Goran Bregovic: Unplugged, and All Together Now
by Sylvia Pfeiffenberger
The name of Goran Bregovic’ “Wedding and Funeral Orchestra” is part satirical—a grand joke on the part of the perfectionist, prankster, film composer and former rock star—but it also promises a return to our unamplified, tribal human past, a time when social rituals were marked with big gatherings and live music, and individuals were suspended, not in ethereal social networks, but in the gelatinous broth of clan, nation, and religion.
Of course, there’s a dark side to this sort of nostalgia: tribalism and nationalism have exacted a high price from human societies, and none have paid more dearly or more regularly than the Balkan region, and former Yugoslav republics, from whence Bregovic hails. Sarajevo, at the borderline between Catholics and Muslims, Jews and Gypsies, Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, is “a place where nothing is really pure. It’s always a mix,” says Bregovic in an interview with his publicist. Centuries of war have shaped the “small” regional culture of the Balkans into a sort of “Frankenstein,” he says. In the 1990s, war again forced the retired rocker into Parisian exile, which proved a stepping stone to creating his own global form of folk music, attuned to the large and small screens of the IT age.
The listening experience we had in Page Auditorium Friday night (10/14/11) was unlike anything you can hear outside of a church, a classical concert hall, or a movie theater nowadays. Who’s got the budget to commission composers and produce large ensembles of live instrumental and vocal musicians anymore? Only institutions that run on charity donations, and Hollywood. Bregovic’s orchestra was actually a multicultural collective, made up of four sections: a string quartet, an all-male choir, the Bulgarian vocal duo the Radkova sisters, and a Gypsy vocalist with brass band. Each unit operated independently at times but cooperated as a seamless unit, like a four-chambered, polyphonic heart. The some-time soundtrack composer ‘conducted’ while facing the audience, from his guitarist’s chair, one hand frequently aloft to signal timing, entrances and phrasing. It was like hearing a miniature Mahler symphony, blown through Surround Sound.
Bregovic built up the evening’s set like a cinematic-depressive fairy tale, an episodic ride that vacillated between drunken exhilaration and island-of-the-damned sobriety. Capturing our attention from the get go, Bregovic mumbled a few introductory words, then let single narrators (guitar, clarinet, violin) lock in our attention. Just as we were getting comfortable in our seats, the Gypsy brass band announced itself from the back of the hall and marched down the aisles, horns blazing, waking our senses in a visceral rush. Suddenly, in that moment, we became one audience: the polyphonic heart had found a body. For the rest of the night, waves of sound flooded us with animal joy, and uneven folk meters jogged our human jelly like a friendly reminder of mortality.
Bregovic clearly relished the role of conductor, and ultimately his instrument was us, the kinetic collective that responded to his every direction, be it to clap and rally to our feet, or to hush and listen to his next bit of storytelling. The ruckus was loudest in the cheap seats, but firm fan footholds were scattered throughout the room, as bodies swayed and hands danced in the air, Mediterranean-style. Shouts in Slavic languages rang out occasionally; next to me, a Turkish couple mouthed the words to Bregovic’ Emir Kuristica soundtracks. Did they understand the words? “Not really--it’s close to us,” they shrugged, electric grins lighting up their faces. On the other side of me, a couple of Duke alums, here simply because they had bought $5 tickets to every show of the season right before they graduated, radiated the same ecstasy.
They say that conductors have one of the highest job satisfaction ratings, but that role is typically dictatorial. Yet, while directing sound with hairline precision, Bregovic brings something fundamentally rebellious to the role. This goes back to his roots as a teenage bass player in the band “Bijelo Dugme” (“White Button”). Under Communist rule in the former Yugoslavia, just playing rock music at all was an act of rebellion, and Bregovic learned how to walk the line of cultural resistance without getting thrown in jail. Back then, backed by a rock band, he might have parodied Marshal Tito’s uniform on stage; now, in a silky cream suit and backed by his ethnically diverse orchestra, he delivered impure rants about sex and dying, and antifascist ditties such as the Italian partisan hymn “Bella Ciao.” Bregovic rejected classical music training as a child, when he was forced to take violin; today, he says, he chooses to play with folk musicians out of the same sense of rebellion against formal high culture. With rock star excess, Bregovic kept one-upping his encores, announcing, “it would be a shame to go to bed after that.”
Through the aperture of the Balkans’ “small culture,” where impurities are a virtue, Bregovic has created a sense of global belonging out of his own exile and displacement, genetically modifying folk music so that it feels like our pop and movie music. It’s not even a metaphor at times, such as when Bregovic plays zydeco covers and tunes he wrote for Iggy Pop. Is that breakneck Balkan number smuggling a ska beat, ‘50s rock and roll, or a Mexican quebradita? It’s a question that doesn’t really need answering, because Bregovic has hit the folk/pop dancebeat button in a way that feels universal, or rather: in a way that feels local, in every language and cultural tradition. With the vision of a film director, Bregovic reconnects us with the unamplified roots of his particular folk cultures, making space for us to feel social connection through “big,” live music in an increasingly digital world.
As it turns out, the musicians on stage had been only intermediaries in Bregovic' raucous ode to sex and death; the human orchestra was us.
“You’re a beautiful audience. Good night.”