Text is a segment from fotomonography "Emir Kusturica & The No Smoking Orchestra"
… Some say that life is like a good movie, full of unpredictable twists and turns. The story we are eager to impart is comparable, but the problem lies in how it should be told it shouldn’t be too detailed, and yet shouldn’t be abbreviated either. Difficult, to say the least.
The band, The No Smoking Orchestra began performing at a point in time when rock music entered its third decade in Tito’s Yugoslavia.
Tito, allegedly, as told by the starts of the Super-8 Stories, deeply wanted to demonstrate to the West that Yugoslavia significantly differed from other communist countries, and thus let rock music develop under strict controls. The ’No Smoking Orchestra“ band members were the third generation of rock musicians. However, in Yugoslavija, as in all other countries in Eastern Europe, Rock Music was marginalized and pushed off the stage, often in bitter conflict with the cultural and political establishment. Hence, what resulted was that some artists were frequently ignored by the press and regularly pilloried as opponents of the «socialist self-government system«. The No Smoking Orchestra was one of these.
With the death of Josip Broz in May 1980, Rock Music formed a clearer and more defiant character and there was a marked increase in the number of musicians who, directly, rather than circuitously as in the past, sang about social and political problems that the country was faced with. It was at this time that punk and new wave music from the West made its Yugoslavian breakthrough and, as was the case all over the world, the democratization of the sound resulted in a rapid increase in new bands.
Sarajevo was a community removed from the main traffic routes and major media centers, so that everything coming from the West went thorugh some sort of filtering process before it was accepted by the youth of Sarajevo. Unlike Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana where new wave and punk was played by dozens of bands, most of which were carbon copies of their Western idols, ‘No Smoking Orchestra” and several other bands from Sarajevo responded to
punk and new wave music by developing an ironical-satirical movement with political impact. This movement was later called New Primitives.
Somehow at the same time, at the beginning of the 80’s, a young film director from Sarajevo, Emir Kusturica, begins shooting his well-received debut film (Do you remember Dolly Bell?) and wins his first Grand- Slam - Venice. The language of that movie, it’s composition, artistry, aesthetics, and the emotional charge were all elements more or less similar to what the No Smoking Orchestra expressed in its songs.
In the summer of 1984, the band’s first album was released and thanks to one mega hit and the fact that their vocalist Dr Nele Karajlic was one of the protagonists of a satirical very popular TV series «Top List of Surrealist» becomes one of the most successful rock bands of the year.
This group of young men, whose ambition was not huge popularity, from their basements and garages, in a few months time, went huge halls across Yugoslavia, and tickets for their concert were almost impossible to get. It seemed that nothing could stop them on the road to fame. However, just as in life and in a good movie, the unexpected happened.
The big mouth of their frontman, sharp criticism of the regime in their lyrics, discord with the media and the music that was not targeting broader audiences but «more conscientious youngsters» were in disproportion to the big halls in which they performed plus their appearances on the radio and TV prime time programs, and front page pictures of newspapers that had little at all to do with music.
That disproportion quickly led to a big incident, maybe one of the biggest in the lengthy history of rock music in these parts. The Singer Nele was accused of insulting the late President Tito (A taboo at that time even for the most liberal minds in the country), at one of his concerts. The real persecution started in the media against the band and as quick as they arrived at the top, so was their fall. Concerts were cancelled one after another and accusations only stopped then and there, when it became clear that the band had no chance of reaching it’s previous heights. The Empire had struck back!
In 1985, the band recorded its second album that due to the well-known events had returned the band to their rightful place, playing in small alternative clubs to the small number of like-minded fans. «Welcome Home» was the inscription at one of the concerts in a small hall that sits 500 people. At that time, to hear one of their songs on the radio would’ve been like looking for a needle in a haystack. For the media and everyone else who belonged to the ruling cultural oligarchy, the band in effect did not exist.
Consequentially, after their popularity declined and people did not come to listen to them any more, the economic crisis within the group led to half of them leaving so that in the No Smoking Orchestra the only one who stayed were its founding members. But even then like in every good movie, the unexpected turn of events take place.
That 1985 still young film director Emir Kusturica wins his second Grand- Slam at Cannes (When Father was Away on Business). When he returned from the movie world, at the beginning of 1986, he decided to join the band at the moment when they were left without the bass guitarist. The new player was a fast learner and together with Emir, the No Smoking Orchestra releases their 3rd album (1987) in a better environment than a few years ago. As the claws of communism loosened their grasp at the wake of new times, pluralism walked through wide doors but the band, despite of Emir’s fame, was being held at bay from prime time electronic media and as an example of control of the No Smoking Orchestra, a video clip of one song from that third album directed by Emir Kusturica, remained for ever in the Yugoslav TV drawers. Never released. After the tour, Emir returns to film making, to his new movie (Time of the Gypsies), but remains, as the members used to say jokingly, a part-time member.
