Emir Kusturica and The No Smoking Orchestra Storm through Santiago

A Balkan gypsy band filled Teatro Caupolicán with belly dancers, swords, tambourines and a sideways, smoky spectacle of klezmer folk music. The crowd ate it up like freshly baked empanadas at an empanada festival.


Led by actor, director and musician Emir Kusturica on guitar, The No Smoking Orchestra played songs that featured a sharp and versatile violin, an intense saxophone, lively tuba, drums and keyboard. Combined with the off-the-wall vocals of Dr. Nele Karajlic, the band marched the masses down a strange road towards cheery musical submission.

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When he wasn't leading the crowd in chants of “F**k you, MTV,” Karajlic was wowing it with the orchestra's choreographed high-stepping, preachy megaphone-blasted lyrics and, at one point, use of a huge bow to simultaneously strum the violin and guitar.

“Are you ready to make a revolution?” Karajlic screamed. “Good!”

A Russian (wearing a Chilean national team soccer jersey) asked a mob of Chileans (who just watched their team lose to Ecuador) if they were ready to revolt, which made me smile-- and then quickly locate the nearest emergency exit.

The No Smoking Orchestra, formed in 1980, showed Santiago a charmingly cheesy side of eastern-European culture. Most of its musicians were clad in white pants and shiny, long-sleeved, button-down purple shirts that made them look like they had just gotten off the morning shift of some cheap barbershop.

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The band is currently touring the world to promote its sixth album, “The Time of the Gypsies.” After starting out with a mostly cult-like following in the early '80s, the band rose to stardom with its 1974 debut album, "Das ist Walter," which launched them into playing sold-out performances across Yugoslavia.

That frenzy was short-lived, however. It came crashing down when the lead singer made comments during a live performance about the death of Marshal Tito, former president of SFR Yugoslavia. When the media turned on the band and the public followed suit, the group was forced to cancel many of its larger concerts and return to the indie/underground music scene.

But since then, the band has recovered and won back its fans with a slew of hit albums as well as soundtracks to popular Kusturica movies like “Underground” and “Black Cat, White Cat.”

The unpretentious, amusing and stimulating gypsy rock band will be touring for the rest of the year. If the shows in other countries are anything like the one in Santiago, you’d be well served to see what all the fuss is about.


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