This review is different from nearly every one I’ve ever written, in that it draws more from the album’s publicity and background than my opinions about the recording itself. The publicity material is uncommonly well-written and presents quotes from the musician that I think illuminate the music at least as well as anything I can say about it.
American Eva Salina is an impressive young singer of Balkan music. She showed great promise on her debut disc Lema Lema in 2015, and she more than lives up to that promise on Sudbina. It’s an homage to the Serbian Roma diva Vida Pavlović, performed with Serbian/Romanian Roma accordionist Peter Stan.
Pavlović, who died in 2005 at the age of 59, was well-known within her milieu as a singer who wrested maximum emotion and dignity from her narrative songs about the persecutions and hardships faced by the Roma people – and by women within that culture. Salina and Stan have taken on these songs as a way of bringing them to new audiences and preserving them – but also to add them to the voices now being raised globally against persecution and sexism.
What better illustration than a song titled “Let Me Live” or “Pusti me da živim” in Serbian, the opening track on this luminous collection. It’s a deliberate, slow and stately song, and a good introduction to both musicians’ styles. Stan is a solid accompanist but also a gutsy and idiosyncratic improviser, ably outlining a song’s chordal and melodic structure while taking numerous improvised flights across the keyboard, particularly on the instrumental choruses but also behind Salina’s vocals. And Salina displays growth as a vocalist from her previous recording, with especially impressive control of her melisma, which is a key component of Vida’s music.
“In the context of current movements toward women’s equality and agency, as I continue to dig deeper into this repertoire, I realize over and over how it’s all way more relevant than I could have anticipated,” Salina says in the album’s publicity material. “You can fill these songs to the brim with sadness, anger, frustration, and hope, and yet they are never saturated. There’s always room for more: more life, more desire, more understanding, more fire. Songs like these bring tenderness to the day-to-day reality of an unpredictable world and help temper the hardships in our own lives, and hopefully the lives of others.”
I’ve been listening to Balkan music for more than 20 years now, and appreciate it most especially for this ability it has to convey a complex range of emotions, often at the same time. This duo captures that range very well: Salina, with her earthy, grounded singing and the obvious joy that she takes in this music, and Stan with his stately chordal foundation and utterly unpredictable improvisations.
“While they take pleasure in injecting winks and flashes of humor and creativity into the recording and their live performances, Salina and Stan take seriously their responsibility to honor, remember, and thus hopefully carve out space for new narratives around persecution, civil rights, and present-day challenges affecting Roma communities,” according to the album’s publicity one-sheet. This duty is stated explicitly in the second track “E laute bašalen taj roven,” a reference to the Roma experience of the Holocaust.
“The song says, ‘the violins, full of sadness, are crying for us,’ acknowledging musicians’ ability and responsibility to give voice to the suffering of the people,” Salina says. She captures the song’s essence without melodrama, and Stan takes numerous improvised flights across the keyboard, particularly on the instrumental choruses but also behind Salina’s vocals.
My favorites are the fourth track “Ćerma Devla čirikli,” and the sixth “Aven, aven Romalen.” Both are in Romanés and I’m unable to find translations, but they both alternate between slow and fast sections, the faster ones showing off different sides of the playing and singing. But all of these songs fairly pulse with life, thanks to these musicians.
“While these songs provided tremendous technical challenge and beautiful melodies, Vida’s songs demand a different level of personal investment and interpretation. These are songs to grow into over a lifetime,” Salina says. “The question I ask myself is this: ‘How do I take this song beyond a show of skill and make it a vehicle to say something deep and honest?’ A great deal of who I am, what I have lived, and who I may be in the future is present in my singing on this album, and the same is true for Peter’s contributions. We’ve given ourselves nothing to hide behind–no production tricks, no distractions. It’s a pretty old-school record.”
All fans of Balkan music will enjoy this album. These two musicians have amazing chemistry between them, and bring great passion and joy to the music. Here’s a performance video of this duo performing “Boza Limunada.” It’s a song from her debut recording, a tribute to the music of Šaban Bajramović (which Stan also played on), but it gives you a good idea about their respective abilities and styles.
(Vogiton Records, 2018)