Given the hatred that continually blisters relations between Muslims, Christians and Jews, Goran Bregovic could have been forgiven for making his most recent album, which partly addresses the musical cultures of those three religions, one of laments. In fact the mood of Three Letters from Sarajevo is mostly celebratory, but then Bregovic is the man who, in a previous interview, gleefully told me, “If you don’t go crazy, you’re not normal.”
The album resulted from a French commission to write a concerto for violin, the instrument he played as a child, before turning to guitar. The Three Letters of the title are excerpts from that concerto, exploring the differing violin traditions of Christians, Muslims and Jews. At the same time he wrote a new batch of songs, and it is these he will be performing on his fourth Australian tour: songs in which the Belgrade-based Bregovic celebrates similarities rather than emphasising differences.
“Obviously in this century we have to learn how to live together,” he says via a phone connection that is its own challenge to communication. “It’s inevitable. In past it was simple: you just go and learn to kill different people. Now we have to learn how to live together. So this a little effort to achieve this, which I think is the most important knowledge of human beings: how to live together with differences.
“In my language the word ‘tolerance’ doesn’t exist,” he continues. “You have to use foreign words for this. So it’s always been difficult. I’m from Sarajevo, so it’s like borderline between Orthodox Catholics and Muslims. This is why we have this terrible history.”
At the same time the composer in him absorbed and relished the differing sounds that surrounded him. “I’m from a very confusing tradition,” he says. Nothing is pure, so of course the sound of my music is contaminated by those things.”
What strikes him is how easily the supposed gulfs are bridged. “When I play with my violin player from Tel Aviv and another one from Tunis, it’s so beautiful to see how people can easily become friends,” he observes. “I don’t know how they easily became enemies, but as friends it’s really simple! At least in music we are similar. Of course this is something impossible for politicians or for religions to do simply. Music was there before we even learned how to speak, before religion, before politics, before everything. So I send this message – like a message in a bottle. Probably someone will find it.”
Bregovic, who was born in 1950, was turfed out of music school, deemed a lost cause. So the career of this man who would go on to compose for orchestras, movies (including such Emir Kusturica films as Underground), choirs and Gypsy bands really began in his teens, playing rock in Italian striptease bars with a band called Kodeski. As he told me in 2013, “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!”
Bregovic was saved from a life playing in strip joints when he heard Cream, and was turned on to the previously unimagined improvisational possibilities that rock music contained. Of course such music didn’t sit so well with the strip-bar’s management, but, because of Cream’s revelation, he considers Eric Clapton pivotal to his career. “You can spend your lifetime in striptease bars, no problem,” he said last time we spoke. “The girls are beautiful, the money is good… Because of him they throw me out at age of 18, and I never come back in striptease bars.”
He then became the guitarist and main songwriter for Bijelo Dugme, one of the former Yugoslavia’s most beloved rock bands, from the mid-1970s until 1989. Music’s gain was philosophy’s loss, as the latter was what Bregovic was studying at the time. “I was so happy to become rock star,” he says. “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.”
Although all touring musicians say they look forward to coming to Australia, you actually believe Bregovic. “Each time I come to Australia I think it’s a pity that I was not born here,” he enthuses, “because to be born in Australia is really big luck!”
While the haunting violin pieces will not be heard, Bregovic will no doubt generate his usual irrepressible party atmosphere with his band of Gypsies and mix of new songs and old, continuing his crucial role in spreading Balkan Gypsy culture to the world.
Goran Bregovic: Concert Hall, May 13.