22 November 2014: I am visiting the Belarusian capital, when suddenly I see a poster announcing a performance of Goran Bregovic the following day.
As a fan of the artist, I’ve seen him live many times already, though not yet on this tour with these musicians; but mostly I would not let myself miss the opportunity to observe the reaction of the Belarusian public to the sweet Balkan madness. Moreover, the concert was to be given in Palats Respubliki, an incredible Sovietic mass of concrete situated on the October Square, where are regularly held anti-Lukashenko protests such as the Denim Revolution of 2006.
Enough to convince myself, I rush to buy a ticket. Surprise: it costs 1.3 million rubles, which is almost 100 euro. Well, that’s a lot. I wonder what kind of audience has the wealth to afford such concert, in a country where the average wage nears 450 euro (according to the National committee of statistics of Belarus). But hey, whatever, let’s be crazy. I buy a ticket.
The concert starts Sunday at 7 pm. Impressions:
The first thing I notice when I enter is the cloakroom – a nice, big cloakroom of Eastern country as I love them. In the West, in most concert halls I visit, I try to take my oldest, ugliest jacket, just in case: the cloakrooms are often attended by two students who seem overwhelmed if not already drunk; and there are always explicit disclaimer signs explaining the venue declines responsibility in case of loss or damage. In the East, winters are cold, and ladies are elegant, therefore cloakrooms are a serious business. They are usually spacious, well organised, you don’t have to queue for a long time, coats and hats can be kept together. Here in the East, no worries about taking your favourite leopard fur with matching hat to any venue.
When I arrive at the bar to get a drink, stupefaction: the bar does not serve beer. What do you mean, no beer? What happens is that the audience in the Palace is the same, in people and in attitude, as that of a chic ballet of Sint-Petersburg’s Marinsky: middle-aged executives sipping cognac accompanied by their spouses drinking tea. All of them dressed up in their Sunday best, and therefore appearing quite off the mark for a Bregovic show. Still, I am a fan, and as a tourist I just spent a whole afternoon visiting the solemn World War II Museum, so now I would really appreciate a little beer to switch mood and get ready for some Balkan madness! But I have an idea: as Belarusians are not tricksters like we are in the West, the security guys tend to trust more and check less. I need no more: I replace my mineral water bottle’s content by vodka, and there I am, all ready for some good fun when the concert is just about to start.
If you are planning to give a performance in Belarus, I advise you bring your own sound engineer. And maybe your own material, too. I will not elaborate too much in detail, but I am sure Goran came to the same conclusion, or may even have decided not to return to Belarus. Anyway, hats off for the artists who, despite the obvious technical difficulties, remained cool and professional and awesome performers (although the two Bulgarian singers were on the verge of getting really angry at some point), so well that I am assuming that the non connoisseurs in the audience did not even notice anything wrong at all.
Bregovic shows with allocated seating are always a bit weird. But here, we reached a new level of weirdness: it was simply forbidden to stand up! Try to see – immediately a gorilla runs towards you to get your ass back to your seat. So what, are we sent to gulag if we dance? But this is Goran Bregovic’s music, for goodness sake! No, you don’t understand: this is Belarus. It is forbidden to go crazy. You shall remain seated, upright, stuck up. In these conditions, it took a bit of practice to develop the right technique, but by the time the musicians played Ederlezi and Mesecina, I had lost it and was able to dance with legs and arms without lifting by bottom from my chair; I may have scared a bit my neighbours and was close to breaking the seat, but it all worked.
No matter what, Goran Bregovic didn’t come down with the last snow. He knows what he’s doing and this was probably not his first performance in a dictatorial temple. His incredible technique: stopping the concert in the middle. Oh, not abruptly, no, on the contrary: smoothly, naturally, casually. I’m done, thank you public! And the whole audience stands up, leaves their seats, walks towards the scene, claps, gets on stage to offer some flowers to the artist who greets them and finally says goodbye and leaves.
But hey, this is way too early to finish the concert, and when Goran pops up back on stage to ask if we want more, the Belarussian audience finally speaks up: hell yes, we do want more! Master stroke: Goran pretends to come back on stage for one or two more songs, but actually delivers the whole second half of the show. At this moment the average Belarussian is stuck, way too shy to go back to his seat, and the gorillas are too few to restore order; and finally there it is, the show as it should be, with a standing and happy public, who song after song relaxes, starts dancing a little bit, and at lasts ends up losing it and partying like crazy on Kalashnikov. At this point it becomes very clear that this is what Belarussians wanted since the beginning! And I approve, as it is so much nicer to see them having fun with that big smile!
End of the show, thunderous applause. Where are the shy, stuck men with their bored spouses I saw enter the Palace a while ago? Everyone goes away happy, light-hearted, smiling: the Magic of the Balkans has operated again.