Bregovic’s musical journey begins in the 70s, where his rock band, Bijelo Dugme, was met with tremendous success. He went on to compose music for films such as Time of the Gypsies, Queen Margot and Underground and for the last 20 years or so, he has been travelling around the world with his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra. His latest album, Three Letters from Sarajevo, glorifies the peaceful coexistence of different religions and ethnicities.
This May, Goran Bregovic is coming to Australia – a country which, similarly to Bosnia, personifies multiculturalism – for a series of concerts, for which he happily talked about with Neos Kosmos.
You are once again visiting Australia. Tell me about your latest album ‘Three Letters from Sarajevo’, as well as the second part of the album which will be coming out soon.
It started as a commission from Saint Denis Basilica in Paris. They commissioned me to do one violin concerto for the National Symphonic Orchestra. So I found this little story on the internet. It said that one journalist from CNN heard about one old Jew who had been praying in front of the Wailing Wall every day for many years. She decided to make a reportage about it. She went to Jerusalem and she waited for the old Jew to finish praying and she approached him. She said, “You have been here in front of the Wailing Wall for many years now, talking to God”.
The old Jew said “Yes, every day for 60 years”.
So she said, “And you talk to God?”
He said “I’m trying to tell God that the wars between Christians, Jews and Muslims have to stop at some point, so that our kids can live in peace”.
The reporter said “And?”
The old Jew said, “I am under the impression that I’m talking to a wall”.
Therefore, if there is something to learn from this story is that, it seems obvious that, in his schedule, God did not plan to teach us how to live together. This is something we shall have to learn on our own. So I started to think of Sarajevo – of course I’m from Sarajevo – as a metaphor. What we saw in Sarajevo in ’91, we see now all around the world. That is, that, today we can be good neighbours and tomorrow shoot at each other, just because we are from different religions. Another metaphor is the violin, which is my first instrument and it is played in three main manners; Christian – the way classical music is played, Klezmer – the way Jews play their music, which is quite a different technique and Oriental – the way Muslims play. My violin concerto will feature three violinists who come from each tradition, as well as the symphonic orchestra. At the same time, I wrote some songs for some of my favourite Christian, Muslim and Jewish artists, so I decided to release my record in two parts. Opus 1 is out already, and it includes songs along with three little pieces of a violin concerto. The second part, Opus 2, which will feature the concerto for the three violins and the symphonic orchestra will be out at the end of the year.
I know that you love rebetiko and you have said that it is your main source of inspiration. Is it something that still inspires you though, to this day? The reason I am asking this is because, in a Greek interview you gave back in ’98, you stated that the soundtrack to the movie ‘Rebetiko’ is your ‘lifetime record’. Do you still stand by your statement?
Yes, because rebetiko is the best thing to come out of Orthodox and Ottoman music. This music was brought by the Greeks of Smyrna, when they were forced out (of Asia Minor) by the Turks. This is music that was played by people who suffered great difficulties, worked hard and came to Greece to start from zero. It is like the music of Pink Floyd. You must have time, there is no rush. You just smoke your hashish and play long intros before the song starts. This is what rebetiko is all about. This is why I love this music. It’s not for someone who is in a rush. It’s for someone who has time.
You love our music and we love yours. That is why you have played in Greece so many times. Personally, my favourite concert is the one you named ‘Silence of the Balkans’. What do you ‘hear” in the Balkans and the rest of the world today?
You know what it is like in the Balkans… it is a borderline between Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims. This is why we have this terrible history. If you are a Balkan composer, you are born already surrounded by a kind of ‘Frankenstein’ of music, since there are all these influences and all this madness around. If there is something different between the Balkans and other countries is that, in the Balkans, if it’s only about music, it’s never enough. There has to be a little madness in order for people to enjoy music. The motto of my record ‘Champagne for Gypsies’ was “if you don’t go crazy, you are not normal”. This is where I am from. My music always had an ambition to bring a little madness, because it’s normal.
What is worth loving about the Balkans then?
I don’t know… let’s say, if you are born in Australia, you could say: “These people are so lucky to have been born in a place like Australia.” But you know, there is something about the place where you are from. The same love I have for the crazy place that I am from, similarly, a person born in a normal country like Australia will have the same love for their country. It’s something you cannot change.
I know what you mean. I was born in Greece. I only moved to Australia, so I know what it is like to love your country. As you have said, your country is like your mother. There are plenty more out there, more beautiful and better than yours, but for you, your ‘mother’ is the most beautiful of them all.
Yes, yes, this is something nobody can explain.
How important is Greece’s role in the cultural life of the Balkans today?
As a composer, I come from a place where there are not many authentic things. We are surrounded by big cultures: Hungary on the north, Romania and Bulgaria on the east and Albania and Greece on the south. We are from the place where all these influences met. Therefore, you cannot avoid Greece. It is the place where everything began, including human kind. Even if I wanted to avoid it, I always come back to it. I remember when I did my first record in Greece with Alkistis Protopsalti, I did not really ask for anything. I only asked to have the musicians who played in the soundtrack of ‘Rebetiko’ play in this album. I was so happy to be playing with them.
The result was truly wonderful, just like your collaboration with Yiorgos Dalaras.
Yes, I was lucky to work with talented people from Greece.
What, in your opinion, is the thing that non-Balkan people love about our culture?
You know, if you think that everything is visible only on TV or on YouTube… it’s not like that. People are curious. They discover places even more weird than the Balkans. I saw people travelling around the Balkans, not only going to Athens, for example, to see the ancient monuments, but all over the Balkans because it is a place where you can discover all things hidden by centuries. If I was a tourist, I would be curious to visit the Balkans. To eat our unhealthy food, to listen to this madness of music, to meet these people with this terrible history. Why not?
READ MORE: Rembetika – the best of the Balkans
Goran Bregovic and his Wedding and Funeral Band will be performing ‘Three Letters from Sarajevo’ at the Sydney Opera House at 8.30pm on 13 May and at Hamer Hall at 8.30pm on 14 May. Tickets are priced from $79-$160.