Anyone who remembers the ‘90s likely remembers the Yugoslav Wars. Footage of armored white United Nations trucks diving past burning high-rises as children darted from sniper fire dominated the evening news in the Western world. The bloodshed that followed the breakup of the Yugoslav state resulted in 130,000–140,000 deaths region wide, with millions more displaced. In Croatia, which claimed its independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in June of 1991, some 15,000 people died or went missing in the four years that followed. But amidst the chaos and terror of war, the roots of today’s multi-million euro-a-year festival scene were beginning to take hold. Bombs exploding around them, the youth of Zagreb—Croatia’s capital—danced in basements, clubs and gardens to the fresh sounds of techno and house, embracing a euphoric new music that captured the newly liberated spirit of a generation desperate to break away from the old ways.
“In Zagreb, there was bombing in 1993, and there was underground parties in 1993,” longtime promoter Pero Brčić tells me from his home studio in Solin, a small town next to Split. Now in his late forties, with wiry graying hair and an easy laugh, Pero talks eagerly and with a friendly intensity that reveals his strong desire to tell his story, and story of his home country’s history with house and techno. “DJ Westbam, he played there [in Zagreb] while it was being bombed and there was no electricity. Those parties were the wildest parties ever, because people had nothing to lose! That was the most crazy events there.”
Provided by Pero FullHouse.
Germany’s DJ Westbam, who played the first Love Parade and organized Berlin’s first May Day party, started playing in Croatia around 1994 at Zagreb's Future Shock parties before Pero began booking him at Aurora Club, “playing to a real Croatian crowd, not for tourists, which I liked,” Westbam says. He remembers the bombing incident, fondly recalling it as one of his best memories as a DJ, saying it taught him an important a lesson about music and what it can do for people.
“In the rave days we played a gig—I don’t remember exactly where it was—but at the time I was told it wasn’t far from the enclave Bihać, which was of the places the Balkan war was raging around,” Westbam says. “At some point the electricity in the place went out, and I was told probably a bomb explosion nearby. The electricity stayed off for at least one hour, but everybody stayed in the place, right in the darkness. Then suddenly the lights came on again, and that majestic, energetic full-on techno beat kicked in. And though I don't know whether really a bomb had exploded nearby or not, but I do know people exploded in that moment. To me, that felt almost like—may I say—holy energy. High on hope and positivity in spite of all the problems and the war and everything. Just feeling the beat and the people at that moment is one of my best techno memories.”
That same year, Pero had recently returned from Hamburg, where he was working in the shipbuilding industry following a year of military service. While in the north German city, he decided to check out a techno rave one weekend with friends, and spent two days falling deeply in love with this intense new music. “It was like revelation,” he says. “All the elements were familiar but the structure was different—hypnotic, seducing. I’d fallen in love immediately.” Pero had already been DJing for a few years at that point, playing hip hop, pop and other styles; sounds he grew up with while living under the heavy hand of communism. “Getting records in a communist country was very hard, so we had friends or cousins outside the country sending music. I was getting punk and early electronic music, like Cabaret Voltaire or Kraftwerk or Depeche Mode, also industrial music.”
Pero says house and techno events started in Zagreb in 1993, as a newly independent youth quickly rallied around a sound they felt represented their country’s fresh start in the world. “It was like a new beginning. New music, everything new. The younger generation felt free. It was against everything old.” The parties maintained an air of ultimate freedom, urged on by the laissez-faire attitude the authorities took to parties in the face of so many other problems. “In that time there was no strict regulations,” Pero says. “We just brought a power system, sound system, records and turntables and started partying. Nobody cared. We started Friday and stopped on Monday. Crazy, crazy.” With a newly independent people rallying around an unfamiliar yet exciting new sound with almost no oversight from authority, the parallels to Berlin’s techno revolution after the Wall fell are evident.
"Clash of generations" at Stella Mare beach bar where Pero held one of the biggest open-air events to date in 1997. "It's 10 am and there is raver in trance and shocked grandma," he says.
Unfortunately for Pero, who’s originally from Split, the scene in his home city still hadn’t caught up to the capital by the time he was DJing techno—so he decided to throw his own raves. Though at first, nobody showed up. “My first party was back in 1995 and I had like one sold ticket. It was very hard in the beginning. But I didn't stop, and in only one year people kept coming,” he says. The perseverance paid off. And his parties were packed so often he earned the name Pero FullHouse, because as he tells it, people kept saying: “In Pero's parties, they’re always full. Pero FullHouse.” His success eventually took him to Aurora, a 4,000-plus-capacity club overlooking the coastal city of Primošten, located along the Dalmatian coast around 60 kilometers north of Split. “It was one of the most beautiful clubs in this region—I would dare to say in the world. It had a terrace for like three or four thousand people with amazing view on peninsula town of Primošten and the nearby islands.”
Pero started promoting for Aurora in 1997, and in just a few years he was bringing global headliners. The club was so popular in Croatia at least one woman shares its namesake, “because her parents made her there,” Pero says with a knowing chuckle. Though one night at Aurora stands out in particular. “In 2001 we had more than 5,000 people for Jeff Mills,” Pero says. “All the roads were blocked. It was summertime, and in the morning there was a little bit of rain. People started screaming out of happiness. You could feel it in the air. It's one of the moments that's implanted in many generations.”
