BEIRUT: The audience was still filing into their seats, laughing and calling to one another through the humid summer evening when the clear notes of an expertly blown trumpet pierced the air.
Heads turned to the unlit stage, adorned with a scattering of mics, chairs and drums, and empty of performers. From amid the bushes to the left and right of the stage, men began to emerge. Clad in sherwal-style trousers, white shirts and black waistcoats, curly-toed leather slippers and colorfully embroidered cumberbands, they strolled the dusty strip of ground between seating and stage. As the audience clamor began to taper off, they performed a playful call and response.
Gypsy music maestro Goran Bregovic has played in Lebanon a number of times over the past decade, and should be in no doubt that he boasts a firm Lebanese following. Saturday night’s concert marked his first at this particular venue – an intimate auditorium set up for the three acts that made up the inaugural edition of the Summer Misk festival.
Located in the mountains, a 30-minute drive from Beirut, BeitMisk is a fabricated “Lebanese village,” which aims to combine traditional-looking local architecture with outdoor piazzas, green space and amenities – boutiques, restaurants and a country club – aspiring to be “a role model for modern villages across the world.”
The attractive, as-yet-sterile ambit, which retains the uninhabited air and eerie perfection of a film set, formed the backdrop to Saturday’s event. Attendees strolled across a stone piazza, overlooked by smart apartment blocks and filled with pop-up gourmet fast-food joints, a sizable bar and a DJ booth. The adjacent auditorium faced downhill toward the darkness obscuring BeitMisk’s perhaps spectacular “lifetime guaranteed view.”
In keeping with the village’s high-tech, futuristic appeal, a small drone buzzed above the crowd and hovered over the stage during the concert, its red-and-green lights drawing the eye away from the onstage spectacle.
It appears the three-day event is still working out some logistical kinks. There was some minor confusion over ticketing. One couple arrived to find they had been given tickets for a row of seats that didn’t exist. This journalist was mistakenly issued tickets for seats that were already occupied.
These issues were addressed swiftly by staff. Once Bregovic and his Weddings and Funerals Orchestra took to the stage, a large section of the audience surged to the front to dance, making assigned seating largely redundant.
Bregovic’s orchestra can comprise up to 40 vocalists and musicians, but for Saturday’s concert he appeared with a streamlined ensemble of nine. Bregovic himself was joined by vocalist-percussionist Muharem Redzepi, whose mellow voice alternately crooned and belted out numbers from Bregovic’s vast repertoire.
Five of the composer’s veteran brass players and a pair of female Bulgarian vocalists, also clad in colorful national dress, made up the remainder of the ensemble. Their kitsch costumes stood in stark contrast to Bregovic, seated center stage with his electric guitar, clad in gold shoes and a blinding white suit that would not have looked out of place on a yacht in Monte Carlo.
The performance by this seasoned ensemble was supplemented by computer-generated bass and percussion, seamlessly adhered to by the onstage performers, who gave the impression they could play these tunes just as flawlessly in their sleep.
Born in Sarajevo to a Serbian mother and a Croatian father, Bregovic first rose to fame in the 1980s as a rock star in the former Yugoslavia. Only later did he become internationally known as a proponent of Balkan gypsy music, after he wrote the score for Emir Kusturica’s Cannes award-winning 1989 film “Time of the Gypsies.”
Bregovic went on the write two further scores for the Serbian director and has since released a number of his own albums, in which he blends upbeat, earthy Balkan brass with wistful string arrangements, tongue-in-cheek pop numbers and elements of cabaret.
Saturday’s concert featured a number of tracks from the composer’s latest album, the 2012 “Champagne for Gypsies,” intended to draw attention both to the important cultural contributions made by gypsy populations across Europe and to ongoing discrimination against them.
A consummate showman, Bregovic played the diverse audience with the ease born of decades of live performance, constantly controlling the energy of the baying crowd by alternating between the breakneck brass-driven numbers the audience had come to hear – and mosh to in a sweaty mass – and gentle, more reflective numbers.
A heartfelt rendition of “Ausencia,” a mournful tango from the “Underground” film soundtrack, also penned for Kusturica, was dedicated to the memory of singer Cesaria Evora, Bregovic’s original collaborator on the track, who died in 2011.
Bregovic also performed collaborator-free versions of tracks from his latest album including “Presidente,” recorded with Iberian-flavored French band The Gypsy Kings, and two tracks originally performed with Gogol Bordello, “Be That Man” and “Quantum Utopia.”
Toward the end of the night, the musician appeared to reluctantly capitulate to the audience’s demands for up-tempo numbers, with drinking ditties from the First and Second World War, including the fast-paced “Ciao Bella.”
Never losing control of his tight rein on the crowd’s energy, he punctuated these with slower tracks such as “In the Death Car,” a track originally written for Iggy Pop, which Bregovic sang with an appropriately suggestive intonation, mitigated by the perpetual twinkle in his eye.
Not one to take himself or his audience too seriously, the composer punctuated the concert with shouted orders to party. “If you don’t go crazy,” he repeatedly told his audience, “you’re not normal!”
Most live performers have one track they are obliged to include in every playlist, but Bregovic didn’t give in to the audience’s repeated calls for his “Underground” hit “Kalashnikov” until well after returning for his encore.
Having glanced helplessly at his watch with a comic shrug, he gave every impression of finally giving in to demand against his better judgment. Before offering up this final tune, he encouraged the audience to replace the shouting word “juris” (attack) that follows a military-style trumpet solo with the Arabic translation, “hujoum.”
The sweating, grinning, frantically pogoing crowd was only too happy to comply.