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Saturday, October 2, 2010


View from Petrovaradin Fortress
Last Saturday, while attending the Serbian Unity Congress convention in Cleveland, I sat next to Dušan Kovačević at dinner.  He is one of the founders of the EXIT music festival in Novi Sad, Serbia.  EXIT is considered one of the top five music festivals in Europe and attracts an international assortment of bands, DJs, and tens of thousands of visitors.

Since my view of contemporary music stops with Brahms, or Prokofiev if I’m feeling wild, most of the music at EXIT is truly foreign to me.  But, I have family in Novi Sad and I have visited the Petrovardin Fortress, across the river, at which site some of the EXIT festival concerts have been staged.  Meeting Kovačević and hearing about the start of EXIT was intriguing.

The first EXIT festival was held over 100 days in the summer of 2000 and also called “EXIT out of 10 years of madness.”  The reference was a desire for freedom, democracy, and prosperity after ten years of a corrupt totalitarian dictatorship by Slobodan Milosevic that impoverished the country and led to wars, losses of territory, and isolation.  Think: North Korea in Europe.  Meanwhile, ordinary people were suffering and students and other intellectuals were choking.  Music became a metaphor for protest and various participants in the first EXIT festival were members of “Otpor!” a resistance movement. 
Belgrade, October 5, 2000
The first EXIT festival indeed heralded the EXIT of the dictator.  Several days after the end of the festival, Federal Elections were held and Milosevic lost.  Not willing to give up power, he was finally ousted after hundreds of thousands of fed-up citizens protested in Belgrade and part of the parliament building was set on fire on October 5, 2000.

EXIT has grown in the last ten years to great acclaim.  But, even with changes in government, the path to success has not been smooth.  In addition to dealing with venues, logistics, and all the other details of organizing and running a major event, Kovačević and others involved in running the festival were briefly arrested and released just prior to EXIT 2004.  This arrest became a major story in the press and several candidates running for president at the time felt compelled to comment on it.

Did a music festival cause a loathsome regime to fall?  Well, it certainly didn’t hurt.

Incidentally, Petrovaradin Fortress is a gem of a site.  While the corner stone was laid in 1692, it was not completed until 1776.  Like most huge government projects, this Austrian edifice, complete with 16 km of underground tunnels, was inordinately obsolete upon completion.  But, sitting on top of a high river bank overlooking Novi Sad and the Danube, it is a great venue for sipping cappuccino or staging concerts.  EXIT 2011 will take place in July 2011.  I am thinking of taking Mr. Wonderful there, even though the only modern music he likes was written by Mozart.

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