Rock’ N’ Romany

How have conflicts in the former Yugoslavia affected the region’s music and culture?

September 28, 2002

How have conflicts in the former Yugoslavia affected the region's music and culture?

Ask any native Sarajevan about the rock scene in their city before the Bosnian war began in April 1992. They will brag that Sarajevo was the center of Yugoslav music—beating out even bigger cities such as Belgrade for that honor.


The names of the fabulous bands that called Sarajevo home will roll off their tongues: Indexi, Plavi Orkester (Blue Orchestra) — and Bijelo Dugme (White Button).

The guiding force behind the Bijelo Dugme band was Goran Bregovic, who played guitar for the group and wrote most of its songs. From their first record in 1974, they were one of the most popular rock bands not only in Sarajevo and the rest of the former Yugoslavia — but in all of Central Europe.

Bijelo Dugme was influenced greatly by the blues-based "heavy" rock that was popular in the United States and Britain in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But the group quickly grew beyond this basic sound and started to experiment with other kinds of music — including the rich folk heritage of Yugoslavia itself.

Bregovic’s innovative combination of folk music and rock later would have an unforeseen influence in Serbia. Under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, some artists celebrated Serbian nationalism — and the exploits of the criminal world — with a combination of rock, dance and folk music. This new sound was dubbed "turbofolk."

Belgrade singer musician Zoran Kostic-Cane even explicitly linked this aggressive style of music to the conflict. "Three key components of this war,” said Kostic-Cane, “are alcohol, greasy food — and folk music.”

By the time that the wars broke out, however, Bijelo Dugme had broken up. Goran Bregovic, its leader, had long since moved on.

He abandoned rock music for a more intense exploration of other musical forms — including gypsy music, tango and brass band music.

Bregovic’s music took on a new complexity. He embedded snatches of traditional tunes into new compositions — much as classical composers such as Antonin Dvorak, Bela Bartok and Aaron Copland did in the Czech Republic, Hungary and the United States.

Bregovic found the perfect outlet for his new sound — by composing the soundtracks to motion pictures. The noted Yugoslav film director Emir Kusturica featured Bregovic’s music in two of his most famous motion pictures, Time of the Gypsies (1989) and Underground (1995).

These films proved to be the perfect platform for Bregovic’s musical explorations. His song, “Ederlezi,” featured on Time of the Gypsies, uses a piece of Kosovo Albanian folk music as the foundation for a haunting and ethereal vocal arrangement.

“Ederlezi” manages to capture the desolation and poverty of Romany life — and also its profound color and richness.

Bregovic’s music for Kusturica’s dark comedy, Underground, was even more radically experimental. It twisted the traditional Serbian brass band into intricate and pretzel-like arrangements.

Songs such as “Wedding Cocec” — another traditional song arranged with new vigor by Bregovic — perfectly captured Underground’s frantic farcical look at Serbian history.

His success also brought the composer more work in soundtracks — including jobs writing the music for Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (starring Johnny Depp), Queen Margot and Train de Vie.

These movies — none of which had Yugoslav themes — showed that Bregovic had a flair for writing in modes other than Romany and Serbian music.

Yet, he complained that the pace of scoring films was too much — and suddenly decided that he would do no more soundtrack work.

Since giving up his film work, Bregovic has dedicated himself to a deeper exploration of his greatest love — brass band and Romany-influenced music.

The composer has created what he called A Wedding and Funeral Choir and Orchestra, an ensemble that can number up to 40 musicians.

At its core is a traditional Serbian/Romany brass band with trumpets and tuba, which is then augmented with strings and a range of multilingual vocalists.

On Bregovic’s latest work, Tales and Songs from Weddings and Funerals, the music ranges from songs that capture the traditional sound to bold experiments with compositions for “wine glasses and strings” and “violin, cow horn, harp and strings.”

It is music that is by turns joyful, drunken and sorrowful, sung in Romany language, Serbian and Italian.

It is almost impossible for musicians from the Balkans to escape politics. Certainly, in Bregovic’s case, the politics of the region — from “turbofolk” to the racism directed against Romany — color his work.

But the politics of Bregovic’s music are the politics of joyous free expression. His music captures the struggles of the Romany — in poverty and despair — to carve out a place for hopes and dreams.

Bregovic identifies closely with the Romany experience. In May 2000, he told the Times of London that “Deep down, most of us would like to be a Gypsy.

"It’s a metaphor for that part of the soul which wants to defy gravity. The Gypsies teach us about a traditional system of values when freedom was different and more precious than it is now.” In his music, Bregovic captures such freedom for his listeners.