Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Lucid Culture Interview – Black Sea Hotel

One of New York’s most unique and exciting musical acts, Black Sea Hotel are Brooklyn’s own Bulgarian vocal choir. They’re releasing their debut album, a starkly beautiful, otherworldly cd of traditional Bulgarian and Macedonian choral music, much of which they’ve imaginatively adapted and arranged for four voices. The cd release show is June 4 at 9 PM at Union Pool. The group’s four women: Joy Radish, Willa Roberts, Sarah Small and Corinna Snyder took the time out of their busy performance schedule to discuss their upcoming album with Lucid Culture:

Lucid Culture: What’s up with the scary black octopus on the cd cover? 

Corinna Snyder: Joy had an encounter with a jellyfish in the Black Sea when we were all in Bulgaria a few years ago, and when we started thinking about images for our album, we kept thinking about unusual sea creatures, and kept coming back to the image of the octopus. We love our octopus. You know, they are insanely flexible, and they are very smart, very soulful animals. We want to stick pictures of octopi on everything Black Sea Hotel.  We also like that octopi have 8 arms. And, in total, so do we. We like that the 4 of us are in one creature—the octopus. 

LC: And how about the eerie horror-movie soft-focus pictures of the four of you on the cd booklet?

CS: Well we sometimes do have an otherworldly kind of sound, don’t you think? And we were going with an ethereal, watery feel for the album art, which makes some sense of a band named after a body of water…

LC: Let’s introduce the band. On your myspace page in the upper lefthand corner that’s – I think: left to right – Corinna, Joy, Willa and Sarah, right? –

CS: MMM…no. It’s Sarah, Corinna, Joy and Willa. And now we’re totally intrigued as to why you thought differently….

LC: I’ve seen you live a couple of times and one of you called Joy by name onstage so I know who she is – but the rest of you, I’m completely lost…

CS: But anyway I think the myspace changed.  On the back of the cd it’s left to right Sarah, Corinna, Joy and Willa.

LC: My favorite album track that’s up on your myspace page is Vecheraj Angjo, which is the third cut from the new cd. Who’s doing the lead vocal?

CS: The song starts with Joy and myself sharing the lead vocal line, so it is actually two of us glued together on one part. Then we move the melody across the voices over the course of the song.  We do that sometimes with our songs, maybe especially on the ones Joy arranges, now that we think about it. Sometimes we move songs back and forth between two lead singers too, trading verses, which is a traditional form for two voiced songs from the south west region of Bulgaria, so there’s something old embedded in that new arrangement.

LC: And what does the title mean? I think it’s a nocturne of some kind, right?

CS: You know, traditional titles of songs in Bulgaria are the first few words of the song – which means that sometimes you have many many different songs with the same name, because many songs start with the same opening images, like “They were gathering,” as in, they were gathering up a crop, which is also a very traditional way to start a song. It’s typical of oral poetry traditions, really – and that’s really what these songs are. When you talk to the great Balkan singers they really focus their emotional energy on the powerful stories that they’re telling.  

The actual title means Eat up, Angjo.  It’s not really a nocturne: it’s a dance song.  It’s a mother urging her son to eat up and get going – they have a long way to go with their bride, and on the way she’s afraid of passing Gjorgija, who will be standing in a doorway, bottle of rakija in hand – in that rakija there’s magic, and she’s afraid it will ensorcell the bride.  Rakija is the brandy they make in the Balkans. And it does have its own kind of magic, it’s true. 

LC: Did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine that Black Sea Hotel would ever exist?

CS: We all have such wild dreams I guess we could imagine anything.  

LC: Is it possible that New York is the only place – other than, say, Sofia – where this group could have actually come together?  

CS: Actually, it’s probably more likely to find a group like ours outside of Bulgaria. One of the things that distinguishes us from a lot of other groups is that we create most of our own arrangements.  Many other groups mostly stick to singing arrangements composed for the official Bulgarian choirs, a compositional practice that started in the 50s.  I don’t know of any other vocal group in Bulgaria where the singers get to be the arrangers too – that’s also a little different.   

LC: Do any of you have Balkan ancestry, a connection to the area?

CS: None of us have any Balkan background, which many Bulgarians find completely fascinating and flummoxing.  

LC: Is there a cute backstory to how Black Sea Hotel got started? Something like, Joy hears Corinna swearing under her breath in Macedonian on the subway and says to herself, “That’s just the girl I want to start a band with!”

