From Appalachia to Bulgaria:

Soaring Tones, Raucous Rhythms to Fill Little Tokyo Theater

By Audrey Coleman

Varimezov  and VOCOHas your musical diet has been lacking world and traditional music lately? On Saturday, April 18 at the Aratani Theatre, you’ll have a chance to gorge yourself, aurally speaking. Fans of Moira Smiley and her VOCO ensemble know that her repertoire ranges from traditional American shape note singing to heart-rending East European melodies and on to provocative creations combining vocal lines with percolating body percussion. What a gift to Los Angeles lovers of world and traditional music that these musicians will share a program with the world-renowned Varimezov Family Band.

The concert will open with Smiley and VOCO performing traditional pieces and compositions in the Americana vein. Be aware, however, that some of Smiley’s original pieces have the timeless quality of folk songs. One I’ve heard the group perform on several occasions, Down to the River, has the flavor of an old-time hymn and has often been mistaken for one. The group will also devote a significant portion of its set to its Balkan repertoire.

While the composition of VOCO has changed over the years and much musical collaboration occurs among members, the choral leader clearly maintains the helm and keeps the spirit of innovation alive in performances. Each member of VOCO adds unique talents to Smiley’s musical palette. Jody Redhage (cello, vocals), winner of multiple awards as a cellist at the national and international level, interweaves her voice with the sound of the string instrument in works of rhythmic complexity. Chilean-born, California-raised Pilar Diaz (vocals, ukulele, body percussion) is a bilingual singer-songwriter who collaborated with award-winning composer Danny Elfman for four years. Kristen Toedtman (vocals) has performed solos in the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra. Inga Swearingen (vocals, guitar, body percussion) earned first place in the Shure Vocal Competition of the Montreux Jazz Festival and has appeared on Garrison Keillor’s program over a dozen times. Eva Salina Primack (vocals, accordion) specializes in Balkan repertoire and is fluent in numerous languages of the region.

Moira Smiley never ceases to surprise. Raised in rural Vermont in a community where singing traditional songs came along with the warmth of the old wood stove and riding bareback  was one of the joys for a “wild child,” as she called herself. Nevertheless, she became enthralled with the music of Bartok and went to Indiana University to prepare for a career as a concert pianist. In an interview a few years ago, she confided to me that playing piano was “too lonely” and the burgeoning folk music scene at Bloomington influenced her to go vocal. Lately she seems to be making a segue from choral arranging to choral composition as she is currently working on commissions from the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the ACDA Women’s Commission Consortium. The premiere performance of The Little Road, a commission from Ithaca College, on YouTube (below) is worth spending the three minutes or so that the gem of a piece lasts.

The pairing of Smiley’s ensemble with the Varimezov Family Band reflects an artistic relationship that Smiley developed some years ago with vocalist Tzentanka Varimezov, during a period when the young singer was seeking instruction in East European vocal performance traditions and had joined the Balkan ensemble Kitka. The YouTube clip below features Tzentanka performing a heart-rending solo with Kitka. The two women drove all over Bulgaria, Tzentanka introducing Moira to the greatest interpreters of the powerful polyphonic vocals of her native land. Having directed