Besides being undoubtedly the youngest looking 61 year-old in the world, Goran Bregovic is also the Balkans’ most prominent purveyor of neo-gypsy beats. But he’s also kind of the embodiment of the Balkans themselves, born in Sarajevo, in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, to a Croatian father and Serbian mother.
I don’t know much about him, but from what I’ve read he appears to be a mish-mash of Balkan influences. Which is saying a lot, and probably explains why his work is so layered and universal.
See, the Balkans are very much like Lebanon, more than either of us would like really. On a trip to Zagreb a couple of years ago, I was struck by how similar a lot of the discourse is to our own. Of course, the Croats themselves hate being assimilated to the Balkans, so for the sake of sematics, let’s call the place ex-Yugoslavia.
Most of us grew up with images of bombings and massacres perpetrated in these countries not so long ago. It seemed so surreal, countries at the heart of Europe, deeply beautiful countries, committing atrocities at the end of the 20th century. A lot of the scars of that conflict remain, and it doesn’t take long to sense them. And sense the similarities with Lebanon.
Religion still plays an important role, as does suspicion and fighting for scraps of land and influence. They’re still hunting down their war criminals 15 years after the conflict has ended. Much like Lebanon, history is never far in ex-Yugoslavia for anyone willing to look.
While I was there, I asked my friends to take me to a club that played traditional folk music rather than the bar we were at which was wall to wall models and lounge music, and could have been in Manhattan. Not that that’s something I usually shy away from, but it seemed like the wrong place to do it. They accepted grudgingly, the way I guess I would have grudgingly taken a visiting Serb to an all-night one-man-show by a Wael Kfoury impersonator in Beirut.
As we all walked over to Sokol, I had distant memories of the soundtrack to the award-winning Emir Kusturica film, Underground. That was the first time I’d heard Bregovic’s music, or Balkan music of any sort really. And it was sensational. It had so much energy, like the whole orchestra was on crack and it was the end of the world and they wanted the whole planet to have one last drunken dance!
Needless to say the experience at the Serbian folk-song club was disappointing. Ironically it was music I was kind of familiar with, stuff like Ceca, proper Serbian pop stars. Less Ziad Rahbani, more Najwa Karam. The rest of the night consisted of me vaguely attempting to make friends with everyone in the place by buying them shots. I was mostly met by the kind of stereotypical scowl that Serbian gangsters give in movies, so it shouldn’t have surprised when it was explained to me that the pouches they were all carrying, and that I’d been making fun of, actually contained their chosen piece of weaponry. Mainly guns.
As I think back to dancing around like a fool that night in Zagreb, and as I look forward to a trip to Belgrade at the end of the month, I really appreciate what someone like Bregovic does. Someone who takes a genre and reinvents it. Someone who creates new boundaries or obliterates them altogether. I later found out that his music also includes Bulgarian and a lot of Roma influence. It is new and adventurous, layered and meaningful, infused with cosmopolitanism, all the while sounding as if it is hundreds of years old.
Bregovic was once in the most successful band in Yugoslavia, but I will always be marked by that first piece of music I heard from Underground. A film described as sprawling and rowdy, laced with outrageous absurdist dark humour and unspeakable pain, suffering and injustice.
Dark humour, unspeakable pain, vodka, Kalashnikovs and a whole lot of dancing. Sounds a lot like a place we know all too well, doesn’t it?