Monday, November 21, 2011

Distant Migrations, Close Voices: Vlada Tomova Sings at the Urbane Edge of Tradition on Tour this Fall and on Balkan Tales

All roads lead to the Balkans, and Bulgarian-born, Brooklyn-based singer Vlada Tomova hears it.

The region welcomed mysterious wanderers from Inner Asia; Greeks and Romans trading in the East; bands of weary migrants on a road that stretched from Rajastan to Andalusia. The lines of ancient movement across the peninsula are audible and tightly bound to one another, like the lives in a village.

Embracing sounds far outside the confines of tradition, Tomova has distilled years of learning songs from traditional singers and modern songwriters to tell Balkan Tales. Her arrangements fearlessly embrace flamenco flourishes and Indian resonances, Brazilian flair and Romany rhythms. Yet her mutable, flexible voice evokes the stark, rich spirit of Balkan mountainsides and byways, the old paths and deep roots of thousands of years of cultural conversation.

Joined by globetrotting kaval (traditional Bulgarian flute) master Theodosii Spassov and an avant-worldly band including alter-sitarist Chris Rael, Tomova brings this elegant balance to New York, Boston, and Chicago in late October 2011.

“The Balkans have something very unique that mixes well with other musics because of its complex and long history,” explains Tomova. “And it’s very emotional for me; it’s about connecting to the places, the ancient villages I’ve loved since childhood. It’s about home.”


Tomova recalls sitting at a modest kitchen table on a recent song-finding trip to Bulgaria. She had brought the members of her choir, Yasna Voices, to a remote pomak village, people whose ancestors had converted to Islam. There, Tomova and the American vocalists had met up with a pair of singers who were the real deal.

Across from her sat two older women who had been life-long singing partners. Traditionally, two girls start finding the close, vibrating intervals of old songs together and will continue blending their voices until death do them part. They could feel each other’s timing without a glance, sense what to say as the other improvised lyrics.

This commitment and intimacy moved Tomova deeply. “Those two women were so close, and they relied so much on each other, in an unspoken, down-to-earth, unquestioning way, which you could hear in their singing, the two voices flowing together as one,” Tomova reflects. “I wish we could find much more of that kind of interdependence, trust, and connectedness in the different layers of our everyday life today, especially in large cities, and in the Western world.”

The layers of Tomova’s own life reveal a similar spirit of interconnection. Though raised around traditional music in her native Bulgaria, she and her generation rebelled against the state-sponsored folk heard on the airwaves. It wasn’t until Tomova came to Berklee to study jazz that she discovered a completely different approach to Bulgarian and Balkan traditions, an approach that began with a spontaneous song at a Boston party and ended with concerts at Carnegie Hall and musical trips to the Bulgarian countryside.

Not content to simply sing the roots—though she is now an accomplished and respected performer and singer of Bulgarian traditional music—Tomova often collaborates with other globally-minded musicians (like Balkan Beat Box) and lends her mutable, expressive voice to installations, from a recent King Tut exhibit to the Turin Winter Olympics.

The delicious tension between tradition and bold experimentation echoes in Tomova’s songs like the close intervals loved by Bulgarian singers. It vibrates in the flamenco guitar and hand percussion that reframes the traditional Bulgarian tune, “Momche,” and in the Greek-gone-Brazilian ballad to a beloved daughter, “Augoustos.”

A set for Tomova’s Balkan Tales is just as likely to include a Russian gypsy ballad as an edgy sitar line, or to follow a full-throated village song with a complex, globally savvy extrapolation of a folk-inspired jazz number. Take “Women’s Dance,” a tune composed by Milcho Leviev, an eccentric and brilliant musician defector from socialist Bulgaria whom Tomova tracked down in Los Angeles.

Tomova’s unexpected arrangements evolved in close collaboration with her fellow musicians at Berklee and in New York’s vibrant scene, as well as from Tomova’s own feel for vocal color, ornamentation, and distinctive harmonies. This fall, the band will include Spassov, a wildly talented traditional flute player who can easily leap borders and genres; he’s worked with everyone from Indian tabla innovator Trilok Gurtu and flamenco piano star David Peña Dorantes to film music icon Ennio Morricone.

