A new life during quarantine playlist reminds Nick Triani of first encounters with Roberta Flack's music whilst a DJ in Belgrade
To quote Ian Curtis, “Where will it end? Where will it end?” No one knows Ian. Our disciplined homestay goes on. That silent trust that seems so apparent amongst the Nordic countries, doesn’t exist elsewhere. That faith repays itself with people in general terms sticking to agreed plans. Still, a certain twitchy feeling is arising. Should we start to relax about COVID-19? Or should we keep up the restraint that keeps us safe?
Roberta Flack‘s First Take album, an unacknowledged masterpiece from the end of the 1960’s finally gets the deluxe reissue treatment and a welcome boost to its rather ignored standing. I open this week’s playlist with a new bonus cut from the album that offers an indication of the quality throughout. I first encountered First Take almost 30 years ago, when I was a DJ in the former Yugoslavia at a Belgrade-based radio station Marketing Union. I arrived in Belgrade from England just as the sanctions from the UN kicked in.
As the war between Yugoslavia and Croatian forces raged, Yugoslavia was seen as the aggressor of the conflict. Looking from the outside, this may have seemed the case – the reality on the streets of Belgrade was rather different. Refugees from war torn parts of the country were flooding into the city. There was a sense of danger, a squalid aesthetic, political unrest, a dictatorial presence whilst anti-war feeling was riding high. After all these years I still can’t understand two things: what was I, a 25-year-old doing in Belgrade in 1992? And why, what is now known as the Croatian War of Independence, was tolerated by the people on both sides of the conflict? It was a family affair, with many people in Belgrade having cousins, brothers, grandparents and other family members on both sides of the divide. Blood was running thicker than usual.
I was paid handsomely for my DJ job, with packages of cash left for me monthly in a shady café. Near my first hotel, there was a street market and an excellent record stand. That’s where I found Roberta’s First Take. I was doing long stints on the radio and although the company that employed me were sending me new music (often unavailable in Belgrade due to those sanctions), I still needed more. So I became a regular customer at the market.
After many months, leaving Belgrade proved difficult. I was depressed by the war and its effects. I was also feeling mercenary. It was hard to justify my existence when so much hardship was around me. A stand-off for some weeks due to my expired passport delayed the stamping of my documents. Suspicious authorities ultimately relented which led to a scary train ride via Hungary that got me to Austria and a plane back to England. To travel light, I’d discarded much of the records accumulated during my time in Belgrade, but Roberta’s First Take made the trip home and has accompanied me ever since.
Nick Triani is an editor and contributor to One Quart Magazine.