Emir Kusturica & Goran Bregovic Underground: Music Inspired and Taken From the Kusturica Film

[Kamarad/Mercury/BMG; 1995]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: gypsy folk, balkan reggaeton, eastern bloc multi-culti mash-up
Others: The No Smoking Orchestra, the Flat Earth Society, Gogol Bordello

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.

1. Kalasnjikov
2. Ausencia - with Cesaria Evora
3. Mesecina, moonlight
4. Ya Ya (ringe ringe raja)
5. Kajesukarije - Cocek
6. Wedding - cocek
7. War
8. Underground - cocek
9. Underground tango
10. The belly button of the world
11. Sheva

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