Sunday, March 21, 2010

Friday Night Clubbing in Zagreb

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
The top day of the week to catch a 7:50 AM train to Split is Saturday, because on Friday night you can party in Zagreb's clubs until 5 AM the morning of departure. Sunday is good, too.

On Friday night I had hoped to meet up with Tena Vodopija and Domino Effect Band. They had performed at Saloon on Thursday night. We had talked tentatively about a rendez-vous at Maraschino, but had not set a time. So I got to Maraschino a little early (10 PM) thinking it was a bar and that we'd all go from there to Saloon at midnight. As it turns out, Maraschino is more of a club, and it was pretty dead at 10 PM.

My fruitless hunt for my Friday night clubbing guides allowed me to discover that Maraschino has a small bar at street level, where green and red laser lights drift across all the surfaces in the room like phosphorescent plankton in the deep sea; a lounge area above that; and a dance club in the basement.

I moved to the basement dancefloor level about the time the music switched from house (the classic Salif Kieta track "Madan" [Martin Solveig mix] being one choon played) to retro Motown and 70's funk (e.g., "You Can't Hurry Love"), with perhaps some newer songs offered that fit into the sonic architecture. The place filled up quickly. The funky music was well-complimented by the movie Hell Up in Harlem showing on the TV hanging over the bar. How do Croatians know about obscure American blaxploitation flicks?

I embarrassed myself in a case of mistaken identity. It turns out that, to a clueless American, many Croatian women look alike, and one I thought was Tena was in fact a totally different person who made it absolutely clear how unamused she was by my error.

Random observation: Croations are quite tall, and size does matter. For example, if you are a tall Croatian bartender, it is much easier to lean across the bar to kiss your girlfriend than it is if you are short.

Some American cry-baby boys showed up at the bar cry-babying about the cost of beer. One had an Indiana driver's license. That's all I know about them.

As talented as the DJ was, his retro sound was not for me; I wanted to hear new tunes. So I decided to return to last night's spot, Saloon, which I had been promised would feature plenty of dancefloor action.

As I strolled to Saloon, it was impossible to ignore the three drunk kids staggering down the street while the tallest one hoarsely sang the same four syllables over and over again. It was irritating. I hoped they weren't headed for Saloon, but as it turned out they were.

Saloon's DJs began the night by focusing on the greatest hits of Eurotrash. It was pretty terrific, because hey, fun tunes; but also mildly disappointing, since I knew all the songs already. If anybody reading this remembers the Eurotrash parties I used to throw, many of the songs I spun then were exhumed here, including Mad'House's "Like a Prayer," Paul Johnson's "Get Down," Elvis's remixed "A Little Less Conversation," and Rednexx's "Cotton Eye Joe." There was some inspired mixing, including a good transition from Madonna's "Four Minutes" into Michael Jackon's "Billie Jean."

I finally saw Tena, so I gave her a hello and clinked beer glasses in acknowledgement of her good suggestion to return here. Then I went circulating about.

Lots of people were wearing stickers featuring a cartoon, little-boy version of "the Riddler" from the Batman comics. I asked one guy what that was about. He didn't seem to know. Then he threw an arm around me and in a booming voice said, "What is your name?"


"Andrew! And where are you from?"


"Andrew from America, what the FUCK are you doing in Croatia?"

"I'm rockin', man."

"Do you know anything about Croatian football?"


"This is a shame!"

"Is Croatia in the World Cup this year?"

The change of expression told me I had asked the wrong question.

"No," he said. "Because we were FUCKED by England!"

Then the DJs veered into pure, pounding Croatian-languge Eurodance. I could have cried with joy. This was what I had really wanted to experience: a full-on Croatian discotheque at its peak. The patrons went crazy, singing along in big booming choruses to songs like this fantastic remix of Bijelo Dugme's "Hajdemo u planine," and to tracks from artists like Rozga Jelena, Alika Vuica, Severina, and Magazin. I know this much because I ran up to people with notebook in hand requesting artists and song titles. "WHAT IS THIS SONG?" I wrote on the top of a page in my notebook to help them out, since the music was loud and written English might have been easier for the Croatians to process than shouted. Sometimes the people singing along to the tunes had no idea about the song's identity; they just knew the words by heart. It reminded me of folk music in that sense, an oral tradition of popular music passed down while the original songwriters remain anonymous.

