Ventilator 202: Sizzling Synths in Yugoslavia’s Radio Waves

It is said that frustration, anger and despair often lead to interesting and expressive music and art. If one looks to the case of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the late 70s and 80s, one might conclude this is right. Economic decline, unemployment, rampant inflation and rising tensions certainly proved to be a fertile ground for experiments and exciting new directions in music.

During the 70s and 80s, Yugoslavia saw the rise of Novi Val (literally New Wave). As the name suggests, this genre can best be compared with the New Wave in the rest of Europe and North America. And like its counterparts elsewhere, the acts of Novi Val sounded gloomy, gritty and dark.

It would be too easy, however, to merely describe Novi Val as the music of a frustrated generation. Despite the gloom, the sense of frustration and anger that is often present in Novi Val, the genre combined these with a progressive and forward-looking push for wild and sometimes outrageous experiments. The seemingly odd combination between frustration, decline and a thrusting momentum for experiments led to an interesting mix of upbeat gloom, hollow synth scapes and angry, yet danceable funk. The 70s and 80s have been described – in terms of culture – as the “happiest decades of late socialism”.

Ventilator 202, a radioshow from a Belgrade-based radio station and its DJ Zoran Modli can be seen as the embodiment of progressive experiments, both in radio making and music. From 1979 until 1987 Modli dedicated his legendary show to the spread of experimental music, digital sounds and computer developments in Yugoslavia’s analog airwaves. Ventilator 202 released three compilation albums that contain some of the best Novi Val and experimental electronic music from Yugoslavia during the 80s (see below). When I discovered his contact details, I was eager to speak with Zoran Modli about his show and his role in the development of Novi Val in the socialist state.

After years as a radio amateur, Modli’s career took off in 1970 when he started at Belgrade’s Studio B. It’s Yugoslavia’s first “free radio station”.

“Wow! It was real free radio,” says Modli. “Complete improvisation, not a line of written text, a dynamic program and music selected by DJs or journalists right in front of the microphone, in direct contact with listeners.”

Although many countries southeast and east of Europe suffered censorship, Yugoslavia was relatively free. Modli explains: “Media promotion of music, especially from the early 1970s onwards, was only dependant on one’s taste; it was not a state issue.”

What most in Yugoslavia did not dare, however, was to deviate from the boring and dull format of state radio. While they were apprehensive about creating “anarchy on national radio”, Modli was literally free from radio management in his own studio down in the basement of Radio Beograd 202, from where he run his legendary radio show back in 1979.

“No one was able to censor me during the show. After the broadcast, it was too late for objections.”

Radio Beograd 202 offered Modli total freedom. Modli recalls: “After the call to join Radio Belgrade, I was told to invent the show I want. So in 1979 I started Ventilator 202. Everything changed when Radio Belgrade opened a small studio for me where I was allowed to do everything by myself. Then I began experimenting. It’s the first radio show that I ran high above ground – from an aircraft cockpit literally, promoting demo bands. With the computer revolution bringing about an unprecedented sound, I was also able to provoke listeners with whistling and sizzling computer programs via FM radio waves!”

The start of his show coincided with the explosion of Novi Val in Yugoslavia. According to Modli, the late 70s offered a great opportunity for cheap but good productions. “It was enough to have talent for beautiful melodies and harmonies,” says Modli. “This was richly rewarded with adding lavish sounds generated by electronic devices.”

Electronic devices and computer programming gradually became an essential part of Modli’s show. The dawn of the computer revolution in Yugoslavia meant Yugoslavians now had the opportunity to become a computer owner with the legendary Galaksija computer. Computer enthusiasts could assemble their own computer with a DIY kit.

“My radio show on Radio Belgrade ran every Saturday, lasted three hours and was dedicated to Rock ‘n’ Roll,” says Modli. “The advent of computers soon began to alter this concept. At the beginning of 1984, the ratio between music and stories about computers was equal.”

Modli also dedicated time to exploring new possibilities and innovations in sounds, rebroadcasting interviews with famous music innovators of the time, thanks to BBC 1 interviews with John Lewis, Gary Numan, O.M.D. and Human League, and with the legendary Robert Moog – pioneer of the Moog.

Explaining how he and two of his colleagues selected the demotapes played at Ventilator 202, Modli said: “We tried to be absolutely certain that our taste fitted with the taste of the most avant garde and well-educated radio listeners. I would say we were right.”

And I would be inclined to agree! Here are some of my favorite tracks from the awesome Ventilator 202 compilations, including introductions from the Ventilator 202 show.

 

39 Legija – “Smisao” (1983)

39 Legija is one of the many obscure artists that appeared on Ventilator 202. Combining a dark punk-riff with blopping and whizzing synthesizers and claps from a drumcomputer. Dark and hollow, but with an incredible drive, “Smisao” is the only known recording of 39 Legija.

Misko Plavi – “Hemija” (1983)

Hemija is an incredibly danceable, funky, yet slightly disturbing and dark track. After an edgy, eerie bass and guitar intro, the song evolves into a wild and upbeat dance track, slightly reminiscent of Talking Heads during their best days. The song is an excellent display of Hemija (Chemistry) between the gloom, the eeriness and upbeat festivity.

Rex Illusivii – “Zla Kob”

Rex Illusivii is one of the most well-known artists that ever appeared on Ventilator 202. As one of Yugoslavia’s pioneers of Electronic music, he was already known for producing songs for famous Yugoslavian acts such as Haustor and Ekaterina Veliki. Later he became a renowned producer in Brazil, where he lived until his untimely death in 1999.

His song “Zla Kob” (doom) reflects this title perfectly. It combines Gregorian-like chants with low and pulsating bass-synthesizers and eerie wind-like sounds. “Zla Kob” is somewhere between a beautiful, dark soundscape and a song. Dark and low as it may be, it is one of the absolute highlights of the Ventilator 202 demo tapes.

Partibrejkers – “Radio Utopia”

Partibrejkers is another act that rose to fame in Yugoslavia. “Radio Utopia” is definitely the most Rock ‘n’ Roll of the Ventilator 202 demos. Just two guitars, a voice and a drum (no bass!) create an awesome garage Rock ‘n’ Roll song. Raw Power and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Aja Sofija – “Uvek si tu” (1984)

Aja Sofija is one of the lesser known acts to appear on the Ventilator 202 demo tapes. “Uvek si tu” starts out as a great bluesy downbeat track, but the track gradually descends into a lovely and loud punk chaos, culminating in a soundscape of atonal synth blops.

Vanila Pakt – “Andaluzija” (1984)

“Andaluzija” is perhaps the wildest and darkest synth tracks on the Ventilator 202 demo tapes. With a drumcomputer, vocals larded with echoes and uncompromising low synths, Vanila pakt explores the darkest nooks that of electronic music.

Gustaph Y Njegovi Dobri Duhovi – “Upotreba Majmuna” (1984)

What better to end a list than with a danceable and upbeat track? “Upotreba Majmuna” is a merciless funky track with incomprehensible shouting, synthesizer bleeps, a bopping bass and a funky guitar that takes some atonal detours. Joyful, funky and wild.