FOR most of us in this country, knowledge of the Balkans pretty much starts and ends with the conflict that wracked the region in the early 1990s, following the demise of Soviet-bloc Yugoslavia. It's now well over a decade since the Dayton Accord largely ended the violence, but still we hear little of the Balkans beyond news about fugitive war criminals, or the threat of renewed hostilities in Kosovo.
Countries such as Serbia and Croatia remain defined by our often sketchy understanding of their ugly recent history, perceptions
informed by little sense of how life there might have changed – or what normality it might have returned to – during a dozen years of relative peace.
As far as music can convey such things, Celtic Connections audiences have the chance to form a more up-to-date picture this week, when the Croatian band Kries and Serbia's Balkanopolis make their joint UK debut at the festival. Although very different in sound, both groups integrate instrumentation, tunes and songs from the Balkans' rich melting-pot of musical traditions with wider contemporary influences, including jazz, indie and dance music.
"When I formed the band ten years ago, traditional music wasn't so popular in Serbia," says Balkanopolis's founder and leader Slobodan Trkulja, a celebrated singer who also plays over a dozen instruments, including several varieties of bagpipe, the oboe-like duduk and the kaval, an end-blown wooden flute. "It was seen as peasant music, played by people in villages: big on soul, but without much mainstream reach. As a person who had grown up in the city with rock'n'roll and MTV, but who also loved traditional music, I had these two worlds I needed to connect, and that was the idea behind Balkanopolis – right down to its name."
The Balkans' geography and history has exposed the region to a shifting succession of cultural cross-currents down the centuries, from east, west, north and south. Variously claimed at different times by the Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburg Empire and the Republic of Venice, these are countries as Mediterranean as they're middle European, sharing a hybrid heritage of Eastern Orthodox, Islamic and ancient pagan influences. While in musical terms this has fostered enormous diversity between and within individual states, many of these myriad regional styles and specialisms are in fact variant branches from the same common roots. It's this aspect of Balkan music that is central to Trkulja's vision.
"Nowadays there are too many borders," he says, of the thinking behind his sophisticated, exhilarating jazz/folk synthesis. "Everybody wants their own piece of land, their own piece of this or that: everybody's working on the differences, but as an artist I feel it's my duty to connect people. When you listen to Balkan music, you can hear that we all share a heritage; all the melodies and the ornamentation are just so similar – it's like different dialects of the same language. I see Balkanopolis as being like a modern musical kingdom of all the Balkans, a haven for people who have open hearts and ears to listen."
For Mojmir Novakovic of Kries, delving into traditional music is also a means of transcending division, albeit by a somewhat different route. Much of the band's material is based on ancient ballads and chants about Ivo and Mara, the archetypal male and female characters of Slavic mythology, while their intense, visceral live performances are frequently described as shamanic.
"I think there are things in these very old songs that we can all learn a lot from," Novakovic says. "Ivo and Mara, for instance, are like the ultimate duality in the old pagan religion, like yin and yang, and every song has a different story about them.
"There are certain spiritual things in those songs that connect with aspects of life that humanity has mostly lost: it's like when people started living in houses, inside four walls, we lost that direct relationship with nature and the seasons, and our sense of ourselves as being a part of all that. For me, music is a way of getting back in touch with that older spirituality, which we all shared long before any of these different countries existed."
A similarly pan-humanist outlook also informs Novakovic's view of his role as a Croatian artist in the aftermath of war and inter-ethnic antagonism.
"Before Kries, I formed the band Legen just after the war, and that was a very different sound, a lot angrier and harder in its feelings about living in that situation," he says. "But with Kries, that's all behind me. I've grown as a person since then, and my attitude now is that war is a sickness of the world, of humanity, not just of the Balkans, and as an artist who happens to have recently experienced it, I can try and help people see how not to repeat our mistakes."
For Trjulka, as a contemporary Serbian musician involved with folk music, a major hurdle to negotiate has been the phenomenal popularity – and widespread international infamy – of the sound known as "turbofolk", a brash, fast'n'furious mix of folk tunes and lyrics with pop, rock, house and garage.
During the Miloševic years, turbofolk became a mass-market vehicle for extreme nationalist sentiments, its best-loved exponent being the singer Ceca, whose 1995 wedding to the notorious warlord Arkan sparked a frenzy of local tabloid excitement.
From an outside perspective, Serbian folk music as a whole became rapidly tainted by association. Inexact as those perceptions might have been – many musicians inside Serbia were utterly appalled at turbofolk's travesty of tradition – few promoters or record labels elsewhere were willing to touch such a hot potato.
"As a person who feels a real emotional connection to traditional music, those were probably the worst years of my life," Trjulka says. "At home, people actually thought that those cheap, terrible songs represented Serbian folk music, and abroad everyone automatically identified you with the regime and its war machinery. Being judged like that is tough on a personal level, apart from anything else: Serbs in general are very open-hearted, hospitable, generous people; that's the Serbia I know and carry in me, but for a long time we were all seen as the bad guys, although I think perceptions are starting to change now. There are still a lot of barriers, though, like with this trip to Glasgow: there are seven of us in the band, one of us is Dutch – and the other six need visas."
The Celtic connection with Wednesday's concert is the Scottish musician Martin Swan, who co-founded the pioneering folk-fusion outfit Mouth Music back in the early 1990s. He's since been involved in numerous cross-genre collaborations, most recently the Stobo Village Band, who will open the show with their official live debut, promising a fiddle-led mix of hard-driving international dance music. Having been asked coincidentally to produce albums for both Kries and Balkanopolis during the same few weeks last year, Swan was soon fired with evangelical fervour about introducing them to Scottish audiences.
"You hear quite a lot of Balkan influences in Scottish music today," he says, "all these funny time signatures and jaggy rhythms, but it still tends to sound a bit academic, in a way, whereas when you hear these guys playing, it's just the most fantastically funky dance music – it doesn't seem complicated at all. Both bands just blow me away, and I'm really excited that they're playing Celtic Connections: I reckon it's going to be the surprise hit gig of the festival."
• Balkan Night is at the ABC, Glasgow, tomorrow evening, as part of the Celtic Connections music festival.