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Goran Bregovic and his Wedding & Funeral Music Orchestra at Royce Hall

MUSIC REVIEW

The composer-guitarist-bandleader expands on Balkan traditions with a performance that's part celebratory and part spellbindingly soulful.

June 22, 2009|John Payne

Born to a Croatian father and Serb mother, composer-guitarist-bandleader Goran Bregovic brews a jolting stew of Balkan traditions that demonstrate -- often in a hilariously raucous way -- the deep rapport between the mottled musical customs of his home region and places far afield.

Best known for his score for director Emir Kusturica's 1988 film "Time of the Gypsies," the Paris-based Bregovic brought his 20-member Wedding & Funeral Music Orchestra to Royce Hall on Friday and Saturday for two UCLA Live performances that were equal parts celebratory and spellbindingly soulful.

On Friday, the question for the uninitiated might have been where the wedding ends and the funeral begins; the funky, dolorous tone of these tuba-heavy tunes bore striking similarity to that of New Orleans' marching memorial bands.

Bregovic's music, as heard on the orchestra's latest full-length collection, "Alkohol," radically remaps old borders. On Friday, that marching band brass fearlessly interrupted dignified, pensive pieces by the orchestra's string quartet. The collision produced outlandish new harmonies that were complicated further with the introduction of a hammering bass drum and Bregovic's electric guitar.

The musical pieces were chockablock with shifting meters that hopped, rolled, shuffle-boogied and roared ahead like a locomotive. The frenzy had real incentive behind it, as the bandleader stuffed cash in the musicians' instruments as they played.

Bregovic's compositions are slyly referential, similar in rhythm and instrumental texture to the polka-inspired mariachi even or the chunky thump of reggae. During Friday's two-hour-plus show, he made scholarly points about the musical minglings along the Ottoman trail and their relationship to the polyglot of pop and classical styles found in contemporary music.

His gnarled tangles of rhythms and solo vocal styles could be cousins to Turkish musical hues, which have borrowed heavily from various Anatolian cultures; one song bore a distinctive similarity to "Hava Nagila." The orchestra's six-man vocal ensemble and two Bulgarian singers recalled the close harmonies of the Greek and Russian Orthodox church choral traditions.

Royce Hall's newly beefed-up PA system further stretched the Balkan canvas with somewhat redundant extra drums and programmed deep-bass frequencies. Interestingly, the mix hinted at ways the music might be adapted to the electronic dance scene.

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