There’s a famous video on YouTube featuring Balkan superstar Goran Bregović in his hometown of Sarajevo. It’s 1991, a year before the brutal, four-year siege in which nearly 14,000 died when Bosnian Serb forces surrounded the city during the violent upheavals that led to the collapse of Yugoslavia.
Then in his thirties, Bregović is pictured standing in front of the city skyline. Bells ring out from the city’s churches. At the same time, you can hear the Muslim call to prayer. Speaking in Serbian (with English subtitles) he says: “What we hear are mosques, churches, cathedrals. It’s noon in Sarajevo. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can hear them all together, and sounding so beautifully. It would be a shame if it had to stop one day.”
Goran Bregović. Photograph © Nebojsa Babic
Nearly 30 years later, Bregović is still trying to spread the same message. “It is in a way a little sad that I am saying the same thing for 30 years. But there are some things you have to repeat and repeat because they are important,” Bergović told a Canadian reporter last year.
Last year, Bregović released the first part of an album called Three Letters from Sarajevo, for which he gathered artists from different cultures and communities, to celebrate the religious and ethnic diversity that was once found in Bosnia’s capital. The second part is to be released this year.
Speaking to Limelight on the phone from Georgia, Bregović explains what inspired him to create the album – songs from which he will perform in Australia this month.
“I am from Sarajevo first and then I was commissioned actually to write a violin concerto for the Saint-Denis Basilica in Paris. So, I start to think of two metaphors – Sarajevo is a metaphor because what you saw in Sarajevo in 1991, now you can see all around the world. Today we can be good neighbours and tomorrow shoot each other just because we are different religions, so Sarajevo is one metaphor,” he says.
“The other metaphor is violin because the violin is my first instrument and it is played in three main manners – Christian for how you play for classical music, Klezmer, the way the Jews play their music, which is completely different, and Oriental, the way Muslims play. So, I thought I will write a violin concerto which has three violinists who come from those three traditions. And I also start to write songs for some of my favourite Christian, Muslim and Jewish artists so actually I have two records. The first part is the songs that I wrote and the second part is the violin concerto [for three violins and a symphony orchestra] which will be out at the end of the year, so we are coming to Australia to bring you the first part, which is the songs.”
Goran Bregović. Photograph supplied
Bregović was born in Sarajevo in 1950. His father is Coat, his mother is Serbian, and his wife is Bosnian Muslim – a model for the acceptance and diversity he espouses and celebrates. He became a rock star in the former Yugoslavia with his band Bijelo Dugme, then went on to write award-winning film scores and compose for orchestras. For the past 20 years, he has toured the world with his Wedding & Funeral Band, playing his signature blend of Balkan Gypsy brass and folk percussion with a string ensemble with vivacious vocals.
At his Australian gigs, he will play songs from his Three Letters from Sarajevo album, along with popular repertoire from his catalogue from across the last three decades, which reliably has audiences up and dancing.
“I will tell you a story that is on my CD Three Letters from Sarajevo,” he says. “Someone from CNN heard about this old Jew who came for years to pray at the Wailing Wall [in Jerusalem]. So, she tried to make a reportage about it, and she said to the old Jew ‘you are here for years to pray to this wall in front of God’. And he said ‘yes, for 60 years every day’. And she said, ‘you talk to God about what?’ And he said, ‘I am trying to tell him about the wars between Jews, Muslims and Christians, and if it stopped we could live in peace’. And the woman said, ‘and what happened?’ And the man said, ‘I have an impression that I am talking to a wall’.”
“So [we can] learn from this story that obviously God didn’t put it into his schedule to teach us how to live together, this is something that we have to learn by ourselves. This is the challenge for human beings on this planet, to learn how to live together… so as a composer this is what I did,” says Bregović.
“Of course, I am privileged. As a composer and director, I can put together things that are impossible for politicians because music, it was there before language and politics and religion. So, Three Letters from Sarajevo it’s a message but probably it’s like a message in a bottle and I am going to come to Australia with this idea.”
Bregović, who always wears a signature white suit on stage, is bringing nine musicians with him. “When I play songs. I come with my brass band and my Bulgarians singers so it will be nine people and me,” he says.
Goran Bregović and His Wedding & Funeral
“It is easy to put people together around music. It is impossible for anything else except soccer. [With music] we can, with no problem, all be together. This is why concerts are so good, for me on stage and for the audience down there.”
“I play this concert from Siberia to South America, we are doing now Mexico, I will play America, I have played Canada, I play all around the world. This stereotype that in the North people are cold and in the South they are warm, it’s just a ridiculous stereotype. People everywhere like music, and if you speak well this language – music – it is everywhere the same.”
Bregović has performed in Australia before and says that he always receives a warm reception. “It is always very joyful, and it is nice to play in a place that is generally happy.”
As usual, he expects that many people will be up on their feet dancing. “I am from a place where just the music is never enough. For a lot of my records it’s [a case of] ‘if you don’t go crazy you are not normal!’”
Goran Bregović and His Wedding & Funeral Band play at QPAC on May 10, Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide on May 10, Perth Concert Hall on May 12, Sydney Opera House on May 13 and Arts Centre Melbourne on May 14