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My next-door neighbor, Goran Bregovic

Then: Goran Bregovic and Bijelo Dugne.

It is serendipitous, even ironic, that here in Ann Arbor, Michigan I will see perform, for the first time, my neighbor from Sarajevo. Balkan music icon and acclaimed film composer Goran Bregovic, and his band the Wedding and Funeral Orchestra, one of the most spectacular performing acts to emerge from the Balkans in generations, are coming to the University Musical Society Hill Auditorium this Saturday, October 15.

Much has been said about Goran’s creative oeuvre, the spectrum of his talents and extraordinary music which blends robustly earthy dance tunes infused with brass and string arrangements, with Eastern European choral music ripe with the profound luster of sentimentality. This is going to be an electrifying, ecstatic musical spectacle. This concert is not to be missed, and I cannot wait to be there this weekend. In light of this visit and my own excitement, there is a story, as strange as it is sincere, that I wish to share with you.

It may not be commonly known outside of the Balkans that Goran was the founder and leader of Bijelo Dugme, or White Button band. Widely considered to have been the most popular rock band in what was at the time the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia and one of the most influential musical acts of the Balkan rock ‘n roll scene, Bijelo Dugme drew critical attention and public frenzy unlike any other band. In the post-Josip Broz Tito Yugoslavia of the 1980s, Bijelo Dugme’s music transcended cultural and political boundaries and arguably brought the rich fabric of the region’s life and culture much closer together than any political leader ever could. Goran’s larger than life persona attracted attention from across the spectrum. He was grand, and to the teenager I was at the time, almost mythical, like Johnny Cash or John Lennon.

In the mid 1980s, Goran, or as people in Sarajevo used to call him, Brega, moved to an inconspicuous apartment building in an old and eclectic working class neighborhood called Mejtas. Mejtas, like many Sarajevo neighborhoods was diverse, an almost dream-like world which was the home to a little bit of everything. Small residential houses dating to the Ottoman period, mixed with Habsburg architecture of the fin-de-siècle, and Josip Broz Tito’s era socialist style apartment buildings. An old Sunni mosque, with its crooked minaret stood a short walk from an old Sephardic synagogue, and the Queen of Rosary Catholic Church. Goran lived at 14 Cekalusa Ulica, which in my native language means the waiting street. I lived at 18 Cekalusa Ulica.

It was the most exciting, bizarre thing I could imagine. I passed him regularly on the street and always mumbled zdravo Brega, hello Goran, before rushing toward my front door to avoid the embarrassment. I can’t imagine Goran noticed this confused kid living next door. Everybody in the Mejtas neighborhood would have said hello to him because that is the way it was. The older and bigger Mejtas kids were punks, notorious on Cekalusa Ulica, especially down near the old Synagogue, where they hung around a small kiosk which sold cigarettes, newspapers, chewing gum and such things. They teased all the younger kids and would have made it impossible for me to walk down my own street if they knew of my attempt to be chummy with the famous neighbor.

Like all teenagers I dabbled in rock ‘n roll music. While attending high school, I formed a rock band but we never performed. My proximity to my famous neighbor may have intensified my desire for stardom, but I was just a kid and had to find my own way. It was around this time a friend suggested we audition for a folkloric dance orchestra KUD Miljenko Cvitkovic as band members, a gesture I looked at with misgivings. To a 15-year old, playing traditional folklore music was as unhip to the point of being tragic. I nevertheless tag-a-long, a decision that profoundly affect my life and career, and those around me.

Now: Goran Bregovic at Eurovision 2008.
KUD, an abbreviation of Kulturno Umjetnicko Drustvo, cultural artistic society, was a typical Yugoslav institution formed following the Second World War in the early days Socialist Federative Republic Yugoslavia. In his effort to promote bratstvo i jedinstvo, brotherhood and unity, an official policy of inter-relations between all Yugoslav nationalities, Josip Broz Tito encouraged the formation of artistic societies in which youth would interact.  While material goods were not readily available in the aftermath of the Second World War, everybody could sing and dance. There was an undeniably rich diversity of musical traditions throughout Yugoslavia.

The eclectic diversity of Sarajevo, and perhaps my own youthful age, could not help me fathom the complex twists and turns of post-Tito’s-death Yugoslavia (Tito died in 1980), let alone imagine the fall of this extraordinary society.  Between my short-lived fascination with my famous next-door neighbor and the collective realization of the looming storm approaching the country, I was lost in my own youthful magic and enchanted by the musical traditions of the Balkans: from Bosnian Muslim sevdalinka (slow blues songs) and Sopska petorka kolo (an intensely fast dance from the region of Southern Serbia and Northern Macedonia), to Kosovo Rugova (a solemn Albanian tap dance without music), and tamburaske pjesme (string arrangements of the Slavonia region of Northern Croatia).  Between 1985 and 1989, I traveled with KUD Miljenko Cvitkovic and performed at folklore music festivals throughout all six Yugoslav republics, the Balkans, Western Europe, and the Middle East, and subsequently discovered a world rich in meaning and full of promise. I left Yugoslavia in the spring of 1990 and took in my heart, an amalgam of these voices and sounds.

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the melting pot of the Balkans and Goran’s birthplace, was the blueprint of what was once Yugoslavia. Goran never forgot that. His extraordinary music, his life’s work, guides rather than manipulates, like a voice which tells us to open a window into the everyday reality of a different world. That’s where I will be this Saturday.  With my neighbor.