In 1989 and 1999 the band regained its position, it took them 5 or 6 years to be at the top of Yugoslav charts as before. The old social values were losing the battle against the wave of democratization and the band’s lyrics from a few years ago were becoming more topical and acceptable. It seemed again like nothing could hold them back on the road to the top. However, like in any good movie, same in this short story, about the No Smoking Orchestra, an unexpected conflict unfolds. But things will not change for the better. On the contrary. The change of one political system with all of its cracks, folds and illnesses, gives rise to an avalanche of national discontent and bad blood amongst the population of the former Yugoslavia, so the tour of the No Smoking Orchestra at the beginning of 1990's was practically the last big tour of any rock group in Greater Yugoslavia.The war was approaching, so the No Smoking Orchestra, as a multinational band, situated in the city that would soon become the epicenter of dramatic events at the beginning of the 90's, disintegrated like the country of its origin. A part of the band members remained in Sarajevo under the leadership of one of the founders Sejo Sexon, and the second moved to Belgrade together with the frontman and lead singer, Dr Nele Krajlic.
Three years had to pass before Nele and his brother Drale another founding band member managed to start it up again. This time in a smaller Yugoslavia, in unfavourable conditions, the popularity of the group, however, grew from day to day for all the premonitions that they had talked about in their songs and TV series «The top list of Surrealist», started coming through and some tunes composed in the mid 80’s got a new and unbelievable reality. They were now understandable and attainable to everybody. Generations grew up on them and that is the most anyone can hope to achieve.
In the mean time, Emir shot his film Arizona Dream, which won him a new Grand -Slam in Berlin and after that the Underground and the Second Palm at Cannes.
Popularity of the band escalates to big stadiums. Besides Nele and his brother, the band is joined by Goran Jakovljevic who remains a member for a few years, then Glava Markovski, the bassist who is still a band member, Dejan Sparavalo the violinist, a man who was well- known even before the war and who will decisively influence the band’s sound in the future, Stribor Kusturica, Emir’s son, a drummer of keen imagination for whom it is said in jest that he is a product of the No Smoking Orchestra junior school. After the big tour, the band records its first post-war album, in 1997, which tops all previous charts and makes the group the most important in the regions of former Yugoslavia. So, like in a good movie, a plot follows.
During the time of recording their last album, Emir starts making his new movie (Black cat, White cat) and he engages in Nele and Dejan Sparavalo to compose music for it. Still excited from the last album, and with the assistance of all bandmembers, especially from the producer, Vojislav Aralice, they begin taping first a song later called Lady Bug and then «Techno» hit Pit Bull. «Emir’s requirements were multicoloured», Nele used to say. From gypsy folk music, through tango, pop music to techno. Wondering through different styles and mixing diverse musical influences, ideas and instruments, opens new appetites. «We felt as if someone in a room full of smoke opened the window ». That was the real image of the music for the film and soundtrack which shortly after were released in (1998) in the production of the Komuna and Universal. The music was fresh and original, irresistible for its known intrusiveness and charm. New Horizons have opened.
In February 1999, the Company Edison and Andrea Gambeta, its “Presidente” organized retrospective of Emir Kusturica’s films, in Parma (Italy) and in connection with it, invited the No Smoking Orchestra to give four concerts. The band arrived in Italy after 20 hour-drive in a small van, and all four concerts were chaotic success. «We never doubted our success. We have always been best on the stage». Emir joins the group again, this time as the guitar player. At the end of this «test» tour Gambeta suggests the band do a large summer tour of Italy. Things start flowing smoothly.
But, like in any good movie, we noticed that, same as in our short story about the No Smoking Orchestra, many things depend on unforeseen conditions.
At the very moment when the band returned to Yugoslavia Emir went to Canada to shoot a new movie, a new war begins. This time, NATO forces air-raided Yugoslavia and looking from the shelters in Belgrade, the situation did not look promising for our musicians. However, nothing deterred them to prepare for a tour that summer. Emir practices playing the guitar in Canada following the notes that were sent to him by fax and the band gets some new members: Nesa Petrovic, the saxophone, Zorn Milosevic, the accordion, Nenad Gajin Coce, the guitar and Alexandar Balaban, the tuba. «Because of frequent black outs due to bombing, we were forced to rehearse exclusively with acoustic instruments «, Dejan jokes. The truth looks quite different. Introducing acoustic instruments like the tuba and the accordion and pronounced jazz sound of Nesa Petrovic’s saxophone results in large bass space in contrast with classic rock formation of two guitars, drum and bass keyboards. If you add to it the violin, there are as many combinations of style as moves in a chess play.
