One of the most beloved Balkan composers and musicians was born and raised in Sarajevo and acted as a silent witness to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He amasses a wide range of emotions and pours them into his music, looking for sources of inspiration in the most unusual of places. Goran Bregović’s most recent project, Three Letters from Sarajevo, is grounded by three violin and orchestra pieces, recorded under the auspices of the Saint Denis Basilica in Paris. Each of them represents one of the religions you can encounter in Sarajevo: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But is music the proper meeting place for the entwining of such strong symbols?
Mr. Bregović, please tell us a little bit about the early days of your career and Bijelo Dugme (White Button).
Bijelo Dugme was a rock’n’roll band I played with during the Communist regime. And in Communist countries, rock’n’roll was rather more of a religion than music, more of a social phenomenon. So, I figure it was important.
How did you start working with Emir Kusturica? How did that collaboration change your music?
Well, when I played in Bijelo Dugme I was considered a rock star in my country. And that’s exactly when I started collaborating with Kusturica. Out of friendship. Rock stars… don’t make film soundtracks. There’s not enough glory or money in it. The war started while we were shooting Arizona Dream and we made the following movies during the war. That was difficult for the both of us. But I was lucky to work with him on three of his best pictures. I gave him my best and, of course, he did the same for me.
You’ve had so many collaborations over so many years. Do you still learn new things from the people you work with?
If you check out my albums, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some guests… They’re people whom I would normally ask for an autograph if I met them at the airport. But I was lucky enough to work with them. You’ll find some remarkable artists: Cesaria Evora, Iggy Pop, Gipsy Kings, Asaf Avidan. So, obviously, if you work with such major personalities, a miracle will unfailingly happen. That’s why I surround myself with talented folks.
You have come out with a new record, Three Letters from Sarajevo. Is the album a metaphor for the three religions that coexist in Sarajevo, as it is believed? And, if so, what would you like people to feel and understand when they listen to it?
On Three Letters from Sarajevo, I placed side by side things that music alone can unite, as it’s impossible for politics and religion to do so: Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Nothing seems odd in music, because music existed long before people could speak, before religion and politics. So, my two-part album (of which we’re now presenting part I, the first opus) includes a few song and a few pieces for a violin concerto that I was asked to write. You’ll find remarkable Jewish, Christian, or Muslim artists performing together. And they sound harmonious. This is a privilege only a composer can have… However, I like to imagine the world will one day be a musical score. Where long notes match short ones, fortissimo matches pianissimo. Of course, this is not an album that will change the world, but if you imagine it could light up the difficult path we’re on, I suppose that even a small light could be helpful. So, my music is like a message in a bottle tossed into the Ocean, which someone could find: a small light on this long path to a better world.
What’s Sarajevo like today?
When you’re born in places like Sarajevo or the Balkans, where the boundaries between the Orthodox, Catholics, and Muslims have been put up for centuries, you live in a place where optimism cycles are followed by despair. We are now living through an optimistic moment, even though we might not have a serious reason for this, and I’m seeing people who hope that Europe has a plan even for us.
You’ll be returning to Romania this September, to delight Romanian audiences. What do you like about this place?
I discovered Romania during Communism. It was closed up and mysterious. But I was one of the few foreign artists who flew all over Romania. You’re so lucky to have been born in such a beautiful country, with wonderful music that has always served as an inspiration for me!
Finally, what are your upcoming projects, plans, and dreams?
I plan on releasing the second part of the Letters from Sarajevo, opus 2, which will include a violin concerto, because I started this whole project in collaboration with the Saint Denis Basilica in Paris, which asked me to write a violin concerto for a symphonic orchestra. So I wrote three letters, because there are three ways to play the violin: Christian – classical; Klezmer – as the Jews play it (the technique is completely different), and oriental – as the Muslims play it. So that’s how I decided to compose the album, which will be ready next year.