Lamentations, growls, exquisite violins: 5 Eastern European ethno-jazz bands you need to know

20 November 2020
Top image: Violons Barbares

In Eastern Europe, ethno-jazz is a revered genre. A basic definition would see ethno-jazz as an umbrella term for any non-Western fusion with modern American jazz. But, as always, the story is more complicated than it seems. Romanian jazz critic and historian Virgil Mihaiu argues that, at its core, the spirit of ethno-jazz resides in improv — “whether it’s improvisation on the African-American jazz tradition, or by a village kobza player standing on top of a damn hill, while he feels connected to the stars.”

That improv is done with great technical rigour, built by the region’s many folk and classical music schools. As Mihaiu argues, “musicians are building on the more classical basis created by piano composer-performers such as the Polish Krzysztof Komeda, who wrote music for Roman Polanski’s films, Vagif Mustafa-Zadeh, who has a museum in his name in Baku, and Romanian Richard Oschanitzky, who wrote the music for more than 30 films. They were musicians already integrated on the world cultural scene.”

But although the roots of today’s avant-garde music might go back to art created by composers during the communist era, the ethno-jazz label was embraced in the 90s as a way of marketing this local music tradition in a Westernised music market.

The current ethno-jazz scene in Eastern Europe might not be expansive yet, but it is robust: festivals in cities like Wrocław, Chișinău, Dushanbe, Tulcea, or Rostov-on-Don, as well as in idyllic rural villages and castles, champion the genre. Georgia even sent its own ethno-jazz bands to the Eurovision Song Contest — The Shin represented the country in 2014 in Denmark, and Iriao was the face of Georgia in Lisbon in 2018.

Here are five ethno-jazz bands to give you a flavour of Eastern Europe’s rich jazz landscape.

Trigon

Trigon, founded in 1992, is a Moldovan band mixing elements of folk, jazz, rock, and symphonic music. One of their staple compositions is a blend between a Romanian folk song, “Ciocârlia” (or “The Skylark”), and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”, but they would also re-interpret American jazz tunes, such as Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington’s Caravan.

Since their debut album, The Moldovan Wedding in Jazz, the band has produced dozens of albums, in Moldova, Romania, Russia, Belgium, France, and Germany. They have steadily established themselves as avant-garde music virtuosi, conquering the European jazz festival circuit, having their music play on the BBC, Voice of America, and other radio stations.

All band members have an academic musical background, while two — Vali Boghean, who does vocals and plays 14 instruments, and band leader Anatol Ștefăneț — also have experience in folk music ensembles. “Romanian folklore is my backbone,” explains Ștefăneț. “But jazz gives me the freedom to express myself, to personalise folklore.”

In addition to producing their own music, since 2002, Trigon have also hosted a popular annual ethno-jazz festival in their native Chișinău, one of the biggest in Europe and a staple cultural event in Moldova. “I think the festival has helped Moldovan audiences be exposed to, and understand ethno-jazz, and it’s also turned a lot of local musicians towards jazz,” Ștefăneț says.

Iriao

Ethno-jazz band Iriao keeps the tradition of polyphonic singing alive in modern Georgia.

Its leader, composer, and keyboard player, David Malazonia, was one of the pioneers introducing ethno-jazz to Georgia in the early 90s. He says that he was deeply influenced by the 80s albums of the famous Georgian folk song ensemble Rustavi, led by Anzor Ekomaishvili. “These recordings made a great impression on me and they were the inspiration and the foundation for creating original compositions based on elements of Georgian folk music, combined with modern rhythms and jazz improvisations,” Malazonia told The Calvert Journal. In 1990, the composer co-founded the ethno-jazz band Adio.

Buba Murghulia, meanwhile, was singing in another pioneering Georgian ethno-jazz band: The Shin. In 2013, the two joined folk singers Misho Javakhishvili and Gaga Abashidze in 2013, and they formed Iriao. The band gained national and international recognition ever since, attending jazz festivals in Ukraine, Poland, the Baltics, as well as in Indonesia and Malaysia. But their popularity truly kicked off when they represented Georgia at the Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon in 2018, finishing in 18th place.