On one of his many world tours, Spassov showed up at one of Tomova’s shows and jumped in to jam with her band, and a musical friendship began. “I’ve wanted to play with Teodosii again for years,” Tomova smiles.

The diverse sounds and multifaceted musicians Tomova has brought together reflect not only the complex interchange between peoples across the Balkans; they also resonate with Tomova’s new roots in a global metropolis.

“I have dug deep into Balkan music, but I also have all these other parts in me now,” Tomova notes. “And wherever I go, even if I’m back singing in that small village somewhere in Bulgaria, I bring those other worlds with me. My band and our performances reflect that.”

Epic Co-Creation: DÜNYA’s Tale of Constantinople and Istanbul Journeys Through a Millennium of Musical Innovation and Bittersweet Longing

In every dazzling palace and every shadowy alley hums a barely palpable but evocative drone. It’s the ache of glory days now gone, a stirring melancholy that ennobles and embroils the City, once at the heart of so much.

This is the sound and pulse of Constantinople/Istanbul, and Boston-based musicians’ collective DÜNYA, with Schola Cantorum and Ensemble Trinitas, brings it to the forefront on A Story of the City...Constantinople, Istanbul, their journey through a thousand years of the music that echoed along the Bosphorus. The double CD is currently submitted for a Grammy™ award.

There, Greek Orthodox melodies collided with rousing Crusader ballads and the unexpectedly complex folk tunes from Central Asia. A Polish Protestant convert transcribed elegant 17th-century Ottoman melodies. Armenian composers wrote music for Turkish-speaking Jewish and Greek lyricists (“Bu gece çamlarda kalsak ne olur/Apopse”), while Sufi chants uniquely transformed Jewish religious songs (“Yeheme levavi”). Migrants, traders, and conquerors invented new genres, from the court music of the sultans to art music and protest pop in the 20th century.

“I think that the rich diversity reflected in this album will be appreciated by Americans,” reflects Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, musical director and co-founder of DÜNYA. “Through that appreciation, I am sure the American view of the Near and Middle East will change. The Grammies are a great platform for our work to find a greater voice, and to highlight DÜNYA’s unique structure and many talents.”


DÜNYA sprang from frustrating success. Sanlikol, who came to the U.S. to study both at Berklee and the New England Conservatory, had won a name for himself on the jazz circuit, playing festivals across Eurasia and collaborating with legends like trombone icon Bob Brookmeyer. And yet he longed for something very different.

Then one night a decade ago, he played a game of Risk. A friend wanted to provide a fitting soundtrack for world domination and included a few tracks that struck Sanlikol like a bolt from the blue. It was music many believed to have been played by the Janissaries. Sanlikol couldn’t get it out of his head.

“It wasn’t about ideology or nationalist feelings of any kind. It wasn’t because I missed Turkey, though the distance helped make the discovery genuine,” Sanlikol recalls. “It was totally an accident and completely about the music. I listened like never before, and it rocked like Zeppelin. And though I had all this theoretical training and sophistication, I just couldn’t find the tonic.”

Seriously intrigued, Sanlikol began to study Turkish music with the same dedication he had pursued his Western classical and jazz training (he is now a leading scholar on Mehter or the so-called Janissary music, as well as a professor at Brown and the New England Conservatory) He found himself taken by the entire region and took lessons in, among other traditions, Greek Orthodox chanting (from Nektarios Antoniou, leader of Schola Cantorum and DÜNYA member). He soon discovered dozens of other kindred spirits around Boston, high-powered musicians who loved Middle Eastern, Sephardic, Greek, or other Eastern Mediterranean sounds.

Sanlikol, working together with close friends Robert Labaree and Antoniou, suddenly understood: An ensemble flexible enough to cross cultures and play across musical genres, yet broad enough to embrace all the local talent, would have to take a somewhat unconventional form.

