Goran Bregovic is probably the most famous performer to have emerged from the Balkans.
He has just released a new album Alkohol: Šljivovica and Champagne, that is largely made up of reworkings of his music from the 1970s and 1980s.
This was a time when Bregovic sold millions of records across former Yugoslavia with his band Bijelo Dugme (White Button).
The group developed an approach that Bregovic describes as a mosaic of South Slav folk blends, sometimes mixed with jazz, invariably “clothed in rock”.
Bregovic – himself born to a mixed Serbo-Croat couple – identifies his native city of Sarajevo as the source of his inspiration.
He told Socialist Worker, “Sarajevo was always a mixture of different cultures. It’s quite a small town but with a tendency to becoming a city. It must have been the fusion of all these things.”
The band opposed the divisive nationalism that accompanied the economic crisis in the 1980s and the subsequent wars.
He explains that exile after the wars transformed him: “Artists from small cultures are always troubled by their admiration of bigger cultures… Now, for the first time in history, it is the big cultures that listen to the small ones.”
People’s curiosity for different styles of music suggests it is untrue that “the only music that exists is the one on MTV”.
Bregovic had already started to produce soundtracks for several imaginative films while still in the band, something he continued after it dissolved in 1991.
Three of the most memorable came in collaboration with Yugoslav film director Emir Kusturica. Bregovic arranged traditional Roma music for Time Of The Gypsies (1988), a moving magical-realist film set against a background of human trafficking.
He worked with punk legend Iggy Pop on 1993’s Arizona Dream, before embarking on the furious and haunting tunes for Underground, the 1995 film about the Yugoslav Wars that won the Cannes Film Festival.
These works enabled Bregovic to reach a world audience.
He has toured extensively with the Weddings and Funerals Orchestra, which unites brass and Roma bands.
Doing things playfully and aggressively, differently from how the industry standardises expectations, he explains, is the key to success. He likened it to living like the Roma – a metaphor for defying convention.
Such a romanticised image is emblematic of Bregović’s occasional concessions to popular perceptions. Nevertheless, Bregovic composes a music that is defiantly joyful and movingly melancholic. It’s no wonder that it knows no borders.
Alkohol: Šljivovica and Champagne
Goran Bregovic, Wrasse Records
Goran Bregovic will perform at Barbican in London on the 30 July 2009