There's something comfortingly familiar about the Balkans when you're someone Lebanese who was brought up in Europe. It's just in that uncanny valley of neither quite Mediterranean enough, nor quite European enough. Which is why I think I'm so interested in the region, and have formed so many friendships with people from the area. Traveling to Zagreb, Sibenik, Zlarin, Split, Belgrade, Novi Sad and Sarajevo, I came across some really brilliant culture, and this list is by no means exhaustive. Consider it an invitation to dig into one of Europe's richest cultural environments.
(Note: although I've divided up the list by country, the relationships between them is often complex as you can imagine, with many people being born in one, growing up in another and living in yet another.)
The Bambi Molesters (Croatia)
Croatia’s answer to Dick Dale, The Bambi Molesters are a surf-rock band from Sisak, about 60 kilometers south of Zagreb. Since their formation in 1995, they have taken part in the revival of the 1960s surf genre and continue to contribute to its survival and further development with their music. They perform all over Europe, and supported REM on tour. Their track Chaotica, a cut off their third album Sonic Bullets: 13 from the Hip, was featured in Breaking Bad (Season 5). It's a mystery how a Croatian Surf Rock band hasn't ended up on a Tarantino soundtrack yet. Hateful Eight maybe?
The films of Danis Tanovic (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Tanovic is best known for having directed and written the script for the 2001 Bosnian film No Man's Land, which won him the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. His critically acclaimed work means that his name regularly pops up as one of the most respected Bosnian filmmakers of the last few decades. In 2008, he established Nasa Stranka, a secular grassroots political party, aiming to break the dominance of nationalist parties in the political system. If you’re interested in them, keep an eye on Sabina Cudic (who happens to be a friend), who is a rising political star in Sarajevo.
The Box by Slavoljub Stankovic (Serbia)
Sadly, foreign-language translation of contemporary Serbian fiction can be very hard to find, for semi-obvious economic reasons: there doesn't appear to be a market for them. Of course you could argue it's very hard to create that market if no one translates the damn things, but that's another discussion. One Belgrade-based publisher, Geopeotika, has created a series called Serbian Prose in Translation, aiming to bring some influential contemporary titles to a wider audience. My favorite of the bunch is The Box by Slavoljub Stankovic. Filled with references to nineties pop culture - and a heavy helping sardonic humor - The Box traces the transformation of Belgrade into a ghetto and the desires of three young men who work as movers, packing up the lives of those lucky enough - in this case diplomats - to get out of the city. The story follows their frustrations at being stuck as they help others to leave.
Jarboli have been around in Belgrade since the 90s, and have dabbled in everything from post-punk, to art rock and neo-psychadelia, so there's a great cross-section of stuff to look for on YouTube. The video below (and some of their other videos) were made a very talented group of people I was actually very lucky to meet in Belgrade (who were involved with the EXIT Festival and SHARE Conference, both of which you should also check out).
Vaçe Zela (Albania)
Zela, who passed away last year, was a legendary Albanian singer and chansonnière. She began her career at a young age – she was only ten years old when she began to sing folk songs from the Myzeqe region – and in 1962 was the first to win the Albanian Song Festival (Festivali i Këngës). An 11-time winner of the festival, Vaçe gained fame during the communist era and was awarded the Merited Artist of Albania prize in 1973 and the People's Artist of Albania prize in 1977.
Thanks to Andrija Kovac and Rajko Bozic for the help making sure this list made some sense.