CS: That would have been so cool. But it was way more pedestrian. We met in another Bulgarian singing group – that group disbanded, and we four started singing together as Black Sea Hotel almost two years ago.

LC: Obviously – educated guess – the Bulgarian Voices aka Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares are an influence, right? Was that the first exposure that you had to Balkan music, or specifically to Bulgarian choral music?

CS: Each of us has a different “first time'”story. I heard the Music of Bulgaria album by Nonesuch when I was about 10 years old and was totally taken. I grew up in Cambridge where I was lucky enough to join a Balkan choir when I was 12 – it continues to be the most physical music I have ever made, I think that’s what first connected me to it, and what keeps me connected.   

Sarah Small: I grew up with musician parents who played in opposingly different musical traditions – an atonal/modern piano player/composer, and a Renaissance lutenist mother. Those were my first musical influences. But it was not til college when I heard Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares while listening to music at the Providence Public Library and fell madly in love with Bulgarian music. Then, after moving to New York in 2001, while looking on craigslist for a goth-rock band to sing and play cello with, I came across auditions for start-up Bulgarian women’s choir. I ran right over to audition immediately. 

Willa Roberts: I’ve always had a serious love of ethnic and folk music from all over the world.  My mother was a bellydancer when I was born (in fact, it’s my earliest memory), and I grew up with Middle Eastern music in the house, which had a profound effect on my musical tastes.  She also plays piano and sings, and my whole family is musical.  I heard Le Mystere at some point in high school and fell in love.  Eventually I found my way into playing violin in the Mid East/Balkan ensemble at the College of Santa Fe, and the moment I had the opportunity to sing this music with them, I was totally hooked.  It was like a dream come true.

LC: How long did you study it before you started Black Sea Hotel?

CS: We all come from different backgrounds, but all of us have been musicians of some kind since we were kids. And we had worked together on this music in our previous group for almost two years.  

LC: What were you singing before then? 

CS: Joy was a big musical theater kid. Sarah studied classical cello. Willa studied Turkish violin and sang in a rock band. I studied classical voice and played standup bass.  We continue to do other music as well – Sarah writes trippy goth rock on Logic; Willa plays and sings with a Turkish band and a Balinese gamelan; Joy has a kirtan band; I sing with a Macedonian wedding band – we all do different things. 

LC: I described the music on the cd as otherworldly. Do you agree with that, is that an accurate assessment?

CS: We think the otherworldliness of our sound comes about for a few different reasons. One is that if you don’t speak Bulgarian, you have no lyrics to latch on to. Another is that we do work hard to blend our voices really tightly. The melodies themselves can also be undeniably haunting. And lastly, the timbre of the voice is different in Balkan music – as are the intervals and the rhythm. All together that does create a more otherworldly feel.

LC: There’s a lot of longing in those songs: one girl misses her home and family, another really wants a husband – or a boyfriend – another woman cries because she’s been having trouble conceiving. Is this a representative cross-section of your typical Bulgarian and Macedonian folk music, or did you deliberately go out looking for sad, beautiful songs?  

CS: There really are a lot of sad songs in this tradition. There are of course more light hearted songs out there, but the soulful old stuff usually tells a hard and heartbreaking story.

LC: How old are these songs? Do they still resonate culturally in Bulgaria or Macedonia, or are you reviving them? 

CS: Our source melodies come from all over. Many of our arrangements are based on melodies from Shopluk, in the southwest of Bulgaria, which is one of the few places where women sing melodies and drones together, and where there is a very rich tradition of work and field songs. Some songs in our repertoire are very obscure – Vardar Muten is based on a ritual melody that was collected by an ethnomusicologist in the 70s — and some are extremely well known – the melody for Makedonsko Devoiche [on the cd] was written in the 20th century and every Macedonian knows it.  Our arrangement, though, is totally different than the arrangement that usually accompanies this song – it’s as if a Macedonian completely rearranged the Star Spangled Banner.  This song is our most popular download, too.  

LC: I understand you’ve arranged a lot of these yourself. Sarah in particular gets credit on the cd for a lot of the arrangements. Are all of you arrangers?

CS: Sarah was the first to start arranging, and I’m the  last – I’m in the middle of my first piece now.

LC: How did you learn the songs? From albums, from hearing the songs live? I assume all of you read music. Anybody in the group with conservatory training?

