Not just a rock star!

Goran Bregović is widely acknowledged as the most accomplished musician Yugoslavia has ever produced. Born in Sarajevo within a mixed marriage typical of the time (father was Croat, mother Serb) he founded the greatest rock band in Yugoslav history Bijelo Dugme (literally, “White Button”). He went on to compose film scores for some of the countries best films such as Underground and Time of the Gypsies and acclaimed international movies including Arizona Dream. With his Funeral and Weddings Orchestra he has become one of the most internationally renowned composers of the Balkans. He is releasing a new album in the UK Alkohol and is playing at the Barbican on 30th July.

We are meeting Goran Bregović at a west London hotel on an extremely cold and rainy Tuesday afternoon. We are not sure what to expect. After a short wait the star of our teenage years walks into the small meeting room off the reception area and shakes hands with each of us. Relaxed, casual and in the mood for an “espresso and a glass of water”.   “This could be anywhere” – I catch myself thinking – “even Sarajevo.”

…on his new album Alkohol

I was playing at Guča in Serbia (a Balkan trumpet festival). Instead of my usual routine I thought that we’d play something special – stuff we play when we’re jamming together and having fun. When I saw myself on the videos I noticed I was rather drunk, the first time that I had actually got drunk during a concert. I usually don’t drink at all, except just a glass or two during concerts. I always make sure that it’s written into my contracts – there has to be alcohol on stage.

So it occurred to me that I should really make a soundtrack to drink to. There are two records the first one for thehard liquor is called Šljivovica and the second one for Champagne and the like which is released in September.

We do not have classical music in our tradition. When Monteverdi composed his first opera L’Orfeo we still had the gusle – a single stringed instrument. Of course, we cottoned onto it in later years but with us music was for alcohol, for drinking. We don’t have that narrative structure for opera but only for the gusle

…on the folk-fusion trend

Anything Bijelo Dugme did that was any good had a fusion with folk music tradition.   So for me today, it’s like changing clothes. I don’t dress like an idiot as I did when I was young. In music I don’t wear those idiotic clothes we call rock ‘n’ roll. It’s rare to find a composer whose musical roots are not obvious. Stravinsky is all folk music, Gershwin, it’s true of McCartney, Bono, whoever…the hardest thing is to lie in music because scientifically it is our oldest language. Before we learnt to speak, religion or politics, our first way of communicating and dealing with the scary unknown was through music or sound, which is why it is so easy to understand. It is the most human language but also the hardest in which to lie. 

I remember the first time I was at an MTV award in New York and all the megastars with their entourage were out with electric guitars, synths, all manner of percussion, the lot… and the award went to Ofra Haza, she’s a Yemenite.   She came out in her traditional folk dress and sung this most lovely song without any accompaniment. This tiny woman from her tiny culture came out and eclipsed all of those megastars… The world has changed slightly. For the first time larger cultures steal from the minor cultures. 

…on talent

Britić: You’re still the biggest star back home.

Well, I’m talented.

 We laugh and relax in Bregović’s company.

Britić: We know! What is the secret of your success?

It’s really hard to explain. Do you know what talent is? We know the same things you and I. There’s nothing inside me that you have not experienced, seen, heard or eaten, it is only about what information you select. You might choose one thing when you synthesize art and I another. There is no other difference. I don’t have any kind of God-given gift. I don’t create anything. 
I simply synthesize. When I do it, it’s like cooks in the kitchen, some mix the ingredients together better and some worse but the ingredients themselves are the same. Otherwise there is no difference between us. 

…on the famous cherry tree fall

It was the dress rehearsal for my funeral.

He makes us laugh again. I remember people on the beach in Montenegro talking about nothing else, from bebe to babe. We had a visitor from Belgrade who brought newspapers which were full of Goran’s famous fall from the cherry tree. Local news had updates daily.

It wasn’t so bad to live through your own funeral. People started to contact me from everywhere – close and long-lost relatives, total strangers, gypsies from Germany. The Crowned Prince and Princess sent a guard with basket of fruit; the French culture minister sent a telegram, the owners of restaurants sent soups and stews… It was awful to break my spine but it was nice to know there were so many people who would wish you well.

Britić: Interestingly, last year, around same time as you, Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones also fell of a tree.

Yeah, it’s like a joke that every old man enjoys climbing trees… What exactly was he doing up a cherry tree?

…on Sarajevo

Everyone I talk to says Sarajevo has completely changed but I don’t see it. That’s the biggest shock to me that nothing has changed. The people still have the same small town psychology. Usually people try to escape small towns but Sarajevo has something which glues people to it. Maybe because it’s my hometown, I guess everyone has some kind of unresolved emotional battle with their hometown.

…on his exile in Paris

The winter before the war I was at Jahorina, Sarajevo and then in March I went off to Paris for a film score and that’s when the war started. I was very lucky to have escaped being trapped in Sarajevo for four years… I had been comparatively rich, working since the age of 23 so I had more money than I needed. Then one day you wake up and you have nothing. Fortunately, I still had a little pad in Paris which I bought ages ago and then I spent the first few months glued to the television (following events at home) and then I started to work. Stuff I never did before, I accepted anything that was offered to me; adverts for perfumes, oils and margarines... I think that during the four years of the war I worked on 30 film scores. I was lucky enough to get paid for doing what I love. Then when I had earned enough, I stopped that kind of work.

