have in mind; three possible solutions that are maybe difficult to achieve, but that I’d like to mention anyway.

1) It is still difficult for artists, organisers and labels in Switzerland to find interesting counterparts in the Balkans. There is a lack of information especially on the Balkan side. Some artists’ websites are not enough – it’s not easy to find them. What we need are bigger, cross-regional platforms about «Subcultural Sounds from the Balkans» or «Contemporary Music from the Balkans». These platforms would have links to different websites of musicians, organisations and institutions. Thanks to good platforms organisers, journalists, labels would find out more about music in the Balkans. – It’s a big work, I know. Maybe the different arts councils on the ground and the local cultural scenes should try to set it up (or try to connect the already existing platforms in the region) and finance it together.

2) The budgets of the international arts councils are limited. They can’t provide everything. Therefore it is very important that the cultural circles in the Balkan try to come together and discuss what is really needed for a lively music culture – from musical heritage to contemporary music projects. It’s not enough just to complain that arts councils may be funding the wrong projects. It’s about sitting together, discussing possibilities and trying to involve the different arts councils in constructive processes. All the actors together should set up a valuable cultural agenda – not each actor by itself.

3) Highly important on the long term is that all the actors in the cultural field work together in convincing their national, regional and local governments that arts and culture are key factors also for social and economic prosperity. The goal would be that more state institutions start to fund more cultural projects, but this time not in order to control and define them or to use them as a form of propaganda.– This is one key point that would change a lot: As you all know, whenever an artist gets invited to a festival abroad, his trip and sometimes even his concert fee is paid by arts institutions from his own country. Without this help the festival organiser quite often can’t take the risk to invite the artist. It’s simple as that.

The Role of Ethnomusicology within these Processes

I accept that a lot of people are afraid of the globalization of music styles and argue that musical diversity on this planet is endangered. But I believe that we should be very careful in hearing music and hearing musicians. Every musician’s music is the result of complex interactions between himself, his social environment, the music and concert industries, audio technology, the media, his audience, maybe censorship and many other factors. I see it as a must for ethnomusicology to analyse and discuss these interactions deeply and maybe help to steer the debate on what «global» or «local» music really is also outside the academic field. In my PHD research in Beirut I try to show that «locality» is not necessarily something that one can localise at first hearing. Music that sounds local quite often just follows global formulas. Sometimes «locality» shows itself not on the level of sounds and melodies, but in the way a musician is playing, the way he is hearing music, the way he works with silences, and so on.

Out of these discussions ethnomusicology could help to locate and spread the knowledge about musicians who are able to create strong, surprising and/or personal musical statements within the local and global worlds they are living and working in. Whether these musicians are working with old traditions or new experiments should not be the first criteria for choosing them.

If we manage to get these strong personalities supported by arts institutions and/or have them invited to foreign countries, we do not have to be afraid that the diversity of music cultures will disappear. These artists will create a more surprising, more challenging, but also a more beautiful musical diversity than the standardized music that all too often floats into Switzerland from the Balkans, from the Middle East, from Africa or from Latin America.

Published on June 03, 2006

Last updated on January 16, 2020


Thomas Burkhalter is an ethnomusicologist and cultural producer from Switzerland. He is the founder and director of Norient – Performing Music Research (, and artistic director of the Norient Film Festival. Recent main projects include the documentary film «Contradict» (2019), the AV/theatre/dance performance «Clash of Gods» (2018), and the re-launch of Norient (2019). He published the book «Local Music Scenes and Globalization: Transnational Platforms in Beirut» (Routledge), and co-edited «The Arab Avant Garde: Musical Innovation in the Middle East» (Wesleyan University Press).
All Topics