02 January 2007

Doin' the Kalashnikov

By Eric Jansson
Published by Financial Times, 20 December 2006

How to define the borders of a region when the usual measures – economic, political, cultural and topographical – overlap confusingly?

In the Balkans, one way is with music. Driving south-east from Austria, turn on the car radio and scan for unfamiliar sounds. Where the warbling melodies start, you’re crossing in. Where they dominate the dial, you are there.

By the time you get to central Bosnia-Herzegovina, you are fully submerged. All the hallmarks of Balkan music – the singers’ tortured warbling, the tonal structures modestly challenging to the western ear, the pounding beats of pumped up “turbofolk” pop songs – are unrelenting. Not just Bosnjak, Serb and Croat influences but Hungarian, Roma, Turkish and other sounds blend with the inevitable doses of rock n’ roll and hip-hop.

Balkan music is a volatile concoction. Though instantly identifiable, it can also be difficult to define. Selling it outside the region is even harder.

Yet at least one of its practitioners has found a way to shape Balkan music appealingly for a global audience. Goran Bregovic, a Sarajevan of mixed Serbo-Croat parentage, left Bosnia during Yugoslavia’s painful collapse. He has since lived in Paris, returning to Bosnia for holidays and gigs.

Formerly a rock n’roller with the Yugoslav-era band Bijelo Dugme (White Button), Mr Bregovic, 56, now works with broader orchestral forms. His compositions charm a broad international audience, although many listeners do not know him by name.

He frequently composes for the cinema, most recently contributing to the score for Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s wildly successful spoof, which Mr Bregovic predicts could prove “socially as important” as Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 parody, the Great Dictator.

“Humour is a higher form of communication,” he says. Like other artists from black-humoured Bosnia, Mr Bregovic deploys it powerfully and sarcastically in his music.

Among the original compositions he performs with his brass-heavy touring orchestra is a wild song called Kalashnikov, after the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle. Punctuated with blurting horns and hearty cries of “Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!” the song manages to convey both a gleeful, devil-may-care will to destroy while delivering, through its conscious excess, a subtler message that perhaps the listener should care.

It may be easier to joke like this in Paris than in Sarajevo. At the executive level occupied by the international community in the Bosnian capital, diplomats do their utmost to infuse public life with a distinctly humourless political correctness – the antithesis of the whimsical, combative Balkan culture that many say perpetuated the war. Songs such as Mr Bregovic’s are a reminder of the grittier, franker culture that prevails at street level.

He manages to pose himself both as an advocate of inter-ethnic tolerance and as a battler against homogeneity in an age of globalised tastes and perspectives.

“Fortunately the world does not begin and end with MTV. In all parts of the world, I seem to come across curious people who appreciate weird composers whose music doesn’t sound like the mainstream,” he says.

This is a lesson many younger musicians in Bosnia struggle to heed. Sarajevo has long been a creative centre for aspiring pop and jazz musicians, a hub of nightlife and liberalism. Still, most upstarts are tempted either to mimic western groups, as Mr Bregovic acknowledges Yugoslav-era rockers did, in a “faint provincial echo” of their idols, or to indulge the kitschiest excesses of turbofolk. Local musicians rarely innovate. They do, however, respond to local stimuli, turning Bosnia’s political frustrations into fodder for protest songs.

A prime example is Sarajevo-based Dubioza Kolektiv (The Dubious Collective). Adding traditional Bosnian musical riffs to the western idioms of reggae, dub and hard core, the group of seven performers – a woman, Adisa Zvejic, joined by six unambiguously angry young men typically dressed in fatigues – rant stylishly about public life in Bosnia.

There is nothing inauthentic about the frustrations expressed by Ms Zvejic when she belts out Dubioza Kolektiv’s anthem “Triple Head Monster”, a boisterous tongue-lashing of Bosnia’s ludicrously ineffective tripartite presidency and political corruption in general. Her sentiment is one of the few shared across the country’s ethnic divides.

Diplomats at the helm in Sarajevo, if any hear this storm of noise or see the seething video that accompanies it, must feel lucky the anger is not directed at them.

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