Balkan singer Eva Salina‘s new album Lema Lema – streaming at Spotify – is a radical achievement. That it would take an American woman to bring the songs of Serbian Romany icon Šaban Bajramović to a global audience speaks volumes about how undeservedly obscure he is beyond the Romany diaspora…and also about Eva Salina’s revolutionary vision. CDBaby has both digital and physical copies.
There’s really nobody in western music quite like Bajramović – he’s sort of a Balkan counterpart to Hank Williams, but also Al Green and Bob Marley. Dating from the 1960s, his colorful songs spoke for generations of Romany people. who continue to experience disenfranchisement around the globe.
One of Eva Salina’s most ambitious moves here is not to make any grammatical adjustments for gender in Bajramović’s original Romanes-language lyrics (just as another elite singer, Mary Lee Kortes, did when she covered Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks). While the bristling minor keys, edgy chromatics and tricky meters of these songs may be exotic to most American audiences, the nuance and poignancy of Eva Salina’s richly emotive vocals transcends the limits of language: sometimes tender, sometimes coy, often harrowingly plaintive. Being versed in the language as well as the music, having immersed herself in both since childhood, no doubt helps immensely. She and her longtime accordionist Peter Stan have a couple of gigs coming up; March 3 at 8, they’re at Barbes, then the following evening they’re at the American Folk Art Museum at 5:30 PM.
The band on the album comprise the creme de la creme of New York-based Balkan talent. Along with the frontwoman and the accordionist, there’s trumpeter Frank London, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, multi-keyboardist Patrick Farrell, ubiquitous percussionist Deep Singh and tubaist Ron Caswell. There’s also a blazing brass section led by famed Serbian trumpeter Ekrem Mamutović.
Akaja Rat sets the stage, a lithely dancing, sunny, glisteningly precise nmber spiced with rat-a-tat brass, wry synth texurres and a shuffling, straight-up dancefloor beat. Boza Limunada opens with a blaze of brass from London and fellow trumpeter John Carlson, an anthemic, bittersweet, pulsingly tricky launching pad for Eva Salina’s coolly enigmatic low register. The band reinvents Djelo Djelo as somber, accordion-fueled Abbey Road Beatles art-rock under Eva Salina’s uneasily soaring melismas
Her darkly torchy approach to the plushly propulsive, noirish Hovavni Romni is spine-tingling.Singh’s slow, misterioso groove, moody low brass, Farrell’s spiraling synth and Seabrook’s dramatic David Gilmour-esque accents provide a haunting backdrop for the frontwoman’s similarly suspenseful vocals throughout Jek Jek Dešujek, part lullaby, part warning. By contrast, the album’s title track blends staccato Balkan dancefloor chromatics and trippily twinkling art-rock under a pillowy vocal.
Singh’s leapfrogging beats in tandem with the brass adds more than a hint of bhangra to Koj Si Gola Roma, which takes on more of a Balkan reggae feel as it bounces along. They do O Zvonija Marena as a stately, understated, mysterious tango for accordion and vocals. From there they pick up the pace with with the track that may be the most familiar to Balkan music fans, Pijanica: the subtle keyboard touches under the slowly building brass conflagration are as amusing as they are psychedelic.
The final cut is I Barval Pudela, recast as blazing Romany rock:. imagine an artsier Gogol Bordello with one of the world’s most spinetingling singers out front. Spin one of this decade’s most exhilarating albums and discover two Balkan icons, one from the past and the other who promises to be one in the future.