Aram Bajakian sets himself apart from other guitarists, but not merely by playing the guitar differently, but looking far and wide for sources from the musical styles he brings to life. Both Kef and there were flowers also in hell found revelation in the Armenian folk music, Texas blues, afro punk, and Downtown improvised music, just to name a few. Now, he’s mining the sounds from a small enclave nestled in the middle of Europe from over a century ago, and he found the perfect partner to bring this forgotten music back to life.
Some five weeks ago we took a sample of Bajakian’s and vocalist Julia Úlehla’s unique take on this folk music with an advance listen of the track “Ej, lásko, lásko,” and in a few days brings the release of the entire album of this material. Dálava (October 14, 2014, Sanasar Records) is the modern-day interpretation of traditional music that sprung up in a community within the historic area of Moravia.
Moravia makes up most of the eastern region of the Czech Republic, where the Carpathian Mountains taper off into the sedimentary basins of the Morava and the Dyje rivers, and the musically rich village of Strážnice is the source for the material for Dálava. Julia’s great-grandfather, biologist and ethnomusicologist Vladimir Úlehla, applied his scientific acumen to painstakingly transcribe this music prior to World War I, ensuring that it would not die out. Not just notes, lyrics and measures, mind you, but the full spirit of these songs. Úlehla justified his efforts when wrote at the time, “The measure count, the meter, the time duration for the delivery of individual notes or rhythm, and finally the emphasis and length of syllables—all of this combines into one integrated whole.”
So much of the discriminating nuances of the culture that went into this music have been preserved by Dr. Úlehla, which in itself makes this an intriguing project, but that’s not where the intrigue ends, because Bajakian and the younger Úlehla add idiosyncrasies of their own. That’s probably just as much out of necessity as it is by intent: intent; Julia’s great-grandfather may have transcribed the music but he didn’t record it, and so much more detail in music can be picked up by ear that notation can’t (imagine, for example, what Mostly Other People Do The Killing’s audio re-enactment of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue might have sounded if all they had to go on it was a score).
Joining Bajakian — who also plays glockenspiel — and Úlehla for this endeavor are Tom Swafford and Skye Steele (Anthony Braxton) on violins and Shanir Blumenkranz (John Zorn, Yo Yo Ma) on standup bass and gimbri. But don’t be fooled by this mostly baroque assemblage of instruments. A haunted background of the glockenspiel and wandering violins that are these days usually created by electronics effects simmer behind Úlehla’s accurate vocal sung in Czech on “Ach, bože muj,” and her nuanced inflections here and throughout makes her voice another instrument, making the fact that nearly all listeners won’t understand the lyrics a superfluous point.
Bajakian’s ingenuity extends into the way he prepares his guitar for some of the piece, as we already witnessed on “Ej, lásko, lásko,” and he sneaks in blues feeling within his brief solo for “A ty moja najmilejší.” His guitar feedback is the primary foil to Úlehla’s voice during “Nech je pán lebo král,” matching the melancholy air in her delivery. Punk-jazz enthusiasts will find much to like about Bajakian’s growling guitar pushing back against the tame waltz of “Hory hucá.” Also dig how he conforms surf rock to this Moravian music (“Vyšla devcina”).
The abrasive confluence of the violins, Bajakian’s distorted guitar competing with Blumenkranz’s taut bass line reconstructs the odd-measured “Mamicky” in a way the Moravians couldn’t have imagined, but the spirit of this tune couldn’t have existed with them, either. A 5/4 meter is applied to “Litala,” where Blumenkranz’s lute-like gimbri adds to the ghoulish sounds emanating from Bajakian and the roiling strings. They also recognize when not as much instrumentation is needed; only a violin accompanies Úlehla for “Milá má” and that’s just fine.
The idea of a jazz artist recasting the traditional music of central and eastern Europe isn’t a new one, but Aram Bajakian and Julia Úlehla have combined the richness of the old with the freshness and boldness of the new like no one else has done before. This is why Dálava cannot be dismissed as another exotic music genre exercise.
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