By Fotios Kaliampakos
NEW YORK – Goran Bregovic fascinated New York audiences who danced in the aisles at the sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall. The famous Balkan composer and musician spoke to The National Herald about his background, his music, and upcoming projects.
TNH: Please tell us a little about yourself and your home country. Your father is Croatian and your mother Serbian. How has the split of the country, Yugoslavia, the war and particularly the situation in your hometown, Sarajevo affected your life and your music?
GB: I suppose you would say that I am a Balkan contemporary composer, which is far away from the contemporary world and I am a composer that mainly writes happy music probably just because I am from that place and we are like always in the period, we always had these periods of optimism and desperation, but still I think now it is on a moment of optimism, knowing history is no reason, but I think this is a moment of optimism in the Balkans and Sarajevo, too.
Luckily, in the beginning of the war I was in Paris, I was working on one movie, so I was not stuck in Sarajevo for 4 years, but if you look at the history of art, you see that a quite huge part of the history of art belongs to exiled artists, without this exile I would be probably just one “retired provincial rock star!”
Because of this exile ja, it gives me, I was pushed from distance to a little bit to understand better my small culture from where I am and I had to start from zero again because I lost everything in one day. In a way maybe the war was probably the best thing that happened in my life… The fact that I had to start twice from the beginning, now if I think about it, every routine it is just routine but I had this luck to begin again.
TNH: How do you compose? What is the procedure from inspiration to paper? How does this activity relate to the one of the performer? What are your current projects?
GB: I am from rock and roll, and I suppose like everyone from rock and roll you need to be surrounded by musicians to make your work, I am always in the mess in my studio every day, at least ten people at lunch, that is how I make the music.
TNH: A big part of your work is, as well as your last two concerts in New York were, about the music of the gypsies.
GB: This music and the life of the gypsies has always fascinated composers, even those of the western classical musical tradition such as Brahms, Bizet, Dvorak, who have all connected it also to a free way of life, full of emotions and away from the compromises of modern society.
TNH: What are the characteristics of, and what is the attraction to that music? Is it more authentic, closer to the past, closer to the human condition? Is there something you would like to add to your New York concerts? What attracts you to this city? Why does this music matter to an international audience? Lincoln Center in the summer and Carnegie Hall was sold out!
GB: Well I think what is, if there is anything that makes it different is how we imagine music and the others it is that we need, if it is just about music it is never enough, it is, we must have some little madness to be happy with music that is why like brass orchestras, because gypsy brass brings, like early punk, it brings madness not only music, it was a little bit out of tune and it is always exaggerating.
Well, when you said the world gypsy, it is for me identical metaphor with cowboy, Gypsies are actually European cowboys, as a metaphor, everyone would like to be one day just cowboy or gypsy, just to feel that freedom, that everything can fly, but unfortunately people love gypsy music but not Gypsies, they are about 6 centuries in the west and they have difficult time with us, but I think it will come a day when at least Europe will recognize that gypsies left song and strong traces in European culture.
My last record is champagne for gypsies, and comes out in a difficult moment for gypsies and this is why I invited some of my favorite gypsy artists, of course it is not a political record, it’s about drinking and dancing record, but I just wanted to remind us that gypsies left some strong traces to our culture so I invited from the generation of “Gypsy Kings” still Gogol Bordello one of the last gypsy stars. My “Wedding and Funeral Band” gave the opportunity to play for the New York audience many of my pieces, some gypsy music, some of the music that I had done for movies and also my current projects.
TNH: On one occasion, I saw you perform, I think it was in 1997, at Zappeion with George Dalaras and other Greek artists celebrating Greece’s winning bid to host the Olympics. You have collaborated for decades with several Greek artists. In an interview, you gave some years ago to the Greek media, you described the Rebetiko as the most valuable music tradition of the Balkans. Why is that?
GB: I had this luck to work with some of the best Greek artists and to play in the best places of the world in the ancient Greek theaters and that is some of the best experiences in the world I had as a musician and of course I was very much influenced by Rebetiko, which is for me like Balkan Pink Floyd, with the long intros, kind of music that is done for the people who are not in rush, if you are rushing you are not listening to Pink Floyd or Rebetiko, it is coming from the time when Turks threw out the Greeks, from the time of the First World War so they brought this mixture of Orthodox and Ottoman music which is probably the most beautiful music ever to come from the Balkans.
Probably what we are witnessing today is that for the first time in history, small cultures are influencing the big ones, not only in music, in movies, in cinematography, in literature, in kitchen, probably even my music influences some artists in the west, especially DJ’s I see they like to jump on Balkan music!
TNH: What is your current project?
GB:It is called three letters from Sarajevo and it started in Paris as I was commissioned to write a violin concerto for a symphonic concert for violin and symphonic orchestra so when you have commission you try to find some points from where to start, and I think that Sarajevo is not only a city but a kind for metaphor for modern times where one day you can be good neighbor with somebody and the next day you can start shooting at each other.
Starting from this metaphor violin comes logical as another metaphor, because violin is played in three main manners Christian/classical, Klezmer, how the Jews play, it is a different technique, and oriental is how the Muslims play in the orient. So, my violin concerto was written in these manners for three violinists and symphonic orchestra, I performed it in the summer with the National Symphony Orchestra of France with these three violinists one Christian, one Jew, one Muslim. This is my current project, I will have some songs by some artists of course, it is not going to be again a political record, it will be… again about drinking and dancing again I hope!