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Dálava, Gordon Grdina and Mikkel Ploug: Songs Old, and Sounds New

Mark Werlin By

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The sound of recognizable musical forms may attract us, in the same way we are drawn to familiar faces or voices. The sound of a foreign language may set us on the alert; syllables we do not recognize, meanings we cannot understand.
Strangeness—a word that connotes foreignness, otherness, and a sense of unease when confronted by the unfamiliar. The sound of recognizable musical forms may attract us, in the same way we are drawn to familiar faces or voices. The sound of a foreign language may set us on the alert; syllables we do not recognize, meanings we cannot understand.

And what if the words cannot always cross the boundary from one language to another, and the meanings never be fully grasped?

Dálava: The Book Of Transfigurations

On The Book Of Transfigurations, Dalava, the duo of vocalist Julia Ulehla and guitarist Aram Bajakian, in the company of Vancouver's most accomplished jazz musicians, bridge the chasm of a disappearing culture, history and language to restore and re-interpret Moravian folk songs in new music settings. It is one of the most artistically adventurous albums released in 2017, a recording that grows more compelling on repeated listening.

The project arose from Julia Ulehla's desire to preserve and reframe songs from her ancestral home Moravia, the eastern region of the present-day Czech Republic. Ulehla was well positioned to advance that effort; her great-grandfather Vladimir Ulehla had collected and edited an edition of Moravian songs, published posthumously in 1949, from which the present recording is drawn. Ulehla and her husband Aram Bajakian created new arrangements for guitar, cello, accordion and electric keyboards, electric and acoustic bass and drums, to be performed by musicians in the Vancouver jazz/new music scene. By taking this approach, Dálava challenges the traditions of ethnic folk musical practice, and bridges the cultural-national divide between a small region of Eastern Europe and the broader listenership of North America.

While the melodies and dance rhythms of Bohemian music are recognizable in the works of classical composers Dvorak, Suk and Martinu, the vocal music tradition of Moravia may be as unfamiliar to you as it was to me. Seeking out similar music for comparison, I soon ran into a wall: there were no Moravian song recordings in my collection, and if klezmer music recordings pointed in the right geographical direction, the differences were greater than the similarities. The instrumentation of a traditional klezmer ensemble shares with its Moravian counterpart clarinet, violin, accordion and cimbalom, but the fatalistic lyrical themes and use of oriental modes and scales clearly distinguish Moravian vocal music from klezmer's cantorial and folk influences.

What was I hearing in this beautiful, strange and unfamiliar music? Listening to the recording was proving a disorienting experience. Ethnomusicologist Zdenek Vejvoda's article "Folk Music, Song and Dance in Bohemia and Moravia" proved helpful. Veyvoda writes:

"There is a pronounced cultural dividing line between the Bohemian region and the east of our territory. As the two areas took different directions in social and economic development, there occurred a stylistic differentiation in folk music of two basic contrasting types: the Bohemian type known as "instrumental" and the type represented by the repertoire of Eastern Moravia and sometimes known as "vocal."

Vejvoda further contrasts Moravian songs to Bohemian melodies: Moravian songs "exhibit a greater lyricism and a sharper alternation of exuberant emotion and melancholy that is enhanced by a colourful palette of modes."

That glimpse into the historical-cultural context brought a little more clarity, but the music still felt out of reach. A musician friend recommended the album Morava by jazz bassist George Mraz, recorded in collaboration with the highly respected Moravian vocalist and cimbalom player Zuzana Lapciková, and pianist-composer Emil Viklický. George Mraz is of Moravian descent and had long harbored a wish to record the songs of his paternal homeland. The ensemble strives for a balance between the formal structures of modern jazz and the ethnic character of traditional Moravian songs. Many of the tracks would not stand out as distinctly Moravian if heard in a playlist of contemporary European jazz piano trios. But the tracks that feature Lapciková's vocals and cimbalom are, to my thinking, problematic; the two idioms assert their differences and their incompatibility; the effect is traditional folk music backed by jazz accompaniment. Morava is a sincerely intentioned project, though I don't believe it achieves a successful synthesis of its component musical elements.

What differentiates The Book Of Transfigurations from Morava is the way Dálava boldly juxtapose the familiar against the unfamiliar. Dálava's palette is blended from a wide range of musical colors, and by not trying to produce an album that fits neatly inside jazz, world music, or new classical category boundaries, they are more free to innovate and explore.

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