A party in the Balkans is unimaginable without two things: brass instruments and alcohol. Goran Bregovic may appear to have much the same needs. Despite the astonishing breadth of music that he composes (for performance and film) a brass band is never far away, and nor, if his unforgettable 2008 Concert Hall appearance is any guide, is a drink.
“This,” explains Goran Bregovic gleefully on the telephone from Sarajevo, “[is] why the motto of my two alcohol records: ‘If you don’t go crazy you’re not normal.’”
Yes, he has just completed a diptych of “alcohol” albums. The most recent, Champagne For Gypsies , champions a people who now find themselves more persecuted in Europe than at any time since the Nazis.
Gypsy culture also underpins the music that Bregovic has popularised around the world. In fact Bregovic believes that Gypsy-based music is the only legitimate contemporary music produced in the Balkans. “All the rest is just provincial reflection of world trends,” he says dismissively. “The nice thing is that today there is a curiosity around the world about small cultures. Not only music, it’s in everything: cinematography, literature, kitchen. So with this curiosity people discovered this small, cute music that is Balkan music.”
Cue gales of laughter from the man whose take on the “small, cute music” is his Weddings and Funerals Orchestra, with its brass, strings, percussion, choir and lead singers.
Such ambition and sophistication make his early years as a songwriter seem improbable. “At the very beginning you start with guitars and five guys,” he says, “and they learn what to play, and then someone starts to invent something, and this was me,” he says. “It’s not like I’m Jesus Christ-like: I was sent as a composer, or I discover my big mission. No. There were four of them who were idiots, and I was less idiot, so I start to compose!
“I start to play very early. I played in striptease bars at age of 17 [in Italy], so it was like God send me a signal: You will have fun with what you will do in your life. I saw more naked women at age of 17 than all kids in Communist Yugoslavia together, I think!”
The person whom he credits with saving him from a life playing in striptease bars is Eric Clapton. Clapton’s band Cream showed Bregovic unimagined improvisational possibilities in rock music. Of course emulating Cream was hardly what striptease bars had in mind, and Bregovic had to turn elsewhere to play his music.
“I consider him [Clapton] the most important guy in my life, because you can spend your lifetime in striptease bars, no problem. The girls are beautiful, the money is good… And because of him they throw me out at age of 18, and I never come back in striptease bars.”
In fact a drug problem saw him promise his mother to give up music altogether and concentrate on his philosophy studies, until his last year, when he began playing again, and his career – music, not philosophy – took off.
“I was so happy to become rock star,” he enthuses. “Not all because I was rich and famous and all the girls jumped on me, but because I escaped from that destiny of teaching philosophy.”