Just before the end of the bombing, what a coincidence, the band withdraws to Greece, the island Corfu, same as the Serbian Army in the first World War, and there gets final preparation for the Italian tour. The Live Aid concert in Athens organized by the Greek newspaper «Elefterotipia» was in fact the first concert of this type before the new tour. «This was the performance in which one part of the group got to know the other. Before playing we greeted one another and entered the stage». Emir came from Canada, took the guitar and started playing.
The tour that followed was called «Effetti Collaterali» and the band got the name «Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra». At the concerts in all bigger cities in Italy the band promotes its charming, unpretentious, joyful approach to music, full of strong emotions and unexpected turns, which irresistibly reminds of Emir’s films.
After the Italian tour, the avalanche took place. The band goes to Iceland first, and then Greece, Poland, Germany… and then following the concert at the Festival Transmusical in Rennes, new album release was arranged for definite with the Universal recording company.
In April 2000, the recording of «Unza Unza Time» album is finished, and the title of the album is in fact is the name of the style they are playing. The name was given by Stribor alluding to the rhythmical sound of the guitar when playing the Serbian folk dance in two-four time, allegro. That rhythm along with «the Balkan version of the Rumba» become the two strongest points of their dancing music that nobody can resist. «No feet can stay idle to that music». Unza Unza Time is what they actually played during 1999 plus a few songs that they prepared especially for the album. The producer again is Voja Aralica, and two new members joined the tour: Dragan Radivojevic nicknamed Lav, as a sound engineer and Dragan Teodorovic nicknamed Zeko, as a roady, who’s been with the band as far back as 1985. After the»Unza Unza Time», album release the band embarked on new tours.
This time in cooperation with French «Yapuccom». The tour starts with France when the band played in “Olympia” for the first time, then Italy, Portugal, Germany. From first «shy performances» the band becomes the fitness and sweating machine for the audience. Live performances evolved into their nuclear bomb.
During the summer tour, Andrea Gambeta suggests to Emir to make a documentary film about the band travelling Europe, but the one that bears no resemblance to the big rock stars. Far from the notion about sex and drugs and rock and roll, this is a story about an unfortunate land, about confusing experimental time and about the musicians that found themselves unwilling at a cross road. Having found inspiration in some old tapes from 1960s, Emir embarks on a new adventure. He makes a documentary about the band members combining the old Super 8 format with new digital technology. That is how the movie got its name Super 8 Stories. Soon after, instead of being a TV documentary, it outgrew the format and became cinema documentary. It was first presented at the Berlin Festival in 2001. Then it spread radically throughout the world.
A few changes were made, Goran Popovic Pop, the tuba, instead of Balaban, Ceda, «the Guru» Marjanovic, the percussion, and at the end of 2001 the band goes on their first tour to Latin America where it receives an unbelievable reception. It was love at first sight. Instead of two planned concerts in Bs AS , due to an extreme popularity they ended up with 5; and after the November tour of 2001, Emir starts making his new movie and the band remains at his disposal. Nele and Stribor are playing in it; Dejan composes music together with Emir and the band plays.
In the Spring of 2004, the No Smoking Orchestra meets again to promote a new film and a soundtrack «Life is a miracle». A new guitarist joins the album and the tour. Instead of Nenad Gajin who devoted completely to jazz music, comes an experienced maestro Ivica Maksimovic. The number of countries where they performed increases rapidly and their performances becomes more explosive. The music for the film is a continuation of what they did before, but this time more forceful and more mature. The concerts became like a huge circus attraction. Even in the most sterile surroundings, all barriers between the band and the audience will fall in a few minutes. In this order, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland… Israel and again Latin America.
It was necessary to make memorable that love between Latin Americans and the band. The group performs 5 big concerts in Mexico, Chile, Argentina and every single one is audio and video taped. March 5, 2005 in the arena Luna Park in Buenos Ayres the concert is recorded and will be at the end chosen as a new video audio project called « Life is a Miracle BsAs». Produced by Warner Bros and Palass. CD and DVD are released in September of the same year and the band appears promoting this project.
And so after more than 500 concerts in 30 countries, Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra plan a new project in 2007. What kind of music will it be? Are they going to keep the same style, how many new songs will they create, no one knows? The only thing we know is that that everything will be as it was before, like a life, like an exciting, good movie, full of unpredictable plots and unexpected turns.
And at the end, lets cite an unimaginative television commentator. : «With the help of photos we will try to show you a glimpse of the atmosphere during their concerts».
Retired Ethno Musicologist