Review: Goran Bregović and his Wedding and Funeral Band

The great Balkan party starter Goran Bregović returns to Adelaide for a life-affirming celebration of music and cultural cross-pollination.

Goran Bregović has spent his entire career bringing multiple music traditions together. Most obviously, he pioneered a style that navigates the shared territory between Balkan brass music and punk. That punk seems the more staid of the two genres says something about the wild abandon of the Balkan rhythms.

Now in his sixties, Bregović has slowed down a little but the brass musicians cannot help but remain the centre of attention when they are deployed. They sound the opening notes of the concert from the back of the Thebarton Theatre before walking towards the stage as the audience turns in their seats. And though their contributions are restrained at the beginning of the night, by the end they are the hedonistic cheerleaders of a wild, unrestrained party.

That five-piece section (including a less than traditional sax) forms the nucleus of the trimmed-down Weddings and Funeral Band, which also includes two Bulgarian singers, a drummer and Bregović himself, looking and playing the part of an ageing punk rocker with a white suit and tousled hair.

His contributions are muted to begin with, drummer Muharem Redzepi placing himself firmly at the centre of attention with soaring, ecstatic vocals that bring the religious theme of Bregovic’s latest album to the fore. Overshadowing a Balkan brass section is not an easy feat, but he manages it. Three Letters From Sarajevo focuses on the Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions of Bregovic’s hometown and Redzepi’s solos are appropriately rapturous. Despite the potential for solemnity this is music of celebration, the only sour note coming from the heavy use of a recorded backing track on songs like SOS because of the smaller band (yes, a nine-piece band qualifies as “smaller” in this case).

But while the opening of the show is marked by restraint, it can only exist temporarily. Soon Bregović is yelling “Sex! Moussaka!” and exhorting the crowd to “party, party, party” to the parodic, hyperactive bounce of Quantum Utopia. This is a man who saw his hometown almost destroyed by war – it’s no surprise that he wants to enjoy life while he can. Though seated throughout the concert, he is ecstatic, radiant as he squirms in his chair. Meanwhile the brass section, afraid that it may have been forgotten earlier, becomes increasingly frenetic.

They liven up the ska punk of Baila Leila as Bregović leads a singalong in his world-weary rasp, milking everything he can from the slow chorus that leads inevitably into a frenetic crescendo of swirling horns.

In The Death Car goes further, the louche noir lullaby he wrote with Iggy Pop providing a brief respite from the manic pace of the other songs. By now the band fills the hall without the need for any backing track and those who have left their seats sway and sing along. How anyone can sit to this music is a mystery, and Bregović knows that is not how his music should be enjoyed. Towards the start of the show, he warns us that “if you don’t go crazy, you’re not normal!” As he ends with Bello Ciao and Kalasjnikov, anyone left seated quickly rises and there is no doubt that Adelaide can finally see the wisdom in those words.

Goran Bregović and his Wedding and Funeral Band performed at Thebarton Theatre on Friday, May 10

Header image:
Goran Bregović archival image, photo: Mikhail Ognev

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