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Roots in the Balkans he stems from, head in the 21st century that he fully inhabits, GORAN BREGOVIC makes music that marries the sounds of a Gypsy brass band with traditional Bulgarian polyphonies, those of an electric guitar and traditional percussion with a curious rock accent – all against a background of a bedeviled string orchestra and the deep sonorities of a male choir; music that our soul recognizes instinctively and the body greets with an irresistible urge to dance.
Born in Sarajevo to a Serbian mother and a Croatian father, after a few years of (very unenthusiastic) violin studies Goran formed his first group, White Button, at the age of 16. As a composer and guitar player (“I chose the guitar because guitar players always have most success with girls”), he admitted his immoderate love for rock ’n’ roll. “In those times, rock had a capital role in our lives. It was just about the only way we could make our voices heard, and publicly express our discontent without risking jail.”
Studies in philosophy and sociology would most certainly have landed him a position teaching Marxist thought, had the gigantic success of his first record not decided otherwise. There followed 15 years with White Button, marked by marathon tours and endless autograph sessions. At the end of the ’80s, Bregovic took time away from this hectic schedule to compose music for Emir Kusturica’s film Times of the Gypsies, and to make his childhood dream come true: to live in a small house on the Adriatic coast. The war in Yugoslavia shattered this, and many other dreams, and Bregovic had to abandon everything for exile in Paris.
Coming from the same background, the same generation, and being survivors of the same experiences, Bregovic and Kusturica formed a team that didn’t need words to communicate. After Times of the Gypsies, Bregovic had a free hand to compose the original soundtrack for Arizona Dream (1993). His next film project was Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot, winner of a Palme d’Or at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. He also composed the music for Kusturica’s Underground, which won the Palme d’Or at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. He recently composed spicy music with a “klezmer” flavor for Radu Mihaelanu’s Train de Vie, acclaimed by the critics in Venice, São Paulo, and Berlin.
Bregovic has since devoted himself to his own music projects and a second stage career – without completely abandoning the movies, however. His other film credits include Nana Djordjaze’s 27 Missing Kisses (2001) and Unni Straume’s Music for Weddings & Funerals (2002; original music and the lead male role). In 2004, Bregovic repeated the same adventure: he composed music and played the main role in an Italian film, Giorni dell’Abandono (The Days of Abandon), which premiered in Fall 2005.
Silence of the Balkans was an ambitious multimedia project performed in 1997 in Thessaloniki, under the direction of Slovenian Tomaz Pandur with video images by Boris Miljkovic. This was followed by a collaboration with Teatro Stabile from Trieste, for whom Bregovic wrote the stage music for a very unusual Hamlet. He next collaborated with the noted Italian director Marco Bailani, for whom he wrote the music for The Children’s Crusade (1999). Bregovic wrote music for a staging of Dante’s Divine Comedy, directed by Bregovic’s long-time collaborator Tomaz Pandur.
Over 10 years after he abandoned pure rock in 1985, the music of Goran Bregovic had never been performed live. This all changed in 1995 when, with a band of 10 traditional musicians, a choir of 50 singers, and a symphony orchestra, he undertook a series of mega-concerts in Greece and Sweden, followed by a concert given October 26 at the Forest National of Brussels for an audience of 7,500. Very few concert performances followed in 1996, as the idea of 120 performers on stage scared even the most enthusiastic promoters.
In June 1997, the group was reduced to 50 musicians for a two-hour concert with Bregovic’s music for films. One success after another followed as he undertook a triumphal tour of Europe with his Wedding and Funeral Band, presenting his most beautiful pieces, from the famous “Ederlezi” (Times of the Gypsies) to “In the Death Car” (Arizona Dream) and the energetic “Kalasnikov” (Underground). A concert in May at the Piazza St. Giovanni in Rome in front of 500,000 people confirmed beyond any doubt that his music now had a real impact on an international level.
Bregovic is honored by collaborations with talented performers from diverse cultures: Iggy Pop (Arizona Dream), Ofra Haza (La Reine Margot), Cesaria Evora (Underground), Scot Walker in the U.K., Setzen Aksu in Turkey, George Dalaras in Greece, and Kayah in Poland. Some critics have called Tales & Songs from Weddings and Funerals his neo-classical album, in which he presents a range of musicians playing in his various musical styles, from tango and reggae to Gypsy brass band music.
In June 2002, in the St. Denis Basilica near Paris, Bregovic united three star singers from three religions with the Moscow Orthodox choir, a string section from Tetouan in Morocco, and his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra for a special program called “My Heart Has Become Tolerant,” on the theme of reconciliation, commissioned by Festival of Sacred Music of St. Denis (that year entitled “From Bach to Bregovic”). Luciano Berio invited the same project to his Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome in July, followed by concerts on the Esplanade of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Festival of Sacred Music in Fez, Morocco.
In 2004 Bregovic composed his first opera, Goran Bregovic’s Karmen with a Happy End, the first Carmen with a “K” and a Balkan accent. A combination of naive theater and opera, Karmen premiered in Italy on April 17, 2004 and has since been performed over 100 times. Written, composed, and directed by Bregovic (with only a few quotes from Bizet’s Carmen), this Gypsy opera is interpreted by the musicians of his Wedding and Funeral Band.
In June 2005, Bregovic’s legendary group White Button (Bjelo Dugme) reunited for a sold-out tour of the capitals of three former Yugoslav republics. An audience of 70,000 in Sarajevo and Zagreb, and 200,000 in Belgrade proved him right in the hope that people separated by wars could at least share and enjoy a common musical heritage.
July 2006 offered a first opening of North American territories for Bregovic’s music: an extraordinary concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival and performances in Chicago’s magnificent Millennium Park and Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York.
In 2009, the first part of the CD Alkohol, recorded live in Guca in the summer of 2007, came out in Europe and in North America. Guca is a small town in Serbia of approximately 20,000 inhabitants that holds an annual contest of brass bands each August and swells to 150,000 people. Shaded by tents from the scorching heat, they drink, eat grilled meat and sauerkraut, drink, listen to the music, and drink again for three days...which explains the title.
The remainder of 2009 included Bregovic’s first extensive North American tour, a piece for Bang on a Can with a premiere at Lincoln Center.
Goran’s new album, Champagne for Gypsies, due to be released in North America in 2012, is a reaction to the extreme pressure that Gypsies (Roma) have been experiencing lately across Europe (expelled from France and Italy, houses burned in Hungary...). It seems unfair to cover real problems with invented problems – gypsies are not a problem of this world, they are talent of this world. Everyone is impressed by gypsies – be they the unknown gypsy on your street corner, or be they called Charlie Chaplin, Mother Teresa, Elvis Presley or Django Reinhardt. This album is meant to remind us of our favourite musicians who left a trace in popular culture around the world.
Goran Bregovic’s recordings are distributed in North America by Wrasse Records.