Goran Bregovic brought his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra to San Francisco for the first time Sunday night and put on a show that was unforgettable for what took place onstage as well as in the audience. If you've ever had the good fortune of traveling in Eastern Europe or the Middle East and received an impromptu invitation to join a large wedding where everyone there was a total stranger to you but nevertheless treated you as if they had know you their entire life, than you have some idea of what this show felt like. It was an experience.
The crowd was mostly made up of people who originally came from the former Yugoslavia, though there were more than a few of us from other parts. However, once the music started, it took about fifteen minutes to transport the entire audience off of the top of Nob Hill and drop it down into a dance hall in Sarajevo- or something like that.
The show began with a string quartet playing a slow, sad dirge, who were then interrupted by a five-piece brass band which entered from the back of the hall. The brass band sounded messy and sloppy, as if five guys drinking ouzo just decided to start playing Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass together for the first time. It was a great entrance. Then the drummer came out (a guy with great charisma and looks who reminded me of Michael Hutchence and seemed to have a similar effect on many females in the audience). Then Bregovic comes out in a crisp white suit and hands each horn player a $50 bill while they continued to to play some crazy Roma romp.
Two women came onstage in traditional Bulgarian dress, followed by six big men in tuxedos. This line-up then proceeded to take a musical road trip through the Balkans that included at least a dozen different stops. Pumped up ska, Roma music, tango, laments (one singer had a gorgeous voice reminiscent of Lisa Gerrard's), a Lee Dorsey tune, a rave-up with a chorus about Kalashnikov rifles (which I think was featured in Borat) and a lot more unfurled over the next two and a half hours. If someone reading this can tell me what "GUS!" means I'd appreciate it. The exhortation showed up in at least a couple of songs and people chimed in with abandon.
There's definitely a theatrical component to all of it- the strange pairings of the Bulgarian women with the guys in tuxes, the dapper Bregovic, the good-looking Ademovic keeping the time with nothing but a bass drum with a cymbal strapped to its top, the strings always looking a bit reserved and the brass always looking a bit sweaty. Bregovic said the orchestra's for hire for weddings or funerals, though they cost more for funerals, so he advised the audience it's better not to die.
As if they needed to reminded of this.
The audience sat still for about 10 minutes and then started moving in their seats. Once the band hit full-tilt party mode the place just erupted. Money was thrown onstage, gorgeous girls made their way to the front, and even the people way back in the balcony just kept on dancing. It was exuberant mayhem. As a cultural outsider relative to the majority of the audience, I couldn't escape the impression that many in the audience were revelling in the opportunity to re-connect through the music with a home they'd left behind in their physical lives, but not in their hearts.
Kudos to SFJazz for presenting this show. It was an unforgettable conclusion to their spring season, though the re-scheduled CeU show will take place next month at Herbst. Bregovic and the orchestra did two shows in L.A. before heading north and the always interesting to read Out West Arts review can be found here.