DÜNYA was born, a true collective made up of interlocking ensembles—playing everything from New Music to Anatolian folk—and concentric rings of participants circling a highly committed core. It felt like the ideal response to the unsatisfying life of a touring musician, always performing the same repertoire night after night. “With this structure, we can find a fresh kind of continuity,” reflects Sanlikol. “We can come together as friends and keep playing together over and over at radically different concerts.”

Several years ago, contemplating DÜNYA’s next concert, Sanlikol toyed with the idea of a program of songs about Istanbul, of putting together a nice, light evening of pop music. Then he got in way too deep, finding music that extended back in time, and into a plethora of cultures and faiths. “I realized, ‘Wow, I’m getting sucked into this thing. What do I do?’” Sanlikol remembers with a smile. “That’s when [Nobel laureate] Orhan Pamuk’s novel about Istanbul came out. He has this melancholic idea about the city, and it inspired me. I listened to all these musics, even military or upbeat ones, and I couldn’t help but hear that melancholic tone. It’s all over, whether it’s Greek Constantinople or Turkish Istanbul. The great heydays are long gone.”

Yet the unexpected figures who helped fashion the city’s music live on. There’s the love-struck medieval French nobleman and crusader, Gui de Coucy (“A vous amant, plus qu’a nul autre gent”). Or the intriguing Ali Ufki (Wojciech Bobowski), who converted to Islam from Protestantism and became a musician in the Ottoman court (he wrote down instrumental pieces like “Buselik Asiran pesrev”). Or Sephardic Jewish singer Haim Efendi (“La rosa enfloresse”), whose upbeat love song is pure Istanbul folk.

And the music is still glorious, though often elusive. As Sanlikol and DÜNYA began to map out their journey, starting from Greek antiquity and ending in modern Turkey, they faced a multitude of interpretational challenges. Sanlikol had little interest in historical recreation or ethnographic preservation, and opted instead for innovative twists that evoke the spirit of a time and place.

Sanlikol’s opening original composition, “Byzantium,” places the ghostly fragments of ancient Greece’s music in a bold, 20th-century atonal frame. DÜNYA fearlessly turned traditionally vocal pieces into instrumental tunes, mixed companion instruments from different traditions, and turned to thoughtfully arranged folk melodies to complement the sometimes scanty historical record. The music leaps with surprising grace from spare Sufi chants (“Salat-i ümmiye”) to full-on, wah-wah guitar-powered pop anthems (“Felekten beter vurdu”). Artfully recorded by Grammy™-nominated engineer, John Weston (Futura Productions), the result is an epic work of co-creation, mirroring the rise, fall, and continued vibrancy of one of the world’s crucial cultural capitals.

Though willing to play with tradition, Sanlikol and DÜNYA ‘s players have developed keen sensitivities to the complex emotions that surround place, time, and identity in Sanlikol’s native region. Sanlikol experienced how complex, ambiguous, and visceral the past’s impact could be: His exiled Turkish Cypriot parents recalled singing “God Save the Queen” in Turkish and knew what conflict meant. “This isn’t feel-good musical diplomacy. There’s an edge to it; there’s tension,” Sanlikol states. “When you speak of identity as a concept in mid east, in all the nation states that came out of Ottoman Empire, it’s problematic.”

“But music is first and foremost,” adds Sanlikol. “This is not the story of this or that people, but the story of the city. That’s what makes it work.”




Signature Theatre Will Host the Residency of the

Juilliard Drama Division’s “Professional Studio” at its
State-of-the-Art Rehearsal Studio and 99-Seat Performance Venue, “The Studio”

New York, NY—November 17, 2011 – The Juilliard School President Joseph W. Polisi, and Signature Theatre Founding Artistic Director James Houghton announced today an annual residency for the Juilliard Drama Division's “Professional Studio” for the next five years. Beginning in the fall of 2012, fourth and final-year students in both Juilliard’s Bachelor degree, and new Master of Fine Arts degree programs in Drama will be hosted by Signature Theatre at the Company’s new Frank Gehry-designed home, Signature Center. Professional workshops, rehearsals, and performances by students from the prestigious, world-renown Juilliard program will take place at “The Studio,” a new, 99-seat, state-of-the-art rehearsal and performance space in Signature’s new home. In addition, the students will have the opportunity to observe and participate in activities in the Center and intersect with artists in residence at Signature Theatre.