CS: OK, so only one of us really reads music. But this is an oral tradition – the old songs are almost never transcribed.  The complex ornamentation, microtones and rhythms don’t really lend themselves to transcription.  So almost all the melodies we learned from other singers, or from recordings. When it is an existing arrangement, we either search long and hard for the sheet music, or we try to figure it out from the recordings that we have.

LC: Wow! On the cd, I hear all of you taking what in rock music would be called a “lead vocal.” In addition to your own parts, do you ever swap, for example, Willa and Sarah take over the other’s part? 

CS: Not sure what you mean – we sometimes trade the melody, like in Ja Izlezni, or Spava Mi Se, when the two pairs sing back and forth, or two voices trade verses, or in Momche and Vecheraj Agnjo, where the melody moves across our voices

LC: How about trying your hand, your hands at songwriting? You’re so good at the traditional stuff, have you ever thought of trying your hand at creating something new, adding to the canon?

CS: We are working on a new arrangement now that will be mostly in English.  It’s been really challenging, though, as the tradition of storytelling in American and English songs is totally different than in the Balkan tradition – the way stories work, the way phrases are repeated, the impact of certain images. It’s hard to sing Balkan in English. 

LC: How about improvisation? Does that factor at all into what you do, or into Bulgarian choral music in general?   

CS: OK, I’m gonna get pedantic for a sec. Bulgarian choral music was created by a cadre of very talented, classically trained composers in Bulgaria starting in the 50s.  They found extremely talented traditional singers from every musical region in Bulgaria and formed the national Radio choir, and they were the first to perform the multipart choral works.  A classic example of that compositional style is Dragana I Slavej. With a composed piece, the only room that there might be for improvisation is in something like Bezrodna Nevesta, another example of the “classical” folk pieces.  There the lead voice, when establishing the melody, might vary the way she ornaments and stretches the melody – but beyond that, there’s no room for anything more. 

There’s not much room for improvisation in this choral form, but there is lots of room for it in the old songs, especially the ballads, which are usually sung by one singer, and are unmetered. Our arrangement of Mome Stoje is based on that kind of ballad. There a singer will work with ornamentation, she’ll create tension by stretching lines and tones, she’ll work back and forth across fast and slow phrases, and every singer will have her own interpretation.  

LC: Can we be upfront about this: none of you are native Bulgarian or Macedonian speakers, right? I can tell right off the bat if somebody is speaking Spanglish, or bad French, or mangling one of the romance languages, but I haven’t got a clue how good your accents and your pronunciation are…

CS: Apparently we kick ass in the pronunciation department. This spring we performed in Philadelphia and a Bulgarian singer came to the show, and she said that usually, when she hears Americans singing in Bulgarian, there are always little give-aways – the pronunciation of the letters T, D, and L, in particular – but that we didn’t have any. We’ve even been told that our regional accents in songs are dead-on.  A couple of times we’ve had Bulgarians come up to us after shows and just start talking Bulgarian – they assume we must be fluent given our pronunciation.  That’s really gratifying, because we work hard on that part of our work. We don’t get caught up in maintaining authenticity in much of what we do – it would be ridiculous for us to do so, as contemporary American singers – but we do want to speak the language correctly.

LC: In addition to singing the part, you also look the part. Where do you get your stagewear, and are your outfits really Bulgarian? 

CS: We do have some seriously heavy and heatstroke-inducing old costumes that we bought in Bulgaria, but we don’t wear them that often because they often fit weird, they weigh as much as two sheep and are hard to wash. But they are cool looking. We’re thinking of reconstructing them at some point, so that we can wear them without passing out.

LC: As a lot, but I think not enough people know, there’s a very active Balkan music scene, a sort of Balkan underground here in NYC. I know you’ve played with Ansambl Mastika, a great band who you mention in your shout-outs in the cd package. Who else are you fans of? Here’s your chance to plug all your friends…

CS: Oh – so many! Raya Brass Band, Slavic Soul Party, Veveritse, Kadife, Zlatne Uste, Luminescent Orchestrii, AE, the Kolevi Family, Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni, Which Way East, Ivan Milev, Ansambl Mastika, Ljova and Inna’s various bands – Ljova and the Kontraband, Romashka, Barmaljova, etc.  Also we love Stagger Back Brass Band..I’m sure I’ve forgotten some already.

