Aram Bajakian and Julia Ulehla Bring Their Magic Reinventions of Ancient Moravian Songs to the Stone
Aram Bajakian is one of the world’s elite guitarists. Of all the lead players, good and not-so-good, who filtered through Lou Reed’s band, the only two who rate with Bajakian are iconic and sadly no longer with us: Mick Ronson and Robert Quine. But as you would expect from a member of John Zorn’s circle, Bajakian plays a lot more than just rock lead guitar: he’s just as adept at enigmatic, cinematic instrumentals, reinvented Armenian folk themes and surf music. He’s got a weeklong stand at the Stone this week, with sets at 8 and 10 PM starting on May 19 and running through the 24th with an intriguing cast of characters. Cover is $15; there are too many good sets to list. The late show on opening night, a Yusuf Lateef tribute with Sylvie Courvoisier on piano and Mat Maneri on viola, is tempting. But the best one of all might be the late set Friday night, May 22 at 10 PM where Bajakian and his singer wife Julia Ulehla reinvent ancient Moravian folk songs from their recent collaboration, Dalava.
The duo project – streaming at Bandcamp – has a really cool backstory. Bajakian and Ulehla first discovered those songs in a hundred-year-old book passed down through her family, meticulously transcribed by her great-grandfather Vladimir. But rather than trying to recreate an ambience to match the era the book dates from, the two decided to do their own versions. The results run the gamut from plaintive to jaunty to richly otherworldly: it’s an unselfconsciously magical album. The opening track takes a stark, rather mystical melody, infused with longing, and adds echoey harmonies and creepily tinkling glockenspiel, sparsely and then lushly orchestrated with violin from Tom Swafford and Skye Steele. By contrast, the second number is darkly bouncy, the violins’ acidic lines underpinned by Shanir Blumenkrantz’s spiky gimbri.
They follow that with a wistful waltz, Bajakian’s mutedly dancing reverbtoned incisions and surrealistic blues lines anchoring Ulehla’s dramatic, knifes-edge Czech vocals. From there the guitar and strings hit a minimalistic, otherworldly pulse that Ulehla eventually risees over with a pensive elegance. Mamičky (Mother) mines a similarly hypnotic ambience, but with a swaying, feral groove with guitars and violins wailing in tandem.
Originally a big, rousing hymn, Nech Je Pán Lebo Kraál gets reinvented as an airy, poignantly atmsopheric mood piece, Ulehla’s gently melismatic lines awash in Bajakian’s ebow guitar. Then they have fun with an old mountain melody, Bajakian’s burning, fuzztone metal attack contrasting with Ulehla’s delicately precise vocals. On Litala, she rises to wary, otherworldly levels over fluttery, misterioso ambience before the band picks up with a similarly uneasy, dancing pulse.
The love song after that reverts to gentle minimalism, just vocals echoed artfully by violin. The band does Vyšla Devcina as a creepy circus rock waltz, Bajakian’s icepick guitar paired against nebulous strings and Ulehla’s calmly enigmatic voice. The album winds up with Hájíčku Zeleny, its most gently anthemic, woundedly epic track. The audience for this is vast: fans of Balkan music, obviously, but also dreampop, cinematic soundscapes, indie classical, psychedelia and folk music as well. Follow these two to a land that time forgot.