President Polisi said, "This new initiative within the extraordinary confines of Signature Center provides a whole new array of educational and artistic activities for our actors. We look forward to having our actors interact with the many seasoned artists who will be working at the Center on a daily basis."

Juilliard is accepting applications until December 1 for its newly-announced Master of Fine Arts in Drama, with auditions to take place in January and February 2012. A highly selective program that will accept 8 to 10 graduate actors annually, the program will allow the most talented young actors to explore and master the multiple skills necessary for success in the theater of the 21st century. They join an equal number of entering bachelor-level actors in fall 2012. All students entering Juilliard are chosen through a rigorous audition process. Information about the M.F.A. and all Juilliard Drama programs may be found at

The largest new theatre arts center built in New York City in the last 40 years, Signature Center spans an entire city block at 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenue. Featuring three intimate theatres, a studio theatre, rehearsal studio, and a public café and bookstore, the Center will be both a theatre community hub and a neighborhood destination, and has been designed to foster interaction among playwrights, artistic collaborators, and the public.

Houghton, who is also the Director of the Drama Division at The Juilliard School, added, "This is just the right opportunity for the B.F.A and M.F.A. students to bridge their studies with the profession. All of us at Signature are absolutely thrilled to have the full spectrum of artists participating in Signature Center -- from our most seasoned to these dynamic young artists from Juilliard. Each are bound to equally inspire the other."

About The Juilliard School’s Drama Division

The Drama Division at The Juilliard School is one of the most respected and renowned conservatory programs for theater artists in the world. The Division’s outstanding creative reputation, distinguished faculty, and extraordinary level of rigorous professional training have enabled 40 years of alumni to excel as artists, leaders and global citizens. Founded in 1968 by the renowned American director, producer and theater administrator John Houseman and the French director, teacher and actor Michel Saint-Denis, the program is a four-year curriculum that emphasizes intuition and spontaneity as well as discipline, technique and intellectual development. The Drama Division has continually expanded and revised its programs, responding to and anticipating the need of the contemporary theater artist. Some of the significant additions, among others, have included expanded faculty and curriculum, additional performance opportunities, and the addition of the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program as well as Master of Fine Arts Program in Acting. Their acting and playwriting alumni have distinguished themselves in all areas of the arts including theater, film, and television. For more information on Juilliard visit

About Signature Center
Opening in February 2012, Signature Center is the new, permanent home of Signature Theatre Company. Designed by Frank Gehry, working hand-in-hand with Signature leadership, Signature Center spans an entire city block at 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenue, and features three intimate theatres, a studio theatre, rehearsal studio, and a public café and bookstore. Founded in 1991 by Artistic Director James Houghton, Signature Theatre was the first theatre company to devote an entire season to the work of a single playwright, including re-examinations of past works as well as New York and world premieres. At Signature Center, the Company’s expanded programming will include: Residency One, the continuation of Signature’s core program which provides audiences with an immersive exploration of the work of a singular playwright; Residency Five, which provides five-year residencies for multiple playwrights to support the creation and staging of new work; and the Legacy Program, which honors the lifetime achievement of artists who have previously been in residence at Signature. Signature Center will serve as the artistic home for as many as 11 playwrights at any one time, fostering a dynamic creative community where playwrights will engage directly with audiences and one another. The inaugural season at Signature Center will feature three plays by South African playwright and recent Tony Award-winner for lifetime achievement Athol Fugard, as well as a new production of Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque, world premieres by Katori Hall and Kenneth Lonergan, and a United States premiere by Will Eno. In addition, Annie Baker and Regina Taylor will also be in residence at Signature Center as Residency Five playwrights. More information on Signature Center and Signature Theatre Company’s expanded programming can be found at

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Dancing Beyond Stereotypes: Aboriginal Music Week Bursts with Artists’ Bold New Energy, November 2011 in Winnipeg, Manitoba

The heyday for Aboriginal artists is now. With centuries-old fiddle tunes unreeling beside bumping club beats, with killer flow rocking the mic beside gritty guitar blues, there’s never been more creative space for young people of First Nation/Native American, Inuit, and Métis (mixed European and First Nation) heritage. They can sing their roots, weave newfound urban communities, and dance beyond stereotypes.

