Saturday, March 22, 2014

Where has your father gone?

Vdova - The Nightingale Trio

The term "World Music" is so broad that it borders on silly.  Generally, anything that isn't English language pop or Western classical music can be and has been categorized as such.  Cuban jazz, Algerian rai, Polynesian drumming, Brazilian salsa, J-pop, klezmer, Celtic, Cajun... the list is endless.

Whether or not it makes sense to combine all these diverse and rich genres under one heading is debatable.  There's no denying, however, that expanding your musical horizons beyond the Top 40 opens up worlds of rhythm, melody, harmony and instrumentation you never even knew existed.

Nowadays it's easy to explore this cornucopia.  You can wander down a million musical rabbit holes online and listen to any type of song, any time, any where.

It hasn't alway been thus.  A generation ago, if you lived in an area that had a public radio station, you occasionally might have heard World Music.  Your library may have had a few records.  Or perhaps you'd read a review somewhere that opened your eyes and ears.

I don't recall how I came across the following album, which I bought on cassette...      

...but it was one of of the most strikingly distinct things I had ever heard.  While the acapella woman's voices had echoes of familiar religious music, the tone and (especially) the harmonies were strange. Strange and beautiful.  I loved it immediately.

"Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares" ("The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices") is a collection of folk songs by the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir.  The album was released in the US in 1987 and three years later the group's second album won a Grammy.

Fast forward to this year, when I was deep in one of the musical rabbit holes I mentioned above.  I came across a video shot under frozen Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis.  That alone was enough to enticement me.

To my delight, the music was as wonderful as the setting.

It turns out the Nightingale Trio is a unique act, one inspired by the folk songs of the Balkans and Eastern Europe (such as "Le Mystere des Voix Bulgare").  While remaining true to the music's traditions, the trio also brings a unique approach to this type of singing.

Sarah Larsson, Nila Bala, and Rachel LaViola met at Yale as members of the Women's Slavic Chorus.  Now based in Minneapolis, San Jose, and Dallas, respectively, they continue to perform together.

You can learn more about the three of them and their music at nightingaletrio, and

I had the chance to ask Sarah and Nila about recording "Vdova."
1 -  As a teenager, I enjoyed exploring underneath/behind Minnehaha Falls, which may or may not have been permitted.  What was it like singing in this unique environment and why was it chosen?
Sarah Larsson: Why we chose that spot: We had already filmed another video with Trent Waterman from North Shore Sessions, and we loved his work.  We contacted him about filming another video, with our thought being, “Something haunting, beautiful, still—like winter.”  

His first suggestion was the Falls!  Since I live in Minneapolis, I had actually explored back there before, and knew it would be magical.  Actually, the first time I climbed back there, I was by myself, and I couldn’t help but sing.  The cavern makes a beautiful acoustic space.

2 - The trio includes a Minnesotan, a Texan and a Californian.  Did the cold winter air affect your voices, particularly for the two of you coming from warmer climes?
SLTotally!  You can’t tell in the video, but I was moments away from drooling almost the entire time.  Trent, the videographer, took off his gloves to do the filming, and we were completely impressed at his fortitude.  In the cave, the air was a little warmer than the air outside, but we still happened to be singing in Minnesota during the coldest weekend on record — the “polar vortex”, if you remember!

Nila Bala: Cold weather is definitely something we have to watch out for.  We like to keep warm water or tea close by, and cough drops to counteract the cold.  Since we didn't have to do too many takes for Vdova, our voices survived the adventure!
3 - "Vdova" is a sad song about a woman learning that her husband has been killed, his body scattered by ravens. Since most of your listeners are unlikely to understand Ukrainian, how much is your song choice dictated by "sounds amazing" and how much by "great lyrics"?
NBI think its hard to separate the "sounds amazing" from the "great lyrics," since the meaning of the song drives the sound and the way it is rendered.  It is important for us to know the meanings of the songs, so we can imbibe the songs with that feeling, even if our listeners may not understand Ukrainian. 

Sarah Larsson

SLMost of our first impressions about songs are based on the harmonies and aesthetics, sound-wise.  Pretty often, we find out about the meaning of a song in a general way at first, and don’t get literal translations until we are already performing the songs and meet a native speaker.  Other times, we learn the songs directly from a master-singer, who tells us all the song’s background right away.  

For this one, we knew it was a widow’s song from the start, and we hope that the sorrow in the song comes through just through the feeling in the tune.  

In any case, so so many of the songs are about the stark, real, often-desperate calling-out of women in the old country.  Other songs say, “Mother, oh please do not marry me off; I will forever miss my friends and my little garden.”  Somehow, we love these sorrowful stories, too.  Other songs, of course, are as joyful as can be.
4 - Do you sing this any differently than would a traditional group of Ukrainian women?
SLYes, our style is very different.  Traditional folk Ukrainian is a bit more brash, and “forward”, to use the language of vocal production.  It varies a lot region to region, but here is an example that is pretty typical of what we have heard:  

Our style is different, but we have grown into our style through being really focused on listening in to each other, and letting our harmonies ring.  

Ukraine is, admittedly, one of the nations whose music we know least about.  We’ve studied with master singers from Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Russia, but not yet Ukraine.  

Also, it’s interesting to note that we each have very different singing backgrounds.  Nila was trained in classical South Indian music, and also performed in touring Broadway shows as a child.  Rachel has no formal music training, but is also a phenomenal country and bluegrass singer.  I had most of my vocal training in a classical Western women’s choir, and I’ve also studied music of several West and East African traditions.  We all come together!