In 1998, Pero brought Carl Cox to Croatia for the first time, playing F1 club in Trogir, near Split. And by then, Pero was certain Croatia was going to be the next big thing—like Ibiza, but different—big in its own way. Though Carl, who stayed in a “very bad hotel with war refugees” that year, was incredulous to the idea. “He said 'yeah yeah,'” sarcastically, Pero remembers. “And now he's like ‘wow,’” Pero gushes. Despite its early successes, you can perhaps forgive Carl for not thinking things in Croatia would transform as much as they have.
Carl Cox playing for the first time in Croatia on 18.12.1998 at F1 club in Trogir. Supplied by Pero FullHouse.
Today tourism represents nearly 20 percent of the country’s GDP, and it looks like that number will keep growing. A record 18.5 million tourists visited Croatia in 2017, tripling from the nearly six million who visited in Carl’s first year. How much of that growth is due to electronic music festivals is hard to say. Though the Croatian Tourist Board and University of Economy in Zagreb has shown that Ultra Europe festival in Split provides 0.08 percent of the national GDP alone. And given how many events take place in places like Tisno, Split, Pula, Obonjan and Pag Island, festivals are certainly a huge economic draw. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the country’s club scene, which in some ways is smaller than it was in the early-to-mid ‘90s. “At the moment we don't have a strict underground club techno club [in Split], which is very sad,” Pero says. “All these years we had clubs who were doing techno and house. But as it became a tourist city, most of the clubs turned their policy to please the tourists.”
UK veteran Mr. C fondly remembers his first club gig in Croatia, arriving in Zagreb to a full-court press in 1994—though he can’t remember where he played. According to Pero, UK tech house stars like Mr. C, Terry Francis, and Eddy Richards were among the most popular DJs of Croatia’s early clubbing days. And along with playing in Zagreb, they regularly played at now-closed clubs in Split like Club Metropolis and Up & Down, where Pero threw a few events in the ‘90s.
“Croatia was at war with Serbia at the time,” Mr. C remembers about his first Croatian gig. “There was fighting happening 50 kilometers from where I was DJing. It was a mental night and the energy levels were insane. Before the show, I had a big press conference, around 80 journalists were there. One asked why I was here. I answered with the question: ‘Why are you here? Have you not got more important issues to be covering?’ The crowd was amazing. Very beautiful and right up for a good release of energy.”
Pero doing what he loves. Supplied by Pero FullHouse.
That’s not to say good clubs in Croatia don’t exist. Kocka is a 200-capacity club located in Split that’s been running since 2002. It’s supported by the government, and along with the club’s two stages features an independent library, a gallery, an office, a recording and rehearsal studio, a community radio and a kitchen. “They do all kinds of underground stuff, from punk to techno,” Pero says. And in Zagreb, there are places like Funk Club, Masters Club—open since 1998— Boogaloo and Das Haus, which has seen guests like Surgeon, Octave One and Oscar Mulero play. But Pero can’t help but feel like something is missing with the youth of Croatia today, who he sees as spoiled for choice and unwilling to take risks and try something new.
“Every other citizen of Croatia is a DJ today,” he says. “But like 90 percent of them are similar, they just play the Beatport top 100.” When Pero started, he drove or took the bus 1000-or-more kilometers to Vienna or Italy’s Rimini to buy 30 or 40 new records. “And when we get home, people from the scene know the DJs are bringing new sounds, and everyone went to the parties.” As the festival scene has expanded and professionalised, and certain clubs have closed, Pero thinks the enthusiasm of the ‘90s has all but evaporated. “There was nothing like driving three or four hundred kilometers to see your favourite DJ. Now nobody wants to drive 20!” he laments.
It was Pero’s unfailing enthusiasm that led him to throw his first parties, and what kept him sticking with it even when nobody showed up. And it was his willingness to take risks that pushed him to throw the first-ever rave on Split’s promenade in 2010, a 300-meter-long strip between the sea and the Diocletian palace, a 1,700-year-old Roman ruin where, down in the basement chambers, Pero also threw parties. “In 1996 I did two events there. It's amazing! Now it's impossible. It's protected, but that was a memory.”
Pero's Moondance Festival in Trogir, Croatia
His advice to the youth is: “You have to be different, even if some people don't like you! You have to take risks. I took a big loan for my festival, and still I return it to the bank,” he says, speaking about his upcoming Moondance Festival. “But I really believe in it. I don't see that kind of passion in the youngsters. That's what hurts me. They don't risk! They don't risk for the thing they love.” It’s clear just how much passion Pero has for both music and his latest project. A three-day techno festival happening in the ancient Kamerlengo Castle on the island city of Trogir this August, Moondance will see the likes of KiNK, Rødhåd, Radio Slave, K-Hand and Monoloc representing brands like Dystopian and Berlin’s Tresor, where Pero sometimes DJs. But it’s more than an event for Pero—it’s his chance to do something different for Croatia. “I'm a DJ, I wanted to create something perfect for me. I wanted the festival to be a proper DJ’s festival, with an amazing location and sound system.”
His passion has paid off. The first Moondance party was in 2012, lasting one night with 500 people. And last year they had 9,000 people over three nights of music. Located just 10 kilometers from Split, Trogir was chosen by National Geographic in 2017 as the most beautiful city island in the world, a fact Pero is clearly proud of. “It's protected by UNESCO because the whole city is made of stone, very ancient. It's really beautiful,” he says, subtly beaming. As for Moondance: “It's my life's goal, my life's dream. All my experiences are concentrated in that three nights.”
Moondance Festival takes place on August 9th, 10th and 11th in Trogir, Croatia. Tickets are available on Pulse.