Goran Bregovic is an international star, a musician whose career now spans almost five decades. His youthful demeanour and astonishing energy are matched by his willingness to work with artists across all kinds of musical spectra and genres.
He toured Australia recently and spoke to CALEB CLUFF about his latest work and the things which drive and inspire him.
Your latest album, Three Letters from Sarajevo, conflicts and meshes different musical styles from the very outset - symphonic music, religious music, be it Muslim, Christian or Jewish; Roma, Sinti and gypsy styles, drumming. You ask the listener to consider many different threads. And you've said it's a metaphor for the city. Can you tell me a little of that?
I come from a frontier. This frontier between Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims that the politicians move left and right with acts of such horror, passes through the centre of my heart. When you come from a place that is not pure, a culture that is contaminated with many different elements, your music gets to be like that too.
I use Sarajevo as a metaphor, not as name of a town, because I think Sarajevo could be a metaphor for our times where today we can be good neighbours and tomorrow start shooting each other. This is something we have seen in Europe, almost around the world everywhere. And we saw this for the first time in Sarajevo in 1991. So I use Sarajevo as a present times metaphor.
You've been sharing your music since 1974, with Bijelo Dogme taking the then-Yugoslavia by storm. You became a huge star. What has changed in the world of music for you over the years? What's new that grabs you? What remains?
Music, like all other arts, goes in the direction that Karl Marx predicted - that we shall all be artists. And today we are on the threshold of it - whoever has the smallest camera is a film director, whoever can buy the smallest computer is a music composer. Fascinating times we live in!
I read an interview you did last year with Osloboenje where you told a story about a Jewish man praying in front of the Wailing Wall, and I wondered if you might recount how that tale reflects on the issues in Three Letters?
A CNN journalist hears of an old Jew who has been praying at the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, twice a day each day for sixty years now, and decides to visit Jerusalem and make a documentary about his experience. She watches him pray for some 45 minutes, approaches when he finishes, and presents herself:
"I am Rebecca Smith, CNN. I hear you have been praying here for a long time?"
"Sixty years now."
"Sixty years! That is amazing. And what do you pray for?"
" I pray for peace among Christians, Jews and Muslims. I pray that hatred and war may end. I pray that our children may grow up into responsible beings and love their neighbours."
"And what has this praying brought you, how do you feel after 60 years of prayer?"
"I feel like I'm talking to a wall."
and also my comment:
It seems obvious that in his schedule God did not plan to do this for us and that we will have to find a way to fulfil this prayer ourselves.
Can I ask you about your passion for 'Gypsy' (Roma) music, your identification with those roaming cultures, because I feel in Australia we have a very limited understanding of the deep history there, and also of the enormous problems, the discrimination those people face.
Their music speaks to our most profound needs. Deep down most of us would like to be a Gypsy. It's a metaphor for that part of the soul which defies gravity. The Gypsies teach us about a traditional system of values when freedom was different and more precious than it is now.
My album Champagne for Gypsies is my response to the extreme pressure that Gypsies have been experiencing all over Europe in the past few years (expelled from France, Italy, houses burned in Hungary...) and around the world, in general. It seems to me that real problems are covered with invented problems and this album is my small gift to confirm that Gypsies are not the problem of this world, they are the talent of this world.
You tour relentlessly! Do you ever tire of being a nomad, or does it provide you with energy?
It's like riding a bicycle - either you pedal or you fall.
You started playing in a strip tease bar? Is this a true story? That must have been a fascinating slice of life to influence you as a young musician.
It is a true story, a short-lived experience. Very early I had the reputation of a good musician and played with musicians who were older than me. In Communist times strip-tease bars were not only places where you watched naked women, but were also cult places where one could have the impression of an escapade from life.
As a 17-year old I arrived in Naples and my great pride was to be able to play music to which women take off their clothes. However, that was in the 70s - LSD times, and I of course immediately started having problems with drugs... so that chapter in my life ended after a year - my mother came to fetch me and took me home to study.
"There is a life before the war, and there is a life after the war." It's a very broad and indelicate question, but can you describe at all how what happened in the 1990s in Sarajevo affected you, and the way you approach your music?
War is a stupid game that leaves behind not only terrible and attractive scenes on CNN, but also deep wounds in the social tissue, wounds that heal painfully, slowly, sometimes never. Big towns recover faster, small towns take longer to heal. Sarajevo is a small town. When you are born in a place like the one where I was born, you must be prepared for more bad than good news in life. But, you just step on the speed-pedal and go on.
Musicians from all around the world - rock, folk, everyone - look to work with you; they appear to enjoy your enthusiasm for music and life generally. How do you keep celebrating life?
It is always easy to work with people with great talent. I like to mix with various musicians because I am an eclectic person. My music is eclectic. Since I myself work with archetypes, I like to work with artists who in their way are archetypes. I lay my own archetype next to theirs and they live parallel lines, like strata in a fossil stone.
I like to work with Gypsies just as much as I do with Iggy Pop or Cesaria Evora, the late Ophra Hasa or Scott Walker - those people are my musical family. They have marked a certain space and time. When you juxtapose archetypes you understand what they have in common that passes through the filter of Time. It is hard to predict the result but it is a process I enjoy very much.
You synthesise so many styles in your music, but there is always an underlying knot that that ties you to the Balkans. Can you tell me about what roots your music to that place?
Composers have always stayed close to the source - so have I. If I were born a hundred years ago I would be just a local Balkan composer but it is good that the world has become curious and has interest in a musical culture that is very small in comparison to the great ones of Spain, Italy, Germany. I appreciate that this curiosity has made my music known all over the world.
You're coming to Australia and New Zealand at a time when we are dealing with our own religious grief, with the murder of 50 people in mosques. Around the world there is great tension between regions and between ideologies. What role does music play in overcoming these differences? How can we promote harmony rather than sectarianism?
I am now too old and too far from the times when - out of vanity - I imagined that art can change the order of things. But I am still too young to lose hope!
Could you tell me about your love for Rembetika and how it's central to our musical worlds?
It's just that Rembetika is probably the best music that Balkan has - a natural mix of Ottoman and Orthodox music.