Aboriginal Music Week (November 1-6, 2011) in Winnipeg, Manitoba showcases this vibrant new energy, bringing together a broad sweep of North American artists and a growing, youthful urban audience. Concerts get Elders square dancing, kids chanting along with MCs, and dance floors packed with soaring pow wow drum breaks.

“We have found that Aboriginal people want to see Aboriginal artists perform all kinds of music,” explains Alan Greyeyes, festival curator. “We produce the festival for Aboriginal people but we really want to use the festival and the music to build bridges with other communities. And it’s working.”

This year’s headliners show the diversity and range of Aboriginal music: A Tribe Called Red’s hard-hitting, pow wow-powered electro (Electric Pow Wow on November 4); Leela Gilday’s reflective folk; Derek Miller’s rootsy rock (The Saturday Night 49er on November 5); John Arcand’s generations-old, masterful Métis fiddle (Take the Fort! on November 1); Winnipeg’s Most and their fresh, wildly popular hip hop (Hip Hop Night on November 2).

“It’s an exciting time to be Aboriginal in Canada right now,” enthuses Bear Witness of the DJ collective A Tribe Called Red. “The community across Canada is coming together more and more, especially around the arts and music. There’s so much going on, so many interesting things, so many strong artists.”


The burst of new creative energy comes after several generations of cultural loss and stigma. “Until quite recently, there were no positive references in media or on stage to Native people, especially in urban centers like Winnipeg,” reflects Greyeyes. “The only time we were in the spotlight was for crimes. But now, kids are seeing Native people are great artists who perform and get played on the radio. They get to see themselves reflected on stage.”

This reflection has many facets. There are raw MCs from rough neighborhoods. There are young musicians picking up the jigs and reels their ancestors used to lure fur traders centuries ago. There is mestizo dub step and good ol’ country and western.

Even within genres, Aboriginal artists tend to bend the rules. Hip hop shows become family events, with preschoolers bopping on stage with their rapping fathers. An edgy club scene inspires artists to return to their roots. Community and tradition breed innovation.

“Our use of pow wow music was about getting this amazing support from the community in Ottawa. The first party we threw was packed with young Aboriginal people we didn’t know. It was a comfortable place for these urban young people to go,” Bear recalls. “We didn’t intend that, but we wanted to give back to them and create music that expressed that connection to the community. Something they could claim as their own.” The result: glittering, striking tracks that seamlessly integrate traditional songs and drums and reclaim pop culture portrayals of “Indians” via wry samples.

“I have found Aboriginal artists to be some of the most boundary-breaking, original, and refreshing artists I have ever met,” notes Gilday, whose carefully crafted songs of Aboriginal life have won her widespread respect in the folk scene. “It is an honour to be a part of a community responsible for this level of creativity, musicianship, and dedication.”

This creativity makes it easy to build bridges to mainstream acclaim. Derek Miller recently recorded a duet with Willie Nelson. A Tribe Called Red caught the ear of golden-boy producer Diplo. Winnipeg’s Most are on heavy rotation at local radio stations and kids of all backgrounds chant their lyrics in the city’s schoolyards. Aboriginal artists tour extensively and win national awards.

Connecting Aboriginal artists—from different scenes, at different points in their career—is part of the broader mission of festival producer Aboriginal Music Manitoba ( “We want to create a stronger professional infrastructure for Aboriginal performers,” says Greyeyes. The festival, along with night after night of high-calibre concerts, provides opportunities for artists to network with local community music bookers, and to create moments of contact with new, mostly young audiences.

“For such a long time, our people have been silenced, and we have had to fight to keep our traditions,” says Estella Sanchez, the spitfire mestiza MC of World Hood (November 4). “The fact that Aboriginal Music Week can bring people with similar histories from around the globe together is amazing. We have so much to share as a people, and so much to learn from each other about keeping our cultural traditions intact.”