Maria Răducanu

An intoxicating performer, Maria Răducanu sings old Romanian folk songs, dirges, and ballads with exquisite jazz instrumentation. Free-spirited, yet profoundly connected to ancient cultural roots, Răducanu’s music transports audiences to an ethereal world. Her openness means the Romanian singer will perform in petrol stations or shabby bars in Bucharest’s poverty-stricken neighbourhoods just as enthusiastically as on big festival stages and in glamorous concert halls.

Born in the eastern Romanian town Husi, the soprano studied the violin and guitar, on top of her language and literature degrees. Since her debut album On the Valley in 2002, she took the underground music scene in Bucharest by storm. Her latest album, Hospital of Love, was released in May earlier this year, after a five-year break.

Rejecting the jazz label for its academic associations, Răducanu feels most comfortable to say she sings free improvisation, or a mix between folk and avantgarde. In addition to her singing in Romanian, Răducanu also dips into Portuguese fado and Russian chanson.

You can get her latest album here.

Evelina Petrova

Lamentations, lullabies, growls, screams: Oslo-based Russian composer, accordeonist, and vocalist Evelina Petrova uses a wide range of tones for her experimental singing, combining Russian folk songs with improv. Petrova leads many lives — in addition to her solo career, the singer performs as part of the jazz Oslo Art Trio, together with Moldovan-born pianist Misha Alperin and Italian percussionist Roberto Dani.

Born near St Petersburg, Petrova studied musical improvisation and theatre before joining her teacher and trumpeter, V. Gaivoronskii, in a duo which would go on to win Special Prize at the The International Accordion Festival of Castelfidardo, dedicated to Astor Piazzola. Thanks to the pair’s two albums and the tours across the world, Petrova rose as one of Russia’s most promising jazz singers since the mid to late 90s.

But it was two years after graduating from the St Petersburg State Conservatory in 2002 that the singer released her first solo album, The Year’s Cycle, in the UK, and toured at festivals all across Europe.

Since 2012, Petrova has lived in Oslo. With nine albums to date, reviews in The Guardian, as well as international jazz publications, Petrova’s music, as British musician Ian Anderson wrote, is like “Frank Zappa meets Valkyrie”.

Barbaric Violins / VIOLONS BARBARES

Highly energetic, virtuosic, and varied, Barbaric Violins uniquely mixes Bulgarian and Mongolian folk music with percussion (as well as salad bowls or pots), and even punk. While Mongolian Dandarvaanchig Enkhjargal does overtone singing and plays his morin khoor (horse-head fiddle), Bulgarian Dimitar Gougov plays gadulka, an instrument with three melodic and 11 resonant strings, and French drummer Fabien Guyot plays anything that can be recycled into a drum (“things that normally go to the bin in ‘normal peoples’ houses”).

Born in Ulan-Bator, Enkhjargal grew up in a nomad family on the taiga. When his musical talent was discovered by talent scouts, the fiddler was able to study music at the Ulan-Bator Conservatory. During a tour of Germany after the fall of communism in 1990, Enkhjargal received an offer to stay in the West. He accepted, and has performed in a series of world music bands based in Germany ever since.

Gougov, on the other hand, grew up surrounded by traditional Bulgarian music, working on his craft with a Bulgarian gadulka grandmaster, Atanas Vultchev. He says he has dreamed of working with a Mongolian folk musician ever since his neighbour, who sang in the famous Bulgarian women’s choir Angelite, played him a CD she had made with Huun Huur Tuu de Tuva, a women’s choir from Ulan-Bator. “It was magnificent, the light voices of Bulgarian women met with the grave voices of Mongolian women.” After crossing paths with Enkhjargal at a project involving 12 other musicians, he knew he wanted to start a band together.

Since their start in 2008, Violons Barbares have toured the world, and released three albums, which received good reviews in international media.

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