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Zulya Performs Tatar Music - Savoy Theatre, Helsinki

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Zulya and the Children of the Underground
Savoy Theater
Helsinki, Finland
October 24, 2007

These days we are very accustomed to mixed sonic salads, to multicultural feasts of ethnic reinterpretation. To some, this act may be just such a multi-herbal mixture, but to my taste here is a flavor of genuinely deep-rooted and untrammeled ethnic style presented in a thoroughly contemporary fashion—and as such it's almost jazz.

My first encounter with Zulja Kamalova and her band (then more a backing band, despite the participation of two giants of Finnish crossover and jazz—Juhani Aaltonen and Jukka Tolonen) was itself a multi-cultural encounter. The venue was the small Tsarist-era White Hall in central Helsinki, with heavy curtains hanging in front of shuttered windows and rows of straight-back wooden chairs awaiting a respectful crowd. The audience comprised more than 75% respectful, appreciative ethnic Tatars—from grey-rinse grandmothers and spouses to dusky grandchildren and teens—gathered to listen to a small feast of music in their aural tradition. For this month's audience, too, the repertoire was almost exclusively Tatar, so for a second time I understood not one word, but was entranced for the whole show.

Zulja sings in a voice straight from the steppes of Crimea, ranging from low near-moaning to whooping Russian yoiks, telling tales of love and longing that her people have witnessed, singing lullabies like Ally Bally, set to a poem by Tatar Harras Ayupov. The fact is, though, that she is more of an antipodean than an antiquarian, using the language and idiom of her ancestors but crafting ballads and lullabies from her own experience as an immigrant to Australia. Hence a song like "Late Again" tells of a recurring dream of missing an airplane deadline.

Accompanying herself with finger-style acoustic guitar she integrates her soulful songs seamlessly with the three males beside her. The CChildren of the Underground, however, are more than a backing band. To her unadorned voice the band adds the swing, the tension and the panache.

This year's show featured Russian maestro Aidar Gainullin on accordion, adding trill and treble to the deft, light accompaniment of the two Australians, drummer Justin Marshall and bassist Andy Tanner. They share in some of the writing credits, although it is Zulya who must receive most laurels for these apparently simple but appealing songs, which stretch her ethnic tradition to suit the ears of audiences in any corner of the globe.


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