Musical Mayhem

The notorious onstage antics of the Balkan gypsy punk band Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra have not mellowed over the years.

no smoking orchestra 311 (photo credit: Auris media)
no smoking orchestra 311
(photo credit: Auris media)
Nele Karajlic´ has no problem with his Balkan gypsy punk band being billed as Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra. After all, Kusturica is regarded as one of the world’s great film directors for his string of influential movies depicting the Balkan conflict – and his name recognition factor clearly raises the profile of the band, even if he isn’t the frontman on stage.
“I don’t care. I’m totally at home on stage, and it doesn’t matter to me whose name appears as the title of the band,” said the 48-year-old Karajlic´ last week from his home in Belgrade. “Emir is very well known in certain circles and the No Smoking Orchestra is known by others, so it’s a good combination. The fact that we’ve been together 11 years touring the world is proof of that, and I hope it continues for another 11.”
With a show that’s been described as a musical circus – complete with a conventional rock band set-up embellished by everything from sax and tuba to exotic percussion and accordion – there’s no reason why the orchestra’s musical mayhem encompassing Balkan gypsy, punk, klezmer and everything in between shouldn’t continue on its merry path. While Kusturica contributes some bass and acts as the show’s MC, Karajlic´, is the focal point on stage. It’s a position he’s felt comfortable with since forming the first incarnation of the No Smoking Orchestra in 1980 as part of the grassroots punk movement that sprang up in the former Yugoslavia, inspired by the punk revolution that took place in the West.
“When I was 15, all this new music started reaching us from the US and UK – mostly The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Patti Smith. It caused a huge reaction from Yugoslav rock groups. But it wasn’t only music, it was a form of resistance,” said Karajlic´. “When we started the band, rock music was almost like a religion to young people in my country. And when a young band gets together, they of course think that they’re the best band in the world. It was the same for the No Smoking Orchestra. We wanted to change the world.”
Karajlic´ was regarded as the first Yugoslavian performer who brought a combination of punk in-your-face attitude and Jagger rock star quality to the stage, climbing stage walls, diving into the audience, ripping off his clothes and even some less socially acceptable acts. However, the by-then huge star was forced to start all over again when, in 1992, he fled for Belgrade after ethnic fighting flared up in Bosnia.
By the late 1990s, Karajlic´ had reestablished himself and made his first contact with Kusturica, collaborating on the soundtrack for the film Black Cat, White Cat and germinating the idea of the No Smoking Orchestra.
“Emir has such a passion for the music; he was a musician who was pushed into the film industry by force,” said Karajlic´, adding that the band’s notorious onstage antics haven’t mellowed with the years.
“I think that we’re wilder and crazier than before; we’re even bolder but more experienced,” he said. “It s like an older, more experienced football player learns how to play the match without too much running but still at top level.
Now we’re are at the top of our game.”
Having lived through a war among his people, Karajlic´ is sensitive to the situation in our neighborhood and hopes that the band’s return appearance in Israel this week following a successful run in 2007 will contribute in some way to reconciliation.
“We’re using music as a means to make a connection between people,” he said. “We started to play music as kids because we were sure that with music, we’d be able to change the world for the better.
That basic idea is still in our heads.”
Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra will be playing on March 3 at Heichal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv, March 4 at the Congress Center in Haifa and March 5 at Binyenei Ha’uma in Jerusalem.