Many tune IDs were lost, probably forever. But you cherish what information you are able to gather and the lost songs are forgotten.

Scenes from the club: A patron's tired push of a drained tumbler of ice and lemon rind back to the bartender to collect. A bottle of Jack in a bucket of ice shared by three guys who fished out the ice cubes to cool their drinks. A girl with her arm around a guy hitting the side of my head over and over again as she twirled her hand to the music—not a problem, until the hand held a lit cigarette, at which point I had to move.

On my way out I discovered another dancefloor showcasing typical house tracks, so I stopped in there and had another beer. At first, the DJ'ing seemed technically good but joyless, but later some colorful tunes, including the requisite David Guetta, entered the mix. A group of young women were dancing there as if in an aerobics class, with one leader facing four girls who mimed her moves. When the leader quit leading, I jumped in and took over, taking the girls through as many silly dance moves as possible, including the "Ketchup Dance," which my friend Michael will be pleased I still remember. Then I fell backwards onto the couch behind me, whereas there were no couches to catch them, so some pretended to fall and others just stood there laughing. Dumb nights are made of this.

Feeling refreshed by the more "normal" house sounds, I returned to the main, Croatian-heavy dancefloor, and hung out until 5 AM. I marveled over how early Atlanta's club scene shuts down and almost thought that was a shame, until I remembered that Atlanta's clubs are terrible and undeserving of being open until 5 AM.

I spoke to the bartenders, who were middle aged men, perhaps even a bit past middle age. Some of them had been students in Saloon themselves years ago. I asked them what the club was like back then, but I didn't get much out of them due to the language barrier. The club has been around since 1970 and they heard a lot of live rock music in it back in the days when they went there to party instead of work.

Lonely Planet, by the way, does not mention Saloon. One of my emerging theories about Lonely Planet is that it writes for a UK/US audience, which it assumes will want to experience night life more on terms with which they are already familiar. For example, clubs with great live alternative music, or jazz, or house music—music scenes with which young backpacker types are familiar—get promoted. Croatian pop-friendly venues, on the other hand, seem to have been excised. Turbo folk music in particular gets the usual condescending treatment in a special box titled "Brotherhood & Unity or Dumb & Dumber?"* And so Saloon, which flirts with some of that stuff, might have thus been cut from the final edit of the volume. That's just my theory.

I stumbled back to Nocturno Hostel. Some dummy had locked the door (he was not supposed to), so I buzzed to be let in, thus bringing out the bleary-eyed proprietor who then complained about the dummy's incompetence. She asked if I still needed a wake-up call for my 7:50 AM train to Split. I told her I'd be fine without one. She went back to sleep, I Skyped with Cristina for maybe an hour, and then I took a shower and headed to the train station in the bright light of day.

Maybe the best night of clubbing in my life.

* This rhetorical technique always angers me, the one where the author seemingly offers a positive perspective balanced with a negative one, but in fact the positive is really just a different kind of negative ("brotherhood" and "unity" are familiar jingostic terms--the sorts of words used today by nationalistic skinheads and associated with statues of Lenin [the term is plucked from a Tito slogan]--and thus they ring sinisterly in the ears of the British and American hippie backpackers who reference Lonely Planet). A fairer title for the piece would have been, "Techno-fied Celebration of Traditional Balkan Culture or Dangerous Vehicle for Nationalism?" It's clunkier, but it's also truly balanced and more accurately captures the essence of the music.

1 comment:

  1. Hello!

    I see you are still enjoying your Europe :))) We meet briefly in Kyiv, remember? I wonder if you would like to write something about you travels and / or site at I would appreciate that a lot!

    take care and drink too many beers ;)

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    Sophie Engström