To her ears, Balkan Tales sounds like home

Boston Globe, October 21, 2011

NEW YORK – Here’s a concept: an American-based band that plays music inspired by the folk traditions of the Balkans in southeastern Europe, and that is actually led by someone from that region.

This takes nothing away from Balkan Beat Box, Zlatne Uste, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Slavic Soul Party! or the many other neo-Balkan bands that have sprung up this side of the Atlantic in the last decade. The founder of Gogol Bordello, a pioneer in this trend, comes from Ukraine. And many players in this wave of Balkan music appreciation have done deep, immersive research, traveling to villages and seeking out musicians in places like rural Macedonia.

That said, singer Vlada Tomova’s Balkan Tales, which visits Johnny D’s tonight, enjoys a little bit of an edge. It dwells in Tomova, who came to the United States 15 years ago to study jazz, but found herself reverting to – and innovating from – the folk music of her native Bulgaria and its neighbors, the sounds she had grown up hearing, almost unconsciously, in the background soundtrack of her youth.

“I didn’t know that I had paid attention to these songs,” Tomova says over a glass of wine in Brooklyn, where she has made her home for almost a decade. “Growing up, folk music was something that was supported by the state. We were expected to like it, and anything that is forced on you, you reject.”

Instead, after growing up playing piano and later studying mathematics at the national university (to honor her parents’ wishes), Tomova launched her music career in Bulgaria with a band that combined English-language lyrics with Brazilian-influenced melodies. Then she decided on jazz, and got accepted to Berklee College of Music.

And so it was late one night in Boston, in the waning hours of a party, that Tomova, almost out of nowhere, found herself channeling Bulgarian folk music.

“There were five or six people out smoking on the fire escape,” she says. “And this drummer, who was also Bulgarian, started beating a little pattern in an odd meter and I suddenly started singing a song that keeps that meter.”

That song, “Dimianinka,” appears on Tomova’s album, also titled “Balkan Tales,” which came out last year. It’s part of a program of mostly traditional Bulgarian songs, plus a few outliers from Greece, Russia, and even a Kurdish folk song, “Leili.”

Rediscovering and rearranging Bulgarian songs became a major project for Tomova after her revelation on the fire escape. “I think being so far from home made me reach for songs that I didn’t realize I had soaked up,” she says. “I started arranging songs, more in a jazz idiom at first, but this interest in folk music took me away from jazz.”

When Tomova arrived in New York, she joined the city’s community of musicians who move between jazz, rock, avant-garde, or world-music projects as opportunity and interest arise. Over a dozen of these appear as guests on her album.

Holding it all together is Tomova’s singing, which weaves in the influences she’s picked up over the years, but also carries the haunting, otherworldly energy that Western ears have associated with Bulgaria ever since the Bulgarian Women’s Choir became a world sensation two decades ago.

In her research, Tomova says she has spent time studying with soloists from the choir, as well as village women singers. And for her Boston concert, she will be joined by Theodosii Spassov, a renowned player of the wooden flute called the kaval, who like her has made a career of working both in and out of Bulgarian folk music.

Percussionist Mathias Kunzli, a core member of Balkan Tales who has known Tomova since their Berklee days, says his friend has come into her own with this project. “She’s confident and comfortable with her ideas and her story,” Kunzli says.

Kunzli, who is Swiss, says he too only discovered Balkan music once he came to the United States. He says the technical aspects like the odd meters appeal to him, but it goes much deeper than that.

“It doesn’t matter where it comes from – folklore is powerful,” he says. “It’s beautiful to be around music that you feel is taught by ancestors from generation to generation.”

It’s that appeal, Tomova says, that seems to have drawn so many people to the music and culture of her region – like the American women in the Bulgarian choir she led for a number of years in New York. “They were so passionate and driven,” she says. “And I think it comes from looking into a tradition that is so old.”

She says she sometimes finds it odd to witness, for example, Balkan folk festivals full of non-Balkan players and participants performing traditional music and dance. And she cautions that the search for authenticity can become rigid, when in fact the music and culture are always evolving.

But overall, she says, the trend is empowering – especially when it filters back to Bulgaria and its neighbors that their ancestral music is mesmerizing foreigners.

“People are very surprised,” Tomova says. “And people in the Balkans don’t have high self-esteem. So it’s a great booster. I couldn’t be happier that it’s happening.”