Zmei3: Rough Romanian Soul

Zmei3’s Paula Turcas (photo by Marilena Delli)

Zmei3’s Paula Turcas (photo by Marilena Delli)

A soprano opera singer and a vibraphone comprise an unlikely musical pairing, especially when set against the backdrop of Transylvania’s largest mountain.

In August 2015, genre-breaking Romanian band Zmei3 brought their unique style of blues- and soul-influenced music to a region best known for its folk traditions.

Taking their name from a mythical dragon, the band crowdsourced funds to fly Grammy award-winning producer Ian Brennan to Transylvania to record their debut album Rough Romanian Soul (April 2016, Six Degrees Records).

Brennan collaborated with singer Paula Turcas, vibraphonist Oli Bott, guitarist Mihai Victor Iliescu, and double bassist Arnulf Ballhorn to record the album’s 15 beautifully raw-sounding tracks – many composed and performed for the first time on location.

Ahead of the band’s performance in the July 2016 WOMAD festival, Brennan spoke with Apsara about the process of working with Zmei3 and about the band’s innovative take on tradition.

Your work as a producer has spanned many different countries, including Zomba Prison Project, your recent Grammy-nominated album focusing on prisoners in Malawi. How did you first connect with Zmei3?

They reached out to me. Over the course of a year, we corresponded and then finally met in person and ultimately set a course for their debut album.

Zmei3 (photo by Marilena Delli)

Zmei3 (photo by Marilena Delli)

Rough Romanian Soul was recorded in the Transylvanian mountains, and you traveled to Romania to work with Zmei3. How did that environment influence the album?

I set Paula up so that she could look out over Romania’s main mountain, Mt. Omo (“Mount Man,” since it is claimed to look like a person lying prone), as she sang. We all slept and ate in the same building, so all energies were devoted to and in synch for the record for that week.

The members of Zmei3 come from diverse musical backgrounds. Singer Paula Turcas, for example originally sang soprano opera and Oli Bott’s vibraphone is the central instrument throughout the album. What was the process like of collaborating with these artists?

They all are united around the Romanian folk tradition. And Paula and Oli do an extraordinary job of using only the positive elements of their virtuosity and forgoing the rest to instead approach each song as “novices,” putting truth before chops.

Although rooted in traditional Romanian music, Rough Romanian Soul is distinctly original and many songs describe life during or after the Communist era. What aspects of contemporary Romania do you feel the album captures?

The country of Romania is growing, but still has struggles. Many people — particularly in the north — continue to live in villages that are quite unchanged from earlier eras. Horse-drawn carriages are used, widows wear all black, and those who suicide are buried in separate graveyards. Zmei3 are classic in that they sound vintage and modern simultaneously, and they are able to achieve a timelessness that is rare.

In listening to Rough Romanian Soul, what would you most like people to take away from the music?

The physicality of the music is almost palpable. And emotional truth transcends language — you don’t have to know what someone is saying to understand what they “mean”… and if they truly mean it.

Zmei3 performs July 29th at WOMAD; Rough Romanian Soul is available from Six Degrees Records.  

July 7, 2016, S.L. Bhatia

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Julien Baker: London Embraces Young Tennessee Singer-Songwriter


Julien Baker (photo by Jake Cunningham)

Clouds hung in the evening sky and an unseasonably chill breeze rustled the May buds emerging on trees in front of London’s St. Pancras Old Church. Oblivious to the weather, small clusters of people chattered excitedly in the churchyard, waiting for the doors to open for the first of two sold-out London shows by Tennessee singer-songwriter Julien Baker.

Since moving to London from the San Francisco Bay Area in November 2014, I attend shows on a near weekly basis, including concerts by established U.S. artists like Damien Jurado and Heartless Bastards. Nonetheless, nothing prepared me for the open-armed London reception of a 20 year-old American singer-songwriter’s debut solo project from a small, American independent record label.

Released in October 2015, Baker’s album Sprained Ankle (6131 Records) recounts the young artist’s struggle as a teenager to overcome addiction and self-loathing. Sprained Ankle’s nine tracks sound as stripped back and straightforward as Baker’s startlingly mature lyrics about emergency room visits and sleeping in a park. In the United States, she has performed with fellow musician and fan Sharon Van Etten, and received critical praise from U.S. media as diverse as Pitchfork and the New Yorker.

Give me everything good, and I’ll throw it away
I wish that I could quit but I can’t stand the shakes
Choking to smoke, or singing your praise
But I think there’s a god and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain
-Julien Baker, “Rejoice”

Since the July 2015 global music industry shift to New Music Fridays, music fans throughout the world, including the UK and Europe, can now obtain digital and physical album copies the same day they are released. If anything, the six-month gap between the October 2015 release of Baker’s album Sprained Ankle  and her London shows appears to have intensified her fans’ enthusiasm to see her perform.

I arrived at St. Pancras Old Church with the hope of placing my name on a waiting list, and expecting to hear the sound of American voices among the crowd growing in front of the church door. Within three minutes I managed to purchase, at face value, an extra ticket from a university student, who had flown down from Glasgow for the show. Laughing, she told me her older brother could not attend at the last minute, and she was glad to recoup her “10 quid.”

Joining a small group of people talking near the arched entryway, we met a man from Budapest, who had also traveled to London specifically for the show. He held a ticket for the next night’s gig at the Forge, a venue in London’s Camden Town neighborhood.

When I mentioned to the group my challenge in purchasing a ticket for either concert, someone suggested that they had sold out as early as December. Perhaps even more than their enthusiasm to attend shows, the people I spoke with clearly respected Baker’s music and Baker herself as an artist. I listened as they recounted the online interviews and performances they had watched, sharing a deep knowledge of the young musician.

Later, seating ourselves in the dusky, lamp-lit church, the university student and I met a young Australian woman, excited to catch Baker during a visit to her sister. She also planned to attend the show at the Forge. Due to the long flight times to Australia and the sheer size of the continent country, she said, fewer non-mainstream, international artists like Baker tour Australia.


London’s St. Pancras Old Church (photo by flickr / DncnH)

Our row quickly filled with other solo concertgoers, including a gentleman who proudly showed us the marble-edition vinyl copy of Sprained Ankle he had ordered from the United States. He also displayed the marker he had brought in the hope of getting his album signed at the end of the evening.

While we talked, St. Pancras Old Church continued to fill with people, ranging from a group of middle-aged Baker fans sitting in a front row of seats to East London hipsters standing in the back. At one point, Baker herself dashed down the aisle, cell phone in hand, unnoticed amidst the growing excitement for her performance.

When she eventually stepped in front of the audience, the dusky candle and lamplight around her casting a soft light on her face and guitar, the audience fell completely silent. Realizing the candles burning near her feet were real, Baker said, “These are a bit of a fire hazard.” Smiling somewhat sheepishly, she said in her soft Tennessee accent, “I’m just joking, of course.”

Part of Baker’s appeal as a performer, like her music, is her self-aware and also humble stage presence. Experienced enough to perform without an auto tuner, she stopped briefly mid-performance to manually tune her guitar. Apologizing, she transitioned effortlessly into another set of songs, laying bare her life experiences to the audience of nearly 200 people.

Baker sang, with sincere simplicity, most of the songs from Sprained Ankle, as well as new pieces like “Funeral Pyre.” Small in stature, but clearly at home with her guitar and lyrics, Baker’s music went straight to the heart of the audience.  Next to me, the university student wiped away tears during the performance, as she had predicted she would.

After the show ended with Baker playing “Go Home” on the piano, I thanked my new friend again for selling me her extra ticket. Glad for release from the unforgiving wooden church seats, but reluctant to leave, we and the other audience members slowly started to disperse. Wishing one another a goodnight, many people made plans to meet at Baker’s show at the Forge the next night.

Baker’s own performance moved me, but I was equally touched by the audience. I did not meet another American during the evening, and, a significant number of people I met had traveled from other parts of the UK – and even from other countries – just to see Baker perform on a Wednesday night.

London welcomed Julien Baker with open arms this spring, and I expect to see her touring here again before too long – perhaps next time selling out even larger venues.

Learn more about Julien Baker, including her upcoming U.S. tour schedule.

June 20, 2016, S. L. Bhatia

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We’ve Returned

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Portobello Road musician, part of the “One Five Zero” series by Fiona Hawthorne

After a three-year hiatus, including a move across the ocean, Apsara Music is back. Formerly based in the San Francisco Bay Area, we’ve been settling into London over the past year and a half. Please consider this our “soft opening” – we have some broken Soundcloud and image links to fix. We’re excited to be back, and to bring you more of our favorite music, with a new focus on independent artists and labels from around the world. Apsara is still committed to highlighting innovative genre- and tradition-crossing music, and everything in between.

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I’ve had to take a hiatus from Apsara for several months, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to interview folk artist Kelli Rae Powell, whose latest album has taught me more than a thing or two about the versatility and beauty of the ukulele.

Joe Brent, mandolin; Shaky Dave Pollack, blues harp; Kelli Rae Powell, voice and uke; and Jim McNamara, upright bass. (courtesy the artist)

Joe Brent, mandolin; Shaky Dave Pollack, blues harp; Kelli Rae Powell, voice and uke; and Jim McNamara, upright bass. (courtesy the artist)

Think you know the ukulele? Meet folk singer-songwriter Kelli Rae Powell, who since 2003 has made this much misunderstood “baby guitar” her instrument of choice.

Cradling it in her arms, Powell knows how to bring out the best in her ukulele. Its gentle tones nimbly carry the melody for her sweet, yet powerful voice on solos, and adeptly serves as lead instrument in an ensemble of blues harp, upright bass, and mandolin.

Powell, an Iowa-native now living in New York, draws inspiration from Dolly Parton and Billie Holiday for the musical poems about life that she weaves. Her latest album Live at Jalopy, is a flawless offering of wit and sensitivity, which also captures a special evening in Powell’s life at Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre and School of Music.

In a recent interview, Powell describes her love of the ukulele and her favorite music venue, and shares about the exciting next chapter of her life.

The ukulele is perhaps one of the more misunderstood, and underappreciated instruments. When did you first encounter the ukulele, and what about this instrument led you to make it a focus of your music?

In 2003, I acted in a play and the director wanted my character to play ukulele. I loved performing with the uke so much that I just couldn’t stop. The ukulele fits in my arms perfectly. I love its small size, its portability, and the beauty of its sound. No one expects the poignant tones a ukulele can make.

In my angry twenties I would go to open mics wielding my little uke and the guitar boys would always make fun of me, saying: “What a cute baby guitar!” They all shut their traps when it was my turn to perform, though. That was fun.

There seems to be strains of jazz, blues, and folk influences in your music—who are the musicians who most inspire you?

When I was very young, I used to listen to Dolly Parton on my record player. Then I would tape myself singing her songs and play them back— I was listening to myself and trying to sound just like her. In high school I had a CD of Billie Holiday’s Verve recordings. I listened to that album every day for probably three years. Those women shaped my taste in music more than any other artists I can think of. They are storytellers of the highest order.

Kelli Rae Powell's Live at JalopyHow did you come to record a live album at Jalopy, and what about this venue provided the right backdrop for it?

My first performance at Jalopy was in the midst of a huge blizzard. I opened for songwriters Al Duvall and Bliss Blood. We all trudged through the snow towards Red Hook [Brooklyn] fairly certain there wouldn’t be anyone at our show. Jalopy didn’t have a liquor license at that time, so we brought bottles of red wine. We basically played for each other all night and drank as the snow piled up around us. It was magical. The owners Lynette and Geoff Wiley never seem to care about how many people you can draw. They like my songs, so they let me book shows there.

The audience at Jalopy is extremely respectful—they come for the music. They sit in the old church pews and listen to your stories. There isn’t any other venue for me in the world. When I gathered the courage to record a live album, there was no question that I would record it at the Jalopy Theatre and School of Music.

Your songs range from beautiful, simple descriptions of the first moments of falling in love, to more humorous reflections on living and loving. Are you drawing on your own experiences, or more generally on the stories of others?

These are my stories. Some of the details will be slightly altered for dramatic effect or to protect the innocent, but, even if the details aren’t necessarily true, the stories are. The songs on this live album are the songs I wrote about losing my grandmother and finding my husband Jim (my husband Jim McNamara is the upright bass player on this recording and on my previous album New Words For Old Lullabies).

The experience of recording this album was an absolute celebration for Jim and me. Our favorite musicians joined us on stage that night: Shaky Dave Pollack on blues harp and Joe Brent on mandolin and violin. The occasion was made doubly special, because just days before the live recording we learned we were pregnant. We were giddy that we captured that special night.

What project are you planning next?

My next album will probably be full of lullabies written for my little girl. I’ve already written a bundle for her.

“Some Bridges are Good to Burn”

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Some albums take a while to warm up to, but every so often I come across one I know is going to be a fixture in my music collection for a long time. The first few bars of harmonica on Senegalese singer-songwriter Badu Boye’s new release We Can Win decided it for me.

"We Can Win" by Badu BoyeBadu Boye’s open-hearted harmonica, guitar, and vocals on We Can Win evoke Bob Dylan at his best in the early 1960s, but with a thoroughly contemporary edge incorporating electric guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, violin, cello, mandolin, and other instruments. Composed individually, the songs represent different musical moments from over a decade, including  “Mboolo Mi” from the 1997 album Woyou Talibé, which Badu released with Pape Armand Boye, his brother and the producer of We Can Win.

The Boye brothers debuted on Senegalese television in the early 1990s with a sound that was a bit different during a time when synthesized mbalax music dominated the airwaves: a simple pairing of acoustic guitar and bass. Through their ground-breaking early performances and recordings, they led the establishment of acoustic music as a genre still thriving today in Senegal.

A current of optimism runs throughout We Can Win, not least of all in the title track’s call for positive development and image building across Africa. “Everything single thing I do is to make you proud,” Badu sings. “I know that we can win—yes we can.” On “Senegal,” one of the album’s very strongest tracks, he describes the experience of living abroad while still cherishing the country he has left behind: “Everything is beautiful, but I’m homesick for Senegal my country. I’m sure that one day I’ll be back!”

The album’s arrangements are layered around Badu’s signature harmonica and acoustic guitar, and are filled with bursts of shimmering, beautiful sound when you least expect them. Sukjong Hong’s violin catches you unawares with its pure sweet sound on “Politique,” while Will Martina’s cello ripples in and out of the melody toward the end of “Mboolo Mi.” Of all of the tracks though, the loveliest of all perhaps is “Melokaan,” a simple arrangement with Badu’s brother joining him on acoustic guitar.

We Can Win is one of those albums I pull out when I need a gentler perspective on life after a harsh day, and more than deserves its place as a long-term fixture in my music collection. Samples of the tracks can be previewed on Badu’s website.

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