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Vlada Tomova’s Balkan Tales: Amazing Album – NEW YORK MUSIC DAILY
Vlada Tomova’s Balkan Tales: Amazing Album
This isn’t safe, sanitized folk music: Vlada Tomova’s new album Balkan Tales has a raw, dangerous edge. Anyone who loves the otherworldly tonalities and dark, ominous chromatics of Bulgarian, Balkan and Middle Eastern music will love this – it’s a rich, intense treat, all the way through. The Bulgarian-born singer varies her vocals depending on the lyric, from low and apprehensive, to brassy and plaintively gritty, to absolutely joyous, with the occasional big “wheeeeeee!” at the end of a phrase. Good singers tend to be magnets for good musicians, and Tomova is no exception. While the album’s instrumentation varies widely from song to song, most of them are built around the terse, stately acoustic guitar work of Kyle Senna and bass provided by either Danny Zanker or Sage Reynolds. Oud genius Mavrothi Kontanis adds an especially suspenseful edge on a couple of tracks, including one deliciously low, mysterious solo. The rest of the crew - Uri Sharlin on accordion, Alicia Svigals on violin, Sarah Bowman on cello and Matthias Kunzli on echoey, boomy percussion – shift confidently among the diverse emotions Tomova evokes.
The songs are a mix of traditional material along with some more recent songs whose composers’ identities have not been lost. Senna lights up the second track with a graceful yet biting, chromatically-charged solo: hearing it on a guitar instead of, say, an oud or bouzouki, adds an unusual and interesting texture to the mix. A big ballad by Lubo Alexandrov is gorgeously dark, slow and slinky, with wounded vocals; another by Niko Papaxoglu gets a spare, ghostly, haunted treatment. But Tomova quickly flips the script, following with a wry, trickly rhythmic, irresistibly crescendoing dance tune. One song has a rustic sway much like an Appalachian ballad – before the rhythm shifts and there’s no doubt that it hails from Eastern Europe. Another takes a creepy, two-chord pulse with spiraling wood flute and adds a bit of an acoustic rock edge. Avishai Cohen’s apprehensive muted trumpet imbues one of the later tracks with a pensive, late 60s psychedelic folk-rock feel. The album closes with a suspenseful Kurdish song that works its way from seems like a casual, improvisational intro to a fiery, methodically accelerating, accordion-fueled gallop. Tomova plays Symphony Space this Sunday, Oct 23 at 7 opening for Macedonian wood flute virtuoso Theodosii Spassov; tix are $30 and worth it.
Village Voice Review
Balkan Tales—a project conceived by Brooklyn-based vocalist Vlada Tomova—revolves primarily around Bulgarian folk music popularized by women, with minor detours into Kurdish, Greek and Russian material. After many research trips through the region, Tomova invited 16 acoustic instrumentalists (including specialists on oud, bansuri and accordion) to a New York studio to bring Tomova's 21st-century take on her ancestors' form of expression to life.
The Boston Globe, Feature >>
To her ears, Balkan Tales sounds like home
October 21, 2011
By Siddhartha Mitter, Globe Correspondent
Balkan Tales, Theodosii Spassov
At: Johnny D’s, 7 Holland St., Somerville, today .
Tickets: $20., 617-776-2004, http://www.johnnyds.com
NEW YORK - Here’s a concept: an American-based band that plays music inspired by the folk traditions of the Balkans in southeastern Europe, and that is actually led by someone from that region.
This takes nothing away from Balkan Beat Box, Zlatne Uste, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Slavic Soul Party! or the many other neo-Balkan bands that have sprung up this side of the Atlantic in the last decade. The founder of Gogol Bordello, a pioneer in this trend, comes from Ukraine. And many players in this wave of Balkan music appreciation have done deep, immersive research, traveling to villages and seeking out musicians in places like rural Macedonia.
That said, singer Vlada Tomova’s Balkan Tales, which visits Johnny D’s tonight, enjoys a little bit of an edge. It dwells in Tomova, who came to the United States 15 years ago to study jazz, but found herself reverting to - and innovating from - the folk music of her native Bulgaria and its neighbors, the sounds she had grown up hearing, almost unconsciously, in the background soundtrack of her youth.
“I didn’t know that I had paid attention to these songs,’’ Tomova says over a glass of wine in Brooklyn, where she has made her home for almost a decade. “Growing up, folk music was something that was supported by the state. We were expected to like it, and anything that is forced on you, you reject.’’
Instead, after growing up playing piano and later studying mathematics at the national university (to honor her parents’ wishes), Tomova launched her music career in Bulgaria with a band that combined English-language lyrics with Brazilian-influenced melodies. Then she decided on jazz, and got accepted to Berklee College of Music.
And so it was late one night in Boston, in the waning hours of a party, that Tomova, almost out of nowhere, found herself channeling Bulgarian folk music.
“There were five or six people out smoking on the fire escape,’’ she says. “And this drummer, who was also Bulgarian, started beating a little pattern in an odd meter and I suddenly started singing a song that keeps that meter.’’
That song, “Dimianinka,’’ appears on Tomova’s album, also titled “Balkan Tales,’’ which came out last year. It’s part of a program of mostly traditional Bulgarian songs, plus a few outliers from Greece, Russia, and even a Kurdish folk song, “Leili.’’
Rediscovering and rearranging Bulgarian songs became a major project for Tomova after her revelation on the fire escape. “I think being so far from home made me reach for songs that I didn’t realize I had soaked up,’’ she says. “I started arranging songs, more in a jazz idiom at first, but this interest in folk music took me away from jazz.’’
When Tomova arrived in New York, she joined the city’s community of musicians who move between jazz, rock, avant-garde, or world-music projects as opportunity and interest arise. Over a dozen of these appear as guests on her album.
Holding it all together is Tomova’s singing, which weaves in the influences she’s picked up over the years, but also carries the haunting, otherworldly energy that Western ears have associated with Bulgaria ever since the Bulgarian Women’s Choir became a world sensation two decades ago.
In her research, Tomova says she has spent time studying with soloists from the choir, as well as village women singers. And for her Boston concert, she will be joined by Theodosii Spassov, a renowned player of the wooden flute called the kaval, who like her has made a career of working both in and out of Bulgarian folk music.
Percussionist Mathias Kunzli, a core member of Balkan Tales who has known Tomova since their Berklee days, says his friend has come into her own with this project. “She’s confident and comfortable with her ideas and her story,’’ Kunzli says.
Kunzli, who is Swiss, says he too only discovered Balkan music once he came to the United States. He says the technical aspects like the odd meters appeal to him, but it goes much deeper than that.
“It doesn’t matter where it comes from - folklore is powerful,’’ he says. “It’s beautiful to be around music that you feel is taught by ancestors from generation to generation.’’
It’s that appeal, Tomova says, that seems to have drawn so many people to the music and culture of her region - like the American women in the Bulgarian choir she led for a number of years in New York. “They were so passionate and driven,’’ she says. “And I think it comes from looking into a tradition that is so old.’’
She says she sometimes finds it odd to witness, for example, Balkan folk festivals full of non-Balkan players and participants performing traditional music and dance. And she cautions that the search for authenticity can become rigid, when in fact the music and culture are always evolving.
But overall, she says, the trend is empowering - especially when it filters back to Bulgaria and its neighbors that their ancestral music is mesmerizing foreigners.
“People are very surprised,’’ Tomova says. “And people in the Balkans don’t have high self-esteem. So it’s a great booster. I couldn’t be happier that it’s happening.’’
Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at email@example.com.