The Rave-olution: How Dance Music is Destroying Divisions in Albania, Serbia and Georgia

The Rave-olution: How Dance Music is Destroying Divisions in Albania, Serbia and Georgia

One writer explores how the unifying power of dance music is helping countries like Albania, Serbia and Georgia rid itself of the shackles of the past.

The article first appears in Vol. 31: Freedom.

it’s 5 o’clock in the morning. The night has just swung
past in a glorious, euphoric haze. I’m surrounded by a blaze of
jubilant faces spanning every corner of Europe, their smiles
illuminated by a dusty-pink sky still speckled with the occasional
sparkle. Beyond, mountain ridgelines emerge from the darkness and
in a bid to solidify the singularity of this moment, the DJ throws
on Bill Withers’ Lovely Day. Just as planned, hands begin to float
though the salty sea air and then, in a sign of true celestial
perfection, dolphins appear on the horizon. It’s so sublime it
doesn’t feel real and yet here we all are, united on a dance floor,
staring open-mouthed into the distance.

This implausibly idyllic scene unravelled last summer in Dhërmi,
a picturesque seaside town in south-west Albania. For
the past two years, this stretch of coastline has been the home of
Kala, an
electronic music festival that combines blissful beats, bucketfuls
of sunshine and a community of free spirits, which may not sound
like an especially unique formula given the world’s proliferation
of music festivals, but has real significance considering that this
‘s first-ever foray into the scene. As a result of
communist rule and the significant economic downturn that followed,
10 years ago it simply wouldn’t have been possible.

This shift in part stems from the country’s desires to rid
itself of the shackles of the past – tourism has recently leapt to
the top of the government agenda, for instance (in Kala’s inaugural
year, prime minister Edi Rama gave out free beers on the beach) –
but more than that, it’s a rousing testament to the unifying power
of dance music. Here is a relatively unexplored country, closed off
for so long from foreign tourists, that’s now witnessing an influx
of dance-music fans to its pristine shores. The government admits
that its efforts alone could never have reached such a large
audience and so thanks is extended to the team behind Kala, a group
of people with exceptional record collections (not to mention a
hefty dollop of determination).

For many locals, this push for recognition is long overdue. “The
isolation that this country has been through has, let’s say, made
us dream of the Western world,” explains Alina Starova, head of
marketing at the Albania National Tourism Agency. “Now that
foreigners are able to come and see what Albania is about, it
presents a brilliant opportunity for us to finally be able to touch
the rest of the world.” The hope is that with each new visitor
comes the opportunity to re-educate, so that eventually Albania
shakes off the damaging reputation that’s been cultivated by
various media sources and movies, and emerges as the unpolished but
soon-to-be sparkling gem it really is.

Though dance music isn’t necessarily consciously political, the act of being involved is its own natural rebellion. There’s often an element of radicalism in dance music, and that can be a catalyst for change.

Bill Brewster, DJ and writer

It’s no coincidence that electronic music lies at the core of
this surge for change. Historically, the genre has always provided
an outlet against oppression, both on and off the dance floor. The
pulsating, four-to-the- floor beats of disco became the soundtrack
for the suppressed black, Hispanic and LGBTQ
communities of 1970s New York, for example, while acid house was
adopted as the sound of working-class Brits in response to the
austerity caused by 1980s Thatcherism. “Though dance music isn’t
necessarily consciously political, the act of being involved is its
own natural rebellion,” says DJ and writer Bill Brewster. “There’s
often an element of radicalism in dance music, and that can be a
catalyst for change.”

Evidence of this is palpable a few hundred kilometres away in
the Serbian capital of Belgrade, where Ottoman relics juxtapose
imposing Soviet tower blocks and the Sava and Danube rivers
intertwine in an embrace. Back in the 1990s, it was a city battered
and bruised by years of war and oppression at the hands of the
Milošević regime and hope was hard to come by.

“We lived in complete isolation,” explains EXIT festival
founder Dušan Kovačević. “We couldn’t travel anywhere and there was
barely any food on our tables – we wanted to scream from the top of
our lungs for this madness to stop.”

There were few ways to escape, but electronic music provided a
conduit in which collective frustration could be channelled. “Dance
music was of huge importance during the war,” affirms DJ and visual
artist Johana. “It was a time when the rave scene was booming.
Techno culture managed to take a stand against a horrible reality
and those parties were empowering for youth – it gave them strength
to survive those times.” Around a decade later in 2000, EXIT
festival was conceived. A movement that mobilised thousands of
students and activists under the umbrella of music, it culminated
in peaceful revolution that eventually overthrew the regime. It’s
now Serbia’s biggest cultural export, taking place in the town of

Novi Sad
each year. “Music lets you escape into your own world,
but it also helps you connect with others,” adds Kovačević. “That’s
why we love to connect with artists who understand that music is
one of the best tools for spreading a message of positive social

Music can help us to creatively articulate what we’re feeling, longing for, hoping for and even criticising. It can bring people together in ways that other things can’t.”

Johana, DJ and visual artist

Today, Belgrade bustles after dark and boasts a slew of
innovative, internationally famed music spaces like boat venue
and the vast, cavernous expanse of Drugstore. Widely
considered at the forefront of the European nightlife scene, it’s a
hub where the biggest names in dance music and local artists
collaborate in the creation of a safe space to rave. “Music can
help us to creatively articulate what we’re feeling, longing for,
hoping for and even criticising,” Johana concludes. “It can bring
people together in ways that other things can’t.”

Across the Black Sea in Tbilisi,
this mantra is repeated verbatim. Located in a valley that’s
flanked by narrow, winding streets woven among distinctive red
rooftops, the Georgian capital is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city
that’s forged one of the most revered dance music scenes in the
world. At the heart of this is Bassiani, a techno behemoth often
likened in spirit (and sexual liberation) to Berlin‘s Berghain,
but with its own more politically charged biography. It was here
back in 2018 that police stormed the dance floor and made 60
drug-related arrests, a publicly refuted action that sparked
widespread protests across the city.

The so-called #raveolution became an ideological battle between
a largely conservative, Christian majority and the younger and more
progressive generation that favours more relaxed drug laws and
welcomes the marginalised members of society often sidelined by the
status quo.

Consequently, the dance floors of Tbilisi are some of the most
inclusive in the world – clubs like Bassiani, KHIDI and MTKVARZE offer spaces
where solace can be sought and transcendental bonds can be fused;
somewhere ideas, bodies and souls coalesce. Together they’re
spearheading the city’s future, and there’s no doubt it looks
fresher and more vital than ever.

As dance music scenes around the globe evolve, their capacity to
bind us is continually reinforced and we’re reminded time and again
of their ability to profoundly shape us all on personal, societal
and cultural levels.

“That moment when the sun starts to go down and day becomes
night,” Kovačević muses. “When nobody cares if you are rich or
poor, what nation or religion you are from, where you went to
school, and what you did or didn’t do: all that becomes lifted from
you. It’s in that moment that the feeling of unity overwhelms.”
Because on the dance floor, there are no divisions.

Discover More
Nine of Albania’s Most Beautiful Small Towns and Villages