…on working

I like that I have discovered work. Where we come from we treat work like kuluk*   We only worked as a means to an end. But in France they have a different work ethic…They enjoy their lunch break, they don’t just shove a sandwich down their neck but with make it special…

So I have got used to working. Before that with Bijelo Dugme I never really worked. Every few years we would release a new album. During the Communist era the tax regime was 45% up to a certain level after which they would charge another 90%. That’s why I didn’t work that much. During my Bijelo Dugme period I composed less than 100 songs. So I never really worked. I travelled the world, was president of some boxing club, mountain climber, I went sailing, more travel but never really worked. Now for the first time I work, eight hours a day like people in the normal world. 

…on success

People think that the world is as it looks on TV. But that’s not true. In the last six or seven years I sold over 5 million records but I’ve never been on TV. I have to show my backstage pass when I go to my own concerts. Why does anyone need to know my face? I’m not some kind of a pop star anymore.

We all laugh. At this point I decide I will abandon all my prepared questions and just simply have a chat. Even though I had no expectations I am surprised by his ability to put us at ease. He continues with an ever present, completely natural half smile on his face.

…on his ideal dinner guests

Einstein. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to read his theory of relativity…try it and you’ll see how entertaining it is… When I was a kid they released these little books like comics – Karl Marx, Einstein. I find it interesting not because I hoped to understand it but because I enjoy thinking about this every now and then. I always carry it with me to read when I travel.

Britic: Have you heard about Mileva Marić* and the current controversy about who wrote the theories –her or Einstein?  

Yes. Who wrote it…? Mileva Marić does not have her biography printed in those small books. But I suppose he could bring Mileva along too!

…on why he could never live in London

London has always been a place of work for me. It’s got great studios. But when I decided to buy a flat abroad I chose Paris. Somehow…the light here is poor, like it is not really daylight. I know people who live here and they say the same. Some have had psychological problems.

Reader’s Question: any plans for another Bijelo Dugme reunion?

We did three concerts (in 2005). They were lovely…I played songs I had forgotten. Bijelo Dugme could be the very last elegant reminder of the former Yugoslavia. It never went down an unfamiliar road for the sake of anything unsavoury. So, we carried on from where we left off all those years back and it was really nice. I have played at many huge concerts. You have all this aggressive energy to give out only to have it sent back to you. It was the first time, I don’t know if it has ever happened with concerts so large, but there was no aggression, no incidents. I looked at the front rows. When anyone tried to start trouble there was this overwhelming desire for calm and it was not disrupted.

It was not only due to the music. The music was just the draw. But I felt that people wanted to gather around something. I am not thinking Serbs, Muslims and Croats but…it was nice to think we still had some songs we could sing together and the fact that I wrote them was lovely. There were 75,000 in Sarajevo and Zagreb and 148,000 tickets were sold in Belgrade… people travelled from…Lord knows…our basketball team hired a plane from the USA just to get to the concert. I was happy to do it but I would not want to do it again and I think it just wouldn’t be the same. This was genuine, it was an historic moment.

Britic: Goran Bregović is not just a rock star but a symbol for unity. Serbs, Croats and Muslims want that old YU feeling.

I don’t play any role in this. I don’t represent anyone. I don’t like to push myself in that context because it serves no one. One time only, prior to elections in Bosnia (before the war) there was just one party that was not nationalist. We calculated if this party gets 18% of the vote there will be no war. But our war started from the parliament – it was a war that everyone voted for. I was recently reminded of this as someone showed me a clip of Haris Džinović, myself and Zdravko playing the song Zvezda tera Mesec at a concert. There wasn’t a single literate or cultured person in the public eye who had not tried to help get this 18%, without exception. Everyone who was anyone in public life writers, myself, Kusturica – we all tried. We travelled across the country and all we got was 3% of the vote. So if you put all that talent and reputation together it was not worth that much, at that moment I realised not to get involved in such things not because I don’t want to but because I don’t think my opinion is worth more than a jackass’s. So I have never taken that road since.

Exactly on the hour the door opens and his manager appears silently. (I am pleasantly surprised that he does not have an entourage around him.)   We still have loads of photos to be signed. Goran is very patient. He signs them carefully, still chatting. Aleks brought a couple of plectrums for Goran “just to touch”. He does it without any questions but smiles at the strange request. While taking photos with him he remarks to me “Evo Sarajevske koke!” We laugh again.  I am thinking how much we have laughed during the past hour. They allow us to take photos with the star. On the way out Goran said he is glad to have done this interview.

Well, we are glad indeed!

*Editor’s footnotes:
Kuluk is turcism – a word left from times of Turkish occupation when people had to work to pay tax – so kuluk is a form of tax to the occupying force.

*Mileva Marić was Einstein’s first wife. She was a Serb and an extremely talented mathematician and unlike Einstein, an excellent student.

by Biljana Krstović