Rembetika: the best of the Balkans

Following his sell-out Melbourne performance, Gypsy musician Goran Bregovic speaks about his music and why he believes rembetika are the best sounds of the Balkans

If his first record hadn’t been released a few months before his graduation, Goran Bregovic would now be a philosophy professor.
His first album, as part of Bijelo Dugme (White Button), the most famous rock band in communistic Yugoslavia, saved him and made him and his band the biggest rock ‘n’ roll stars in the country. Rock ‘n’ roll in communist countries was not, as he says, of the best quality, but was of major social importance as it was introducing a new value system.
Soon, Yugoslavia fell apart, and Bijelo Dugme as well.
Bregovic turned to composing film music, influenced by the rhythms of Gypsy people and Balkans folk music in general.
He founded the now well-known Weddings and Funerals Orchestra, implying that both these life situations in Romany culture used to be accompanied by music.
With his 19-piece Gypsy orchestra, Goran continues his perpetual tours all around the world, selling thousands of albums.
During his career, the 63-year-old musician, composer and once Yugoslavia’s biggest rock star – whose international popularity continues to grow after so many years – Goran Bregovic has achieved huge commercial success in Greece as well, with great soundtracks from the must-see movies of Emir Kusturica, like ‘Arizona Dream’, ‘Underground’ and ‘Time of the Gypsies’, especially after famous Greek singer Alkistis Protopsaltis sang the Venzinadiko.
His collaboration with big names of the Greek music scene, such as George Dalaras, Haris Alexiou, Alkistis Protopsaltis, and actress Maria Nafpliotou, turned him into a celebrity recognisable to Greeks everywhere.
His presence in Greece is so intense, he tells Neos Kosmos, that his music in Greece is “at home”.
He has worked with stars such as Iggy Pop, while his latest album, Champagne for Gypsies, which has just come out in Australia, has dance collaborations with famous Spanish band The Gypsy Kings.
Together with the 19 musicians from the Weddings and Funerals Orchestra, Goran Bregovic has just finished his 2013 Australian tour. Apart from the audience from the former Yugoslavia that, as expected, flooded Melbourne’s Hamer Hall last Tuesday and Wednesday, it was Greek Australians who were dancing to the rhythms of Romany music.
The reason that Bregovic has such an intimate relationship with Greek audiences and its artists – and that only one thought of Greece brings a genuine smile to his face – has to do with rembetika. This music is amongst the biggest melodic influence on his work as a composer and artist.
“One of the records that influenced me the most is the soundtrack from ‘Rembetiko’, the movie by Stavros Ksarhakos from 1983. Rembetika is probably the best music that Balkans have – a natural mix of Ottoman and Orthodox music. Our music has always been under the strong influence of Greek music,” Bregovic tells Neos Kosmos.
“I have a big collection of old recordings of rembetika which I always go back to.
“What ties the Greek and Serbian music together is the fact that both Greek and Serbian music were – at their best – written to accompany drinking,” Bregovic says.
“From my first encounter with Greek musicians, in the time that I made the first record with Protopsaltis, I felt that my music is at home in Greece.”
He describes himself better and more honestly than someone else would. In his own words, Goran Bregovic is a contemporary composer in a culture that is a “mix of kitsch, violence and overheated emotions”, a culture that has been bypassed by opera and symphonic music.
And to be a contemporary composer – in a country where the ‘contemporary’ is always different to ‘normal contemporary’ in the rest of the world – is not an easy assignment.
From the late ’80s, he has built a career on the use of Gypsy culture, and it is due to his success that the appetite for Balkan Gypsy music around the world was born.
“I was lucky,” he says. “If I was born a hundred years ago, I would have been just a local Balkan composer. Today, however, with the evolution of mass communications and technology, people open their soul for different musical styles and different traditions. I am happy when I see people, from all around the world, who are curious, who discover things and appreciate the music that is not the everyday, mainstream music.”
He continues to believe that the tradition and mentality of a Balkan man give him the ability to better feel Bregovic’s music, to feel more familiar with it, compared to other Europeans. At the same time, he emphasises that the music we listen to is not orientated around our nationality – everyone can understand when they hear good music – that nationality doesn’t make a difference.
“It’s true that we are a small creative nation, but we can do many wonders. Our music found a way to reach its fans. There is a mature audience, and people know what they want to listen to.
“If you are naive, you think the whole world is on TV. The world is not like on TV shows – it is more beautiful and colourful than how it appears on the screen. If you are naive, you’ll believe all the music of the world is presented on the MTV channel. In the last seven years I sold millions of records all over the world, without ever appearing on television. I played my music from Iceland to Australia. Every time we have a gig, I have to present the pass to the doorman because he doesn’t know how I look, he doesn’t recognise me,” the Serbian composer says characteristically.
Bregovic is an artist who has played everywhere – from prestigious halls, such as Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House, to Greek bouzouki bars.
“Over the 17 years of my international career I have travelled around the world many times. I gave a concert in front of 150 thousand people at Montreal Jazz Festival, and at the Notte della Taranta in Melpignano, Italy. I don’t think there is any other type of music that is being played to such a broad and distinctive audience. No composer is having more fun than me – and, if I notice correctly, the audience is not bored either.
“Regardless of place, nationality, tradition, age group – the reaction is always the same. As the time goes by, the external mask melts down, and the basic element stays, the human one, that music approaches naturally,” Bregovic says.

From his Australian tour, the only thing Goran wanted and expected was a beautiful memory.
“Life brings moments you want to forget, and those you want to keep in your memory. My wish is for my concerts to become beautiful memories from life – for me and for the audience that comes to see us,” he says.
As soon as one tour finishes, the new one starts. In other words, his tour doesn’t end. The summer in Europe is always the busiest time of the year, due to numerous festivals.
Not only that, Bregovic tells Neos Kosmos he will be working on the movie version of his opera Karmen with a Happy End, as well as the new opera Orfeos.
And before we finish the conversation, he wants to add something. Lucky are those who were born in Australia – they were born in one of the best countries in the world.
“Homeland is like a mother – you can’t change it. The world is organised in such a way that we, who were born in those unfortunate Balkan countries, love our countries with the same love and passion that these lucky people here in Australia love their lucky country,” Bregovic concludes.