Erika Goldring, Getty Images The four members of Little Big Town will…
- Posted on Jun 2nd 2009 3:00PM by Steve Hochman
They requested -- no, insisted -- we alter our plans to join them there for Orthodox Christmas, which led to one of our best travel adventures ever, with a day trip up to ancient monasteries, through a Muslim town on the edge of Kosovo, all capped off with a fabulous feast of a home-smoked pig, enough sides and sweets to have killed the pig in the first place, and coffee strong enough to bring the pig back to life.
It's the place of their roots, but it's been changing -- at least on the map in the wake of devastating wars and at-times uneasy peace. On this trip they were going to Serbia. The last time they had visited, the country was the dual nation of Serbia and Montenegro before the latter broke off as an independent nation. And, of course, when they were growing up it was all part of Yugoslavia, along with what is now Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia.
When told that Around the World had interviewed Sarajevo-born musician Goran Bregovic on the eve of his first U.S. album release (the wild Balkan brass blowout 'Alkohol') and first full North American tour, their reaction was striking.
"Whenever we hear his music," they wrote in an e-mail, "we can feel the whole country again like the war never happened."
It comes with the territory, Bregovic says. Literally.
"I am from a place where it was war," he says by phone from a tour stop in Poland. "And I am from a complicated family. Father was Catholic Croat, mother Orthodox Serb, wife is Muslim. In the war I was in Paris working."
But even without that well-rounded perspective of his personal story, he says, his intersection of many musical cultures is pretty much a given.
"It's natural for someone like me from a place like this," says Bregovic, who still lives in Paris but records primarily in a Belgrade studio. "Everything is mixed. I don't have to look for any concept. It's impossible to find anything pure there. You find influences from [Greek] rembetika, from klezmer, from church music, from wedding music, from peasant music from Serbia, from the [Dalmatian] coast. And we are surrounded by musical culture from Italy and Hungary. And Turkish influences that were there for five centuries."
And that's a decent summary of what several generations of Balkan music fans have heard from him over a career now spanning more than three decades.
"We grew up with his music," wrote Svetlana and Zoran, exuberantly recalling the impact of his '70s-'80s rock band Bijelo Dugmen (White Button) -- "the most famous group in the whole ex-Yugoslavia and probably the whole Balkans as well." And they've followed his career closely in the decades since, noting that "we truly hope that he won't climb the cherry tree as he did last year and fell off it and hurt his back."
On the musical front, there's been plenty to follow: There are his international film scores, including the 1994 Johnny Depp/Jerry Lewis-starring 'Arizona Dream' -- for which none other than Iggy Pop did the spoken vocal on the Balkan-reggae track 'In the Death Car.' There are liturgical works commissioned for Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim texts. There are pop hits, folk-based suites and such ambitious, unclassifiable ventures for his eclectic Wedding and Funeral Orchestra as his Gypsy-ized Bizet rewrite of 'Karmen With a Happy End.' (Yeah, a happy end. Go figure!) And now there's the boisterous 'Alkohol,' which sounds, as you can hear from the first notes of opening song, 'Yeremia,' as high-proof as its title:
Goran Bregovic, 'Yeremia'
With his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra, starting a two-week North American tour on June 11 with a free show at Brooklyn's Prospect Park Bandshell, he's gone above and beyond. This edition of the Wedding and Funeral Orchestra comprises a Balkan brass band, a string ensemble, four Serbian Orthodox liturgical singers, two Bulgarian women singers and, at the front of it all, Bregovic himself on electric guitar.
"I'm an old-fashioned traveling composer," he says. "Traveling and presenting my music. If I need a bigger orchestra, I use one. If I need smaller, I use smaller. So my orchestra is composed of really different people -- some very simple wedding musicians who cannot read and write music, and some highly educated musicians from the academies. My first and second trumpeters are professors of music, the baritone finished academy. And a singer who also plays percussion is just a simple Gypsy guy who before he sang with me was a hairdresser. And we have six Orthodox singers who are church singers, highly educated and two Bulgarian women from a famous state choir."
So where does 'Alkohol' fit in with all this? Well, to some extent, maybe that's obvious.
"Every culture is marked by the alcohol or drugs that are mainly used," Bregovic says. "We are marked by sljivovica. Everyone makes it at home. Lots of methyl alcohol we have for centuries in our grains. Maybe that is partly why we are like we are."
But it's also personal.
"There is a short story [in the liner notes] on the album," he says. "Telling my story from my family. We're one of those families marked by alcohol. I discovered very lately that my father was always drunk. Music is always very personal."
The setting in which the album was made was a perfect locale to examine and even celebrate that. It was recorded live in performance at the annual brass band competition in the Serbian town of Guca -- a wild week of music and, yes, alcohol. (It's also the setting of a very popular fiction film with a 'Romeo and Juliet' story set among rival family bands -- which was in fact on the TV in Cacak while the Christmas pig was being consumed.) For Bregovic, who took a scaled-down, brass-heavy edition of the band to the festival, it was an opportunity to revisit not just his family past but his musical legacy.
"I was invited to play in Guca where the Gypsy bands were competing," he says. "I thought, 'I'm not going to go there and play my regular professional concert.' So I decided to play something different. These are my old songs from the rock 'n' roll times. Usually I don't drink, but the only time I do is onstage, and by this concert time I felt the alcohol onstage. From looking at the video, I saw I really drank well! I usually drink just one glass, but this time was really drinking good. So I thought, 'Maybe I could make a drinking record with this.' "
The result is a nicely boozy journey through his past and, as a U.S. introduction, a nice complement to a career-spanning 'Best of Goran Bregovic' album that's also being released. You can even do a compare-and-contrast in some places. Check out 'On the Backseat of My Car,' from 'Alkohol,' a relative of the Iggy selection (which is on the best of set):
Goran Bregovic, 'On the Backseat of My Car'
"When we did the 'Arizona' movie, Iggy did the song because he liked my record 'Time of the Gypsies,' Bregovic says. "So I sent him three of my old songs and one was a simple story -- she liked to go out because she had a beautiful dress, let's pull down the seat, it's more comfortable... In the middle of it, Iggy said he couldn't sing that. So he did it 'In the Death Car.' That's the difference between him and me."
The Guca album is just the first half of a planned pair, together titled 'Sljivovica & Champagne.' The second half, which he hopes to have out in November, is more orchestral, more "sophisticated" -- though perhaps not in the way the name might first imply to many.
"Maybe we don't have the same idea of champagne -- you and a girl at sunrise," he says. "My idea is rich criminals drinking champagne just to show off. I think the champagne record is not far away from the sljivovica in terms of mood. Maybe I will use some more instruments outside of brass. But the purpose of the record is still for drinking."
He's got plenty other outlets for different moods. Next year he'll be following up the 'Karmen' project with a commission from several European opera companies for a Balkan rewrite of 'Orfeo,' the Greek tale of a love-driven Hades rescue trek that has been fodder for many opera composers over the ages.
"Once upon a time I was a big rock 'n' roll star," Bregovic says. "I passed through that period of knowing how to target music to your audience. Today it's just writing naturally, like I'm eating naturally. Sometimes eating something very complicated, sometimes bread and butter. I'm 50, so life is no longer once verse and chorus, though if I want to be honest with myself sometimes I'm just writing simple wedding music."
Whatever he does, there's a family in New Jersey that will be right on it.