Being a former film student's son meant family movie night was a game of video-rental roulette. I'm still grateful for the early introduction to Wim Wenders, but seeing Bertolucci's The Conformist as an eight-year-old wasn't a wise choice. One night in '96, Dad came home not with Trading Places, but with Underground, a Serbian film that won the Palme D'Or the previous year.
To my delight, the movie fired off its dark satirical barbs with sniper-like accuracy and was clearly meriting of its award. But what stuck with me most vividly, for years afterwards, was the opening scene: as two drunken moustachiod men fire pistols haphazardly, racing a horse-drawn carriage down the darkened dirt streets of their village, and pursued by a marching band playing the most spastically hilarious polka I'd ever heard. I hadn't the presence of mind to note the composer's name; I was laughing too hard. And for the next nine years I was haunted by that amphetamine-amped oompah song.
Last fall, I was playing Gogol Bordello for a French friend who said it reminded her of a Mr. Emir Kusturica, a Serbian director who also wrote most of the music for his own films. I promptly blurted out something eloquent like, “You found my oompah!” Two months later, my hands quaked with excitement as I loaded the long-sought soundtrack into my stereo. I pressed play and… it was the song! No, wait — was it? Yeah, there rolled the somersaulting trumpet line… but something was different. I checked the liner notes.
Ah. “Music INSPIRED…” This wasn't the original soundtrack. That explains the clinically clean production and Roland-909 drum machine that awkwardly appears on so many of the tracks. So much for my euphoric memories of a stellar score. Embarrassingly, songs like “Ya Ya (Ringe Ringe Raja)” and “Belly Button of the World” were exactly how we imagine pop from developing nations: a ham-fisted fusion of local folk music and digital production, replete with electro-clashing dance beats. But this is far from denying the record any worth. The golden-throated (yet thoroughly un-Slavic) Caesaria Evora stops by for a smoky ballad, and “Mesecina-Moonlight” is a slow-building Eastern bloc rave-up that invites nostalgia for the “old country.”
Really, though, I'm just in it for That Song. Reborn as the boot-stomping singalong, “Kalasnjikov,” it's still full of the fist-pumping swagger and bobble-headed melodies that I adored a decade ago. Somewhere between a football fight song and caffeinated klezmer, this song is the very reason the Underground soundtrack managed mainstream success across Europe. The original film version, “Sheva,” even appears in vastly edited form as a coda for the whole record, complete with cracked cymbal clatter and busted brass fanfare. I'm a little grateful that it got cut down to a mere minute-thirty. Like a trailer that outclasses the full-length feature, it repays my years of patience without being long enough to ruin my memory of that first listen.
2. Ausencia - with Cesaria Evora
3. Mesecina, moonlight
4. Ya Ya (ringe ringe raja)
5. Kajesukarije - Cocek
6. Wedding - cocek
8. Underground - cocek
9. Underground tango
10. The belly button of the world