And now, as Monty Python’s John Cleese used to say, for something completely different: an album of Balkan Romani (gypsy) music brilliantly performed by, of all people, a young woman with Jewish and Dutch roots who hails from Santa Cruz, California.
According to Eva Salina’s website, she stumbled on traditional Balkan music at age seven, after someone gave her a tape of Yiddish tunes. She learned to sing them, at which point her parents looked for a Yiddish vocal coach to help her develop her burgeoning talent. They couldn’t find one, but they did happen upon a teacher who had been singing Balkan music for years.
At that point, according to a press release, Salina “fell down the rabbit hole of Balkan song.” She traveled to the Balkans at age 12 and studied with the region’s famous artists, and she has been performing their music ever since. Now she has released Lema Lema, an album devoted to the compositions of the legendary Saban Bajramovic, the prolific Serbian-Romanian composer and performer who died in 2008.
The record is a triumph. Salina—who wisely eschews any attempt to Westernize or commercialize the music—sings passionately and powerfully. And though she delivers the songs entirely in the Romani language, she conveys the emotion in their lyrics, which cover the same sorts of topics that American country music addresses, including drinking, marital spats, and adultery.
The instrumentation—which features Peter Stan’s magical accordion work and incorporates everything from flugelhorn to tuba to dholak (a two-headed drum)—is as marvelous as it is unusual. Vibrant, exciting, and loaded with surprises, these recordings are on a par with the most inventive Western jazz.
If you’re an adventurous listener with diverse tastes, put Lema Lema on your must-hear list.
Jeff Burger edited Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, both published by Chicago Review Press. His third book for the same publisher will be available in fall 2016. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary.