Mournful, frenzied, and ecstatic -- Alkohol seems a fitting title indeed.
For many years now in the U.S., Goran Bregović's music has been limited to a small but devoted group of fans, mainly art film aficionados who had heard his music in the excellent soundtrack to Emir Kusturica's films Arizona Dream (1993) and Underground (Cannes Festival winner in 1995), among others. Having established himself as an internationally renown film composer, he went off in the mid-'90s in a solo composer and bandleader direction, making an album with Turkish singer Sezen Aksu, and then one with Polish singer Kayah, the latter a six times platinum record. In 2006 Bregović composed the soundtrack for the film Borat, for which his samples attracted a fair amount of interest. So, he's big in Poland, and he does manage to pack in medium-sized venues in some major U.S. cities (I saw him in the amphitheatre of Chicago's Millennium Park about five years ago), but most of his work has been available strictly as imports in the U.S. until this, Alkohol.
Bregović was born in Sarajevo to a Serb mother and a Croat father, but spent much of his early life in Belgrade. He took violin lessons as a child, and learned to play guitar as a teenager, finally landing in the rock group Bijelo dugme (White Button), one of the most popular groups in the former Yugoslovia, in which he played lead guitar, composed, and sang until their demise in 1989. He left Belgrade in the war, and found love in Paris.
His band, the Weddings and Funerals orchestra (appropriately named when one concentrates on the variation of sounds and moods of their songs), features brass, strings, bagpipes, and an all-male choir from Belgrade, while traditional Bulgarian and Roma singers make up the rest of this whopping 40-piece outfit.
Bregović's music is definitely foreign to many in the West. Yet, the mélange of influences contain echoes of the familiar. Tracks like "Tis Agapis Sou to Risko" have a vague ska beat to them, made further reminiscent by the (beat) hop! (beat) hop!... The repeated "boom, boom, boom" refrain is one of the few lyrical morsels to which a non-Serbophone can latch on. "Ruzica (Rose)" is another slow number whose vocals are downright morose. Other songs feature something like a Balkan importation of Jazz scat.
Those of us familiar with gypsy music (again, not as though it's an everyday phenomenon on FM radio—anywhere), will hear that influence. The vaguely middle-eastern vocal pattern seems on the verge of ululation, a distant cousin of the Alpine (and classic American country) yodel. Then there's the brass, often driven by a steady "oom pah pah" tuba. There's often something minor key about the vocals and the instrumentals, even though the majority are upbeat; one senses a touch of balefulness to these numbers, reminiscent of some of the Jewish music tradition. This is especially true of tracks such as "Na'tan Ixara Oikopedo," which begins with a slow slurred woodwind that produces the musical equivalent of tears. The song then shifts after a few bars into a slightly chaotic beat. The trumpets at times sound like out of tune mariachis. The snare and tuba plough forward, making it hard to resist getting up and jumping around the room.
Generally, the songs lean toward the upbeat. The album's first track "Yeremia" begins with the cry "Al-ko-hol!" It's a festive start. And yet, here's a fair amount of variation between the oom pah pah numbers, which themselves, as I say above, shift tempo. "On the Back-Seat of My Car" features bongo-type percussion, a less manic time signature, and male and female vocals in alternation. "Gas Gas Gas" features a thumping electro bass, with Bregović no doubt on acoustic guitar and vocals.
All in all the album features a variety of musical influences layered skillfully on a Serbian and gypsy traditional folk sound. As with many beautiful albums in world music, one need not be able to translate the lyrics to appreciate the music (though that would surely be a different and enhanced experience). The tones and beats tell a story on their own. Mournful, frenzied, and ecstatic -- Alkohol seems a fitting title indeed.