NBWe try our best to sing Slavic music as authentically as we can--meaning the pronunciation, the vocal placement, and the tone.  However, we are not fluent in the languages we sing in, nor is it the only type of music we enjoy, so you are likely to notice some differences. 

If you listen to traditional Ukrainian women's groups, you might find that they have an even louder, fuller, tone, with a heavier vibrato than we use.  However, even within Ukrainian voices you will likely notice differences, since every vocal group makes different stylistic choices.

Nila Bala
5 - The three of you live in different places, so singing together live is not always an option.  Do you ever rehearse a song like "Vdova" via Skype or other digital technology?
NBFor now, electronic rehearsals are not a good option given the feedback and delays that occur.  We tend to learn our parts very well on our own, and then come together before our tours to put our songs together.

SLWe have tried to use Google hangouts, but the problem is that the program mutes your microphone while anyone else is talking!  So no, that doesn’t work for us.  What we do instead is have our hangouts to plan tours and repertoire, and then we all go home and learn our parts on our own.  We convene for an afternoon before our gigs start for each tour and put everything together.  We’re constantly emailing back and forth with new music ideas.

Rachel LaViola

6 - The video was produced for the North Shore Sessions.  What are they and how did the Nightingale Trio get involved?
SL: North Shore Sessions is an awesome project based in Minnesota, that films local and touring bands playing in interesting spaces.  Most of the videos they film are taken in one single shot without cuts, so they have a great live feel.  

I learned about it because Trent Waterman filmed videos of several musician friends here in town (The Hummingbirds: and Lynn O’Brien:  Trent is also a good friend. 

There are a lot of amazing local artists in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Trent does all of his filming just out of his own artistic passion for good music and for film.
7 - Did you nail this video on the first take?
SLWe did about 5 takes of this song, but I think this version is maybe the 3rd or 4th one.  It took us a moment to get into singing mode after climbing up an ice covered waterfall (!), and then we needed a bit of time to get the sound right. Fun detail: we recruited some strangers who were also exploring that day to guard the entrance to the cave, so no one would walk into the shot.  

Monday, March 10, 2014

I Want To Feel What You Feel

"Love Belongs Right Here" - Mary Hopkin

One of the first artists the Beatles signed when they launched Apple Records in 1968 was a young Welsh singer named Mary Hopkin.  

The first commercial single the label released, Apple #2, was Hopkin's "Those Were The Days."  Produced by Paul McCartney, the record became a huge international hit and made Hopkin a star. 

Hopkin's next single was a McCartney original, "Goodbye," a #2 hit in the UK and #13 in the U.S.  Prime Paul, its catchy melody is a perfect match for Hopkin's lilting vocals.

(Apple single #1, by the way, was a private pressing of Frank Sinatra (!) singing a revised "The Lady is a Tramp" for Ringo's wife, Maureen.)  


Credit: Morgan Visconti

Mary Hopkin has been involved in various music and theatrical projects in the years since, from the Blade Runner soundtrack to the theme song for a Billy Connolly TV series, working with myriad artists from David Bowie to Dolly Parton to the Chieftains. 

Credit: Morgan Visconit

Hopkin's children, Jessica Lee Morgan and Morgan Visconti, share her musical talents and she has collaborated with both.

My impression, right or wrong, is that she has never seemed commercially motivated, that she is driven instead by a love of singing. Hopkin doesn't do much press or perform publicly often, but she's no recluse - she tweets regularly (@themaryhopkin) and has a nice website (  And she continues to grace us with new recordings.

Her most recent album, "Painting by Numbers," concludes with a powerful yet intimate song, "Love Belongs Right Here." You can listen to it here and you can buy the album here.

 I sent Hopkin seven questions about LBRH.  She quite kindly responds:

1 - You wrote LBRH with your longtime guitarist Brian Willoughby for a solo album he released in 1998. What was that process like?

Mary Hopkin: Brian had already written a lovely 8-bar melody on guitar, which we used for the verses. Once we'd worked out the chords for the rest of the song, I wrote the remaining melody and lyrics.

2 - The only instruments on the track are two guitars, one electric and one acoustic. Is that Brian and/or you?

MH: I wish! Brian played all the guitar parts - beautifully. I just played the keyboard pad.

3 - On LBRH (as well as the rest of "Painting by Numbers") your voice is as beautiful and distinctive as it was when you signed with Apple records in 1968. What's your secret?

MH: Thank you - it must be neglect! I prefer my voice now, though - my range has improved and it seems to reflect more of what I'm feeling.

4 - Have you ever tried singing LBRH in Welsh?

MH: No, but there is a translation and it has been sung by the lovely Welsh singer, Heather Jones.

5 - Did you do anything special to get in the right mood to record the vocal for LBRH or do you just start singing and the emotion comes easily?

MH: What are you suggesting? Have you heard the lyrics? :-) No, no foreplay necessary - I'm a professional :-)

6 - Was it easy to keep the arrangement simple or were you ever tempted to add strings, bass, percussion, etc?

MH: Brian's whole album (Black and White) was beautifully understated - in fact, he didn't use the electric guitar part on his album version. A big arrangement would have affected the intimacy of the song - although we did think of pitching it to Celine Dion :-)

7 - Why did you decide to end the album with LBRH?

MH: I chose it as the last track because it's the only song that is not a demo, but a finished recording. I also like the way the slow fade leads the listener gently into silence.

I'll leave you with a video of "Gold and Silver," another fine song from the album: