Goran Bregović Reconciles Religion With Music On 'Three Letters From Sarajevo'

Dec 20, 2017
Originally published on January 4, 2018 11:52 am

Goran Bregović is one of the Balkans' most beloved musicians and composers. He grew up in the Bosnian town of Sarajevo and witnessed the atrocities of war in the 1990s. But he channeled his home region's pain, as well as its endless humor, into his music, and got his big break composing for films like Emir Kusturica's Time of the Gypsies.

Bregović's latest project, Three Letters from Sarajevo, is an album anchored by three pieces for violin and orchestra, written as a metaphor for the three religions coexisting in Sarajevo: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. As Bregović explains, the different types of music are meant to illustrate tumultuous times we live in — times where "today we are good neighbors and tomorrow we can shoot each other just because we are from different religion[s]. ... I like to understand music as a conversation," he says. "Music is language."

The album features voices from all over the world — from latin pop singer Bebe to Israeli folk rocker Asaf Avidan. Bregović joined NPR's Ari Shapiro to talk about it; hear their conversation at the audio link.

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Goran Bregovic is one of the most beloved musicians and composers from the Balkans. He grew up in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo and witnessed the atrocities of war in the 1990s. He channeled the Balkans' pain, madness and endless humor into his music.


GORAN BREGOVIC: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: His latest project is called "Three Letters From Sarajevo." It's an album with singers from around the world anchored by three pieces for violin and orchestra. Bregovic told me he wrote these violin compositions as a metaphor for three religions coexisting in Sarajevo - Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

BREGOVIC: Sarajevo was a metaphor for this time today because what we see now in the world - it was seen in Sarajevo for the first time, that today we are good neighbors, and tomorrow we can shoot each other just because we are from different religion. So I use this metaphor as a starting point. And then my next metaphor who makes the music is violin, who has played in three main manners - classical Christian, which is how we know is played in our Western schools, how is we teach the kids to play violin. I was one of them.


BREGOVIC: Then there is klezmer, the way Jews play violin...


BREGOVIC: ...Little bit different technique because there is always some little twists and exaggeration and kind of sense of humor that classical violin doesn't have.


BREGOVIC: And then as a third, there's a Muslim way of playing violin, which is really different technique.


BREGOVIC: It's completely with semi-notes that we don't use in classical music, also with glissandos and flageolets that we don't use in that way like in classical music.


BREGOVIC: So this is - in the sense of metaphors, those three way of playing violin serves very well a message that I want to send with these three letters.

SHAPIRO: I know that you compose these pieces. Did you play the violin for these concertos, or were they all guest performers?

BREGOVIC: No (laughter). No, I'm not good at.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BREGOVIC: I was just on the beginning. Because my father was - he was soldier of course, but he was among the violin players. And his big dream was that I play violin. But I was clever kid. I think immediately I understood that girls prefer guitar players than violinists, so...


SHAPIRO: So you picked up the guitar.

BREGOVIC: Of course I pick up the guitar.

SHAPIRO: There are so many collaborators on this album from all over the world - Tunisia, Israel, Spain, Serbia. Tell me how those collaborators all fit into your concept for this album.

BREGOVIC: Because I'm not the guy from the showbiz, so it's always simple with me. I had luck to have collaborations with a lot of artists that I will ask autograph on the airport if I saw them.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BREGOVIC: So because - so it's - probably on this record, it's - this is record that has more influence than ever from the others...


BREGOVIC: ...Because you know, once you start to play your song with Rachid Taha, immediately song became kind of Arab punk because...

SHAPIRO: This song is "Duj Duj."


SHAPIRO: And he's from Algeria.

BREGOVIC: Yes, yes.


RACHID TAHA: (Singing in Arabic).

BREGOVIC: Then you start to work with Bebe, who is beautiful Spanish artist. She was nominated for the Grammy last year...


BEBE: (Singing in Spanish).

BREGOVIC: ...Who turn your songs on opposite. Whatever you - I imagine in my song that has to be loud suddenly became soft and female.

SHAPIRO: Bebe's song is called "Pero." Let's listen to a little bit of this.


BEBE: (Singing in Spanish).

BREGOVIC: If it's possible to make punk tender, she managed to do that.


BEBE: (Singing in Spanish).


ASAF AVIDAN: (Singing) Leila, Leila, dance our memories away.

BREGOVIC: Asaf Avidan is probably one of the most interesting voices nowadays I think in the world.

SHAPIRO: Beautiful Israeli singer...


SHAPIRO: ...With this high, reedy voice.



AVIDAN: (Singing) Let us drink our sorrows, say goodbye to our tomorrows, (unintelligible).

BREGOVIC: And so when you start to play your song with him, suddenly it catch some twists that you didn't plan to have it.

SHAPIRO: His song is called "Baila Leila."

BREGOVIC: "Baila Leila," yes.


AVIDAN: (Singing) Baila Leila, (unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: You've been making music with so many people over so many years. Do you still learn new things from your collaborators?

BREGOVIC: I don't know. I think, you know, I started very early. I started as a striptease bar musician.

SHAPIRO: Really? That was your beginning?

BREGOVIC: This is my beginning, yes, in age of 17. So...

SHAPIRO: On the guitar?

BREGOVIC: Yes. I played bass at that time. And I promised my mom that I'm not going to play music, and I study for four years. I study philosophy. And during communist times, when you study philosophy, you became professor of Marxism. So I was saved from this destiny of teaching kids Marxism because I became rock 'n' star in the last year of university. So I have long career. And now days, I like to understand music as a conversation. Music is language.

SHAPIRO: You know, this album paints a picture of Sarajevo that is so international and multicultural where people of different religions coexist peacefully. Is this the Sarajevo of today, or is it the past, or is it just your hope of what it may someday be?

BREGOVIC: Well, unfortunately this is terrible borderland with terrible history. So this is one unhappy place. Human beings are conditioned machines. If you condition them to be good, they will be good. But unfortunately when war comes out, all the worst from the people comes out. So I think now it's one period after the war still that still everyone try to find a way how to make real peace among Muslims, Catholics and the Orthodox.


SHAPIRO: I know you've said that since the early '90s, you've tried to put together things that were destroyed by the Balkan war. And I wonder why you feel that this is something you have to do. Why is this an artist's responsibility?

BREGOVIC: Because for me, it's easy. It's difficult for religion and politics - can put together the things that are inimaginable for politics or religion. But like one little message in a bottle that you throw in ocean, someone will probably find it. This record is not very much showbiz or big top-20 records. But it will find some audience. Already my career is miracle. I'm from such a small musical culture, and I have audience in farrest places on the Earth you can imagine.


SHAPIRO: Goran Bregovic, it's a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

BREGOVIC: Thank you so much.


BREGOVIC: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Composer and musician Goran Bregovic - his latest album is "Three Letters From Sarajevo." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.