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1/14/2013 1:23:00 PM
Via Romen: Romany and Eastern European music presented by Verde Valley Concert Association
By Merlyn Brown
Verde Valley Concert Association

One of the many benefits of having an organization such as the Verde Valley Concert Association in our area is that we are exposed to many different cultures as the Association presents performers from countries other than ours.

On Saturday, Jan. 19, "Via Romen" will take the stage at 7 p.m. at the Mingus Union High School Auditorium in Cottonwood. This ensemble is a North Carolina-based quartet that makes "Nuevo Russian Romany Music." Vocalist Petra Gelbart and guitarist Vadim Kolpakov are Romany folk artists and activists - Gelbart from Prague, Kolpakov from Moscow. The other members - guitarist Alex Gorodezky and violinist Arkadiy Gips - are Ukrainian Jews from Kyiv.

Like the members themselves, Via Romen's debut CD, "My Two Homes," brings together different cultural backgrounds. Reigniting a long history of Jewish-Romany musical collaboration, their CD and their performances pay homage to jazz and to Latin modes like tango, samba and flamenco. The sound is not so much a pot-pourri recipe with various flavors tossed in, as it is an intense conversation between diverse styles. Old World and New World techniques, phrasings and idioms maintain their integrity while mingling in a concentrated essence.

"We don't want to be a traditional Gypsy music band," Gorodezky says. "All traditional music used to be new. Our goal is to create 21st-century music."

But a traditional band was exactly what Via Romen was, until founder Kolpakov met Gorodezky by chance at a community concert in Raleigh four years ago.

"It was chemistry, really. Because of our backgrounds, we were really able to talk to each other musically," recalls Gorodezky of the encounter. "It was like putting on your slippers, you know. It was very comfortable."

At the time, Gorodezky was still mostly playing his jazz electric guitar in Raleigh's global fusion band ELM Collective. Kolpakov, on the other hand, was teaching the traditional seven-string guitar at UNC-Charlotte. It's a skill he picked up firsthand from his uncle, internationally renowned seven-string guitarist Alexander "Sasha" Kolpakov.

"The thing is, I came from a little different tradition," explains Kolpakov of the collision of styles that drives Via Romen. The seven-string guitar, created at the end of the 18th century and tuned to open G, has a long history in Russia, but up until now has largely been abandoned in modern music. By keeping the instrument alive, Kolpakov earned himself an endorsement deal recently with the Kremona line of Orpheus Valley Guitars, the company that designed a custom Kolpakov model seven-string.

"Alex came from classical and jazz training, but of course he knew the old style of the music in Russia," says Kolpakov. "When we started to play together, I thought we should create some new style of music."

What came out is a rich acoustic sound reliant on the rhythmic interplay of guitars and the melodic layers of violin and female vocals. Via Romen's debut CD, "My Two Homes," digitally released last fall, showcases the union of folk music aesthetics with a jazz concept.

"It's not really that we're playing like Charlie Parker when we're playing solos. When we play improvisation on a Jewish tune we play Jewish phrasing, or chromatics from Gypsy songs if we play Gypsy songs," Gorodezky explains. "We're not trying to make it easier. We're not trying to make smooth jazz out of our stuff." Moments on the album vacillate between Hungarian Gypsy jazz, Brazilian rhythms or a Romany children's choir and shades of Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans or Astor Piazzolla. They're not trying to sound complicated.

"This is coming from our heads," he continues. "The music drives the whole thing, not the idea. You try not to spoil what comes out."

What's more, Gelbart often adds her own new lyrics to songs, whether they are passed down or originals. "Malyarka," for instance, offers a traditional melody that sways with Latin clave rhythm, gentle swing and jazzy violin embellishments. Out of the blue comes Gelbart singing, in luscious, full-bodied Romany style. Her English lyric°"Pack up your bag and run away with me, yeah/ The forest trees will hide us, then we'll be free, yeah"°feels as fresh and freewheeling as '60s rock.

"I think it's really important to develop the language in terms of the poetry, and not just to keep recycling the lyrics that are 100 years old," says Gelbart, an ethnomusicologist and director of New York University's newly formed Institute of Romany Music.

"We're going to continue to modernize," Kolpakov says. "The younger generation are actually looking for something like that. They're looking for new beats, a new move. So we want to mix it up."

So, for an exciting evening of virtuostic instrumentalism and rich vocals, head to the Mingus Union High School auditorium on Saturday, Jan. 19, at 7 p.m., and revel in this great presentation. Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for students, and children under 12 are admitted at no charge. Tickets will be available at the door on the night of the concert. For more information and advance tickets, please call 639-0636.


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