Pleasures of the Over-familiar: Goran Bregović Wedding and Funeral Band @ Arad Open Air Festival

When you are a regular concert goer of a certain age, you reach a point where some gigs attain an almost mythical status which manifests itself in your retelling them in the Homeric tradition to anyone who cares to listen, with details varying slightly from account to account to the degree that you yourself, and anyone else involved, will start to doubt the actual flow of events. They don’t even matter all that much, in all frankness, it’s more the aura of personal legend enveloping the concert that makes it stand out. And so it came to pass that on a lovely spring’s day in the faraway 2003 we set out from Arad towards Timişoara on what was meant to be easy riding to our first ever Goran Bregović concert- the concept of a time when seeing Goran was a novelty also feels prehistoric, the man has been since scientifically covering every dusty corner of Romania and Hungary, reiterating basically the same concert each time, in the same white suit plus white shoes combo- I sometimes try to imagine his giant itinerant closet made up entirely of identical white suits.

But in those early days, when I could still watch the world with wide eyed amazement, seeing Bregović filled me with tremendous excitement. Somewhere along my tumultous adolescence I had grown increasingly enamoured of the Yugoslavia that had so dramatically imploded under my gaze, so to say, and I started reversely reconstructing it through literature, film, music, all of which I devoured without much judgement in a first phrase. This naturally meant encountering the oeuvre of Emir Kusturica, and through him, the music of Goran Bregović, the auteur of most of his soundtracks up to the point when in a very Balkan manner their friendship self destructed in a pyrotechnic manner. Travelling back in time again I discovered Bijelo Dugme, the Sarajevan rock giants whose member Goran had been, and quickly noticed how the man was oft recycling the themes Bijelo Dugme had so adeptly picked from Yugoslav folklore and packaged them for a new age- but that didn’t matter, and though some criticism has been levelled at him for the manner in which he appropriates music, it still doesn’t matter that much to me, because the way I experience his songs is tinted by the double nostalgia for perfect states- childhood and Yugoslavia (the concept more than the actual country.)

On that legendary sunny day, though, my excitement turned into full blown hysteria when our driver for the day declared that she had to pick up an ex-boyfriend, whose Opel Kadett (a make of car which has been the distillation of absolute evil ever since) was stranded in some God forsaken village naturally situated in the opposite direction to Timişoara. With increasingly mounting panic we rode out into the sunset to fetch the man and his vehicle and then proceeded to tow him along at snail’s speed, almost getting stuck under an arch in an attempt to take a shortcut. He even had the cheeky courage to ask for pee breaks which he proceeded to take in the corn fields by the side of the road, in a scene which frankly would not have been out of place in a Kusturica comedy. Having concluded that we would not make the concert at the given pace, the man+Opel beast was dumped at a rest stop, to be picked up later, and we made a crazy dash for Timişoara where we spent an eternity looking for the tickets and finally made it to the concert hall a couple of minutes late after what seemed to be a marathon run executed on high heels.

Given such picaresque backstory, I felt it would be provoking the gods not to go to Bregović when he finally made it to my hometown (hopefully with a ride smoother than mine), odd as the circumstances were: he was the closing act of the Arad Open Air festival. The festival itself has an undeniable charm in that it is held on our mostly disaffected airport, though I could not help but secretly wish we had actual flights taking off regularly, such as perhaps a city hopper to Budapest, imagining the frequent centre to the airport squeals of the taxi dispatcher to be a normal state in some utopian future. The oddness was provided by the fact that most acts had been decidedly EDM-ish, with a couple of local favourites thrown in for good measure, so Goran was a bit of a musical UFO, who did however draw a significant crowd to a not so friendly Sunday midnight slot. My ability to objectively assess further proceedings is severely impaired by all the circumstances depicted above, all I can say is that Bregović was at some point vexed by some technical difficulty and certain more picky onlookers declared that he looked a bit unenthusiastic- at the amount of concerts he’s churning out these days, I’d be surprised if he was frothing with excitement each time, and his voice also sounds ever more cracked in a way that only ever suited Leonard Cohen. 

His Three Letters from Sarajevo project, which is being promoted by the current tour, is in fact quite thought provoking, with sections of the album focusing on the three main (musical) traditions of the city, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, but it works best live when interpreted with the original artists who collaborated on the record, which was not the case this time, and it was obviously truncated copiously to make way for the well known hits, culminating with what one lady in my proximity kept calling the ‘boom boom’ song. This being said, I had a jolly old time, fueled by a dubious but tasty concoction of Almdudler and whisky- this was one thing I’d never experienced at a Goran Bregović concer before, so who knows what revolutionary surprises the future might bring.

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