"I don't like perfect tuning," says composer Goran Bregovic. "Perfect tuning makes me feel uncomfortable. I like to have a little madness, you know. And that's where the madness is — when the instruments are a little bit out of tune."
Bregovic — a multimillion-selling star in the Balkan countries — is now in the U.S. for a 10-city tour. He recently wrapped a European road trip that included performances in Switzerland, Spain, France, Moscow and Bulgaria. (Monday's show here is part of the Cleveland Museum of Art's Viva and Gala series.)
Bregovic's Weddings and Funerals Orchestra is an exotic circus of influences that includes anywhere from 10 to 40 members. Its largest incarnation features a Serbian gypsy band, a 12-piece string section, a choir of 15 male voices and three Bulgarian women singers. For the Cleveland show, Bregovic is bringing approximately 20 musicians. He plays guitar and writes based on traditional Eastern Europe music. But he interprets it in his own extravagant style. His latest album, Alkohol, teeters on the inebriated and captivating sound of focused energy and rhythmically hot players not quite in tune.
Born in Sarajevo, Bregovic comes from a place where East meets West and social occasions are steeped in the traditions of Catholics, Jews and Muslims. "As a composer from such a place, you find influences from different music," he says. "It is a little Frankenstein-y."
Bregovic's career has also been a little Frankenstein-y — huge and successful on all fronts, but stitched together out of influences as diverse as his homeland's various cultures. His first instrument was the violin, but "as a young kid, you understand immediately that girls prefer guitar players," he says.
After shuffling among schools, Bregovic was on his own when he turned 17. He supported himself playing strip joints, where the scene is considerably different than at gentlemen clubs in the U.S. "During the Communist time, strip bars weren't just about naked women," he says. "It was a refuge for artists and intellectuals."
Before he turned 20, Bregovic formed Bijelo dugme, a Balkan rock band that was so popular, they were referred to as the "Yugoslav Beatles." One writer even noted they'd sold more records than there were record players in the country. The band performed from 1974 to 1989, just before the Bosnian War started.
Bregovic began composing film music around that time. His first project was the score for director Emir Kusturica's Time of the Gypsies in 1989. He followed that with Kusturica's Arizona Dream, which starred Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway; Iggy Pop sang Bregovic's songs on the soundtrack. Three years ago, he scored Borat. He's also written for singer Cesaria Evora. In all, he's sold more than six million albums.
In 1998, Bregovic founded the Weddings and Funerals Orchestra. It's got almost nothing in common with the mercenary cover bands you hear at weddings over here. "I'm from a place where a wedding or funeral is still the two most important things in [a person's] life," he says. "My first trumpet player comes from a village of 20 houses, and when he got married, he had 1,500 people there for three days. In this place, there are huge stars that still play weddings."
Bregovic isn't one of them. His Weddings and Funerals Orchestra plays mostly original music informed by Balkan traditions, in concert settings. To build the band, he looked for players that would give the group an aggressive, rustic sound. "I throw out all the new woodwinds and replace them with old woodwinds," he says. "I throw out all the brass and replace it with Gypsy brass. It's always a little bit out of tune. It's a little bit like punk. It's not just the music."
There's another punk ideal Bregovic subscribes to: He likes to drink onstage. He prefers plum brandy, "slivovitz" — which happens to be the name of the first section of the two-part Alkohol. The second is called "champagne." But, adds Bregovic, "The only place I drink is onstage."