Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Eastern Promises

June 21, 2009

Goran Bregovic and his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra

UCLA Live completed its 08/09 season this weekend with a much hyped performance from Goran Bregovic and his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra direct from the former Yugoslavia and surrounding areas. The hype machine rolled right up until the band walked on stage as David Sefton, UCLA Live’s Artistic Director, arrived with pre-concert comments proclaiming the band the best live show he’s seen in 25 years when he first encountered them in London. And, while I certainly wouldn’t go that far, Bregovic and his fellow musicians do have one energetic, arch, and enticing show. On the surface this ensemble, which varies in size from location to location, is a conglomerate of eastern European forces that play driving Romani-inspired folk music. This weekend in L.A., the 19 players included Bergovic, his long time collaborator Alen Ademovic, a five-member brass band, two female Bulgarian vocalists, a six-member male vocal group and a string quartet. Songs about drinking, love, and death populated the rotation.

But, while the music is undoubtedly influenced by folk influences, things are not exactly what they seem on the surface. This orchestra is many things, but not one that plays at weddings or funerals. Bergovic has a long history in music and performance, having fronted a rock band for over a decade in the former Yugoslavia and for many years worked as a composer for films, including several from fellow countryman Emir Kusturica. He’s also worked as an actor, and it’s clear from the activity that his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra is much more than a folk ensemble acting as cultural ambassador abroad. The show is often a bit of an act. Both the brass band and the Bulgarian singers appear in folk costumes, with the male vocalists in tuxedos and Bregovic himself in a shiny suit. As the maestro entered the stage, he paid the members of the brass band with cash, giving each a single apparently large denomination note. Certainly these may simply be cultural traditions appropriate for the setting, but considering Bregovic's pedigree, I suspect they are also played for effect. Which is really part of the fun of the show. It's sly and in a way slightly menacing with a kind of self-awareness that isn't about self-deprecation.

As the band played its often quick and rhythmic mix of Bregovic’s music from films and other sources, there were clearly other elements than simple songs of drinking and love. “Kalashnikov” concerns the evils of militarism in his own native land, and later Bregovic soups up Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya” with an Eastern European flair. It’s all very danceable, but there’s something deeper and more deliberate beneath the surface.

Of course, the crowd responded to the rhythm with large numbers dancing in the aisles at Royce Hall. A bevy of thin women in tight clothes rushed to the front of the stage in the throws of cross-cultural ecstasy. And while there were undoubtedly several of Bregovic’s fellow countrymen and women in the audience, the overall response was closer to what my friend Christina would refer to as Au fait. Now I’m not sure exactly how I ended up in the front row, but the disturbed, and I might argue leering, glances of the male brass players and others on stage towards some of the female revelers had me wondering how much revulsion may have been mixed in with all of the bon temps roulez. Still, it was a unique evening, and one can’t argue with an ensemble that is this tight and musically strong. No matter how you measure it, the evening was a big treat in a rare L.A. appearance for this group.


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