LC: This happens to me once in awhile: somebody hears something I’m listening to, makes a face and says it’s quote-unquote weird. Has this happened to you, and how do you respond to that?

CS: When people see us live it’s harder to call it weird because we look normal. But it does wig people out sometimes when we’ll do a really old-style song that’s totally dissonant and arrythmic and has lots of yipping and shaking sounds.  I guess we’re lucky so far that the audience who sees and hears us is usually one that’s open to this, or knows something about it. But we want to branch out. We’re waiting for the first gig we do where the audience just doesn’t get it – and seeing how we deal with that.  

LC: Where do you want to go with this? It seems to me that you have an extremely high ceiling. I mean, you could dump the dajyobs and support yourself by touring cultural centers across the country. Maybe around the world. Especially since le Mystere des Voix Bulgares don’t tour much anymore…

CS: We talk about doing a college road show, leading workshops and doing concerts.  It would be lucrative…but it might not be the most interesting thing for us to do musically. I guess touring never is. We’re talking a lot now about what to do next – thinking a lot about collaborating with other sounds, traditions, styles, to see what happens.

LC: Besides Balkan music, what else are you four listening to these days? I know for example, Willa, you’re also into gamelan music from Bali, being a member of Gamelan Dharma Swara, New York’s very own gamelan. How about the rest of you? 

CS: The other day in practice, Joy exclaimed how much she’s been loving listening to Moroccan desert blues. Then Willa concurred – and she’s into Mauritanian desert blues as well. So apparently half the group’s obsessed with desert blues.

LC: So am I! I just saw Tinariwen at le Poisson Rouge, they were great!

CS: Sarah tends to listen to a lot of beat driven heavy rock with blankets of vocal harmonies and likes listening to Philip Glass when editing photos. Willa’s been discovering more rock bands that have interesting harmonies, like Panda Bear and Dirty Projectors – she always wondered why there weren’t more bands that had dense and complex vocal harmonies, and recently there seem to be more emerging.  I am obsessively listening to this cd of Greek festival processions where men wear enormous sheep bells. You gotta hear it!

LC: You’ll probably laugh when you hear this, but has anybody suggested, “Hey you should try out for American Idol?” You’ve got the chops, there’s no doubt about it…

CS: Um, that would probably be the gig where the audience doesn’t get it. Actually we HAVE thought of this and it has been mentioned before. NOT kidding. It would be pretty wild and maybe stir things up. 

LC: You’re all fully capable of fronting pretty much any band you might want to sing for. Any interest in doing that – obviously while keeping Black Sea Hotel together of course!

CS: We are working on ways to take what we do best – sing close strange harmonies in weird rhythms — and do it in other genres, outside the confines of Balkan music. It would be a dream come true to be involved in something with a group like the Kronos Quartet, or collaborate with a composer like Tod Machover, or work with a rock band. 

LC: Here’s a conundrum that I hear all the time from all the promoters and publicists trying to get their world music acts some press. How do you cross over, out of a niche market? “If we could only find a way to get all the Lucinda Williams fans to listen to Angelique Kidjo,” etc. etc. Do you have any thoughts about building a following with what you do, considering how radically different it is from American music, especially the pop music coming out of the corporations these days?

CS: We struggle with this like many of our compatriots in that awfully named “world music” genre.  We get told that we could get booked more if we were more accessible. One of the challenges is the lyrics, and we’re actually working on a piece now that will combine English and Macedonian. But we’re not really sure what ‘more accessible’ really means – and how much we would have to change to get there. You could say if we sang in English we’d be more accessible, but I’m not sure that’s really honest either. Maybe more, but not a whole lot more.  

LC: Have you ever wondered what might happen if girls were exposed to what you do early in life? What I mean is obviously what you’ve achieved is a result of talent and brains rather than simply looking good. Would you consider yourselves role models in that sense? 

CS: Yow! Never thought about it that way. The music industry production mill for girl singers sucks, but at this point it’s just about as bad for boys too.  

LC: Since you started doing this, have Bulgarian guys started hitting on you?

CS: Not particularly. We have yet to meet the enormous émigré Bulgarian guy population that is into Bulgarian roots music.

Black Sea Hotel play the cd release for their debut album on a great bill starting at 9 PM at Union Pool on Thurs, June 4 with Sxip Shirey opening, then BSH, then Veveritse and Stumblebum Brass Band.

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May 30, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment