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Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2002
Where there's No Smoking Orchestra, there's fire
By KAORI SHOJI
Something to be thankful for, on this day of all days, is the power of recovery. "We are used to war. One thing we've learned is that no matter how bad it looks, it's bound to be over some time."
So said "Dr." Nelle Karajlic, leader and vocalist of the Balkan band, No Smoking Orchestra, in a recent phone interview. The band may not be one of the world's household names, but with filmmaker Emir Kusturica (aka the "Poet of the Balkans," whose award-winners include "Black Cat, White Cat" and "Underground") as a guitar-playing member, some antennae will likely go straight up. If Kusturica is playing in it, the band is hot.
Just how hot is revealed in the director's latest, a brain-blasting documentary called "Super 8." Filmed entirely on three digital handheld cameras, capturing the music as well as the overly personal exchanges of the NSO's members, "Super 8" is a testament to the Balkan way of thinking: War is always prevalent, so it's what you do during it that counts. In Kusturica's scheme of things, if you're not making movies you'd better be making music.
Predictably, the NSO belies its name by making sure the members smoke like chimneys, onstage and off. The worst offender is Kusturica himself, from whose mouth some sort of smoke generator is always dangling, to fog the lens and render everything in a dreamy, milky haze. From this haze emerges the NSO's rude rock sounds, dubbed "Unza Unza," the Balkan 2/4 beat rhythm described by Karajlic as "the most important sound since the birth of reggae."
Further than that, I can only urge you to get to the theater for the real thing. Nothing in the current music scene prepares you for an NSO show, in which Latin, jazz, ska, punk, hard rock, classical and Balkan polka are hurled together, tear at each other's throats and finally merge into one incredible sound that redefines the term "upbeat."
When they're not playing in the band, the NSO's 11 members are professional musicians with other commitments -- tuba player Aleksandar Balaban, for example, performs at Balkan funeral marches ("for which there are plenty of occasions," he assures us). Violinist Dejan Sparavalo, whose name resounds throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a former child prodigy now "bored by straightforward playing." In live shows and on television, he prefers to combine hardcore acrobatics with violin solos.
Unlike so many other band documentaries ("Buena Vista Social Club," for instance), "Super 8" never cozies up to the audience by implying that the band members are united by friendship or love of the music. Often, irritation sparks and violence comes to the fore. Frequently, conversation is condensed to jibes and insults. Other scenes tell us that the NSO is a haphazard collage of huge egos -- not least, that of the director himself -- and clashing testosterone. Kusturica is fearless as he goes all out to wash the band's dirty linen in public, alternating this with stage-performance segments that reach states of frenzied Balkan shamanism, if there is such a thing (there must be).
Particularly unforgettable are the scenes between Kusturica and his son Stribor (who plays drums). Stribor appears both as an elfin, blue-eyed little angel in his father's old home-movie footage, and as the beefy, obnoxious devil he has become. It's clear that nothing as simple as "familial love" defines Stribor's and Kusturica's feelings for each other, and to show it one of them is constantly challenging the other to "put 'em up and fight" (Stribor is twice the size of his father). By this I mean really fight, while the rest of the band calmly go on their way and just make sure no whiskey bottles get broken in the scuffle.
In the end, "Super 8" is a spicy slice of the postwar Balkan scene as re-enacted in the NSO's music, conversations -- and attitude. And typical of Kusturica, who never does anything obvious, there's practically no footage showing how the Balkan cities are faring (even though the band emerged in Sarajevo and is now based in Belgrade) until the very end. The NSO squeezes into a boat to cross a river, while a bombed bridge looms in the background and Zoran Milosevic says, as he plays the accordion: "Still, life is beautiful, you have to believe it, damn it. Life is beautiful."
Said Nelle: "We have reached the point when the sound of bombs don't mean much anymore." His 14-year-old daughter has already experienced three wars, and "she still practices her ballet steps everyday. And as for me, I make music with the No Smoking Orchestra. What else can one do? It's our brand of the blues -- Balkan blues."