Close-Up Melancholy and violins – New album by Goran Bregović

Goran Bregovic
© Nebojsa Babic

In his album "Three Letters From Sarajevo", Goran Bregović combines Balkan folk with traditional sounds from other regions. 

Goran Bregović composes world music that appeals to a broad public. It is at home both at the traditional Serbian Guča Trumpet Festival as well as in European concert halls. The 67-year old guitarist and singer, who initially became successful in Yugoslavia with Rockband Bijelo Dugme and later as a soundtrack-composer, has consciously limited his musical style to that of self-indulgent bar music, which gives it a carnivalesque air.

Compared to the more complex approach of Boris Kovač, Bregović is evidently mainly seeking out the primitive aspects of traditional music. This lends his music an auto-colonial touch, because he represents the Balkans as wild, romantic, bloodthirsty places filled with ethno-kitsch. Of course, many secretly like this kitsch, because the exoticism of the Balkans creates a convenient smokescreen for a lack of understanding.

Goran Bregović plays it safe

In his newly released album "Three Letters From Sarajevo", Goran Bregović once again unfolds his typical mix of old Balkan stories, melodies from Roma music and Spanish influences. Together with a hint of Balkan pop. Some of the eleven tracks also recall the music Bregović composed for Emir Kusturica’s film "Arizona Dream" (1993). He also plays it safe by delivering what the average consumer of Balkan folk music is used to hearing.

"Three Letters From Sarajevo" starts with the track "Jalija", a short, fast playful piece with elements of the traditional Bosnian and Herzegovinian work song, which leads into the theme of the album. Bregović, the son of a Serbian mother and Croatian father, who was born in the Bosnian capital where he now also lives, aims to reflect the multicultural, multi-ethnic reality of life in the city.

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Together with the closing track "Made in Bosnia", which is basically a variation on the theme of the first song, "Jalija”, a framework is created for Goran Bregović’s attempt to present to the world the complex history of Sarajevo. But this doesn’t work in conceptual terms. Apart from the two songs mentioned above, only "Christian Letter", "Muslim Letter" and "Jewish Letter" deal with this topic. These are also instrumental pieces in which a violin takes the lead.

Guests from Spain, Israel and Algeria

At the same time it creates a connection between the cultural identities of the city. The melodic, melancholic sound also evokes an atmosphere of nostalgia, so you come to the conclusion that, in these songs, Goran Bregović is looking back on a Sarajevo that disappeared a long time ago. The remaining pieces are characterised by a mixture of the above influences with Bregović extending the Balkan setting of his music by including traditional elements from other peoples. Algerian Rai-rocker Rachid Taha and the Spanish singer Bebe appear on two songs. Both are still recognisable, but are drawn very deeply into Bregović’s sound cosmos. It is as if he is saying that the Balkanisation trend in different European countries has made his music accessible and worth listening. But ultimately, everyone just wants a bit of fun and licentiousness. And that’s exactly what he gives them.

This is evident in the second part of "Three Letters From Sarajevo", which is characterised by typical Bregović melodies. The guest appearances, such as by Israeli folk rocker Asaf Avidan with the song "Beila Leila" are a refreshing change. They show Goran Bregović is well able to compose a different type of music, but that he ultimately prefers to present things as easy-to-understand kitsch. However, one has to admit that he is a master at selling this trashy Balkan folk music around the world.

Goran Bregović: "Three Letters From Sarajevo" is issued by Mercury.