Champagne for Gypsies

There ain’t no party like a Goran Bregović party, as the Balkan bandleader will prove with exclusive Australian performances at the Adelaide Festival and WOMADelaide.

A former European rock star, Goran Bregović’s music career has taken many twists and turns during his four-decade career. Starting his professional life as a strip bar guitarist in Italy, the Bosnian Serbo-Croat’s life changed when he heard Eric Clapton’s band Cream, which led him out of the strip bar to form Bijelo Dugme, one of Yugoslavia’s biggest and most influential rock bands. If life was represented by three acts, then Bregović’s rock ‘n’ roll life was his first. His second occurred after he quit rock and director Emir Kusturica asked him to score his film Time of the Gypsies (1988), which led to more soundtrack work. Bregović’s third and (likely) final act arrived when he formed the hugely popular Weddings and Funerals Orchestra. It’s a career that no one, including Bregović himself, could have predicted.

“No one could have foreseen that the 18-year-old guitarist playing in strip-tease bars in Italy would have this career - I seem to have lived several lives in one,”  Bregović says. “At the end of the 80s, after 10 years of rock star whirlpool, I retired. I didn’t want to play anymore, I’d had enough. Kusturica asked me to compose music for his film Time of the Gypsies and my film composer career began. In 1992, when the war in Yugoslavia started, I was in Paris finishing the music for Arizona Dream. I could not go back to Sarajevo, and for a while I took what was offered - music for publicity and films. Then I was asked to compose a string quartet for the Balanescu Quartet and that’s how my third career started. I adapted my film music for stage (played with a full symphony orchestra at first), wrote some new songs and my Weddings and Funerals band was born. We first toured Greece, Poland, Spain and Italy... then it spread like wildfire. In a way I am a war profiteer – my third, international career started because of the war.”

Currently working on his next opera, Orfeo Di Bregovic, for the Festival Della Taranta in Southern Italy, Bregović will bring an 18-piece band, which sometimes expands to 37 members, to Australia. His band, the Weddings and Funerals Orchestra, is an infamous good time orchestra, which features an out-of-tune brass section.

“Brass bands stem from the military tradition and now count by hundreds between Istanbul and Bucharest. Most of them still play on the same old tattered military trumpets, instruments very difficult to tune. This is precisely the reason why I like to work with these bands; they make me think of early punk, of times before God Save the Queen was recorded – the first punk piece produced by a serious producer. Punk was touching and human until producers started using elaborate instruments with tuning machines. Punk died after it was tuned. I still find something out of that human out-of-tune playing in my Gypsy bands.

“Some 15 years ago, I started playing concerts again, I began with a classical formation of a mixed choir and a symphony orchestra (120 people on stage). Then I threw out of the orchestra everything that disturbed me – and what disturbed me the most was that inhuman in-tune playing. I threw out the woodwinds and replaced them with traditional flutes. I threw out the beautiful women’s voices and replaced them with four Bulgarian singers. I took a male choir from an orthodox church, and replaced the brass players with a Gypsy brass band and added traditional percussion instead of timpani. I continued to scale down because the full Weddings and Funerals Orchestra experience comes from the texture of the music rather than from the numbers.”

It is likely that the Balkan and Gypsy sounds of his Weddings and Funerals Orchestra will be his final artistic movement.

“When I was younger I thought there were thousands of possibilities to research. At this age I am aware of how short life is, and when I know that there is only one possibility to be searched wholeheartedly, I stopped searching in the sense that I am trying to say something with my music. I have limited myself to being a Balkan composer.”

Bregović’s rock ‘n’ roll upbringing still influences, as he keeps the hedonistic streak from his previous musical life alive in his songs and live show.

“Whether I write simple things for children’s instruments or more complicated ones for choirs and orchestras, I must always have fun. And I know that when I have fun, my audience also has fun.”

Goran Bregović and the Weddings and Funerals Orchestra
Adelaide Festival
Festival Theatre, Tuesday, March 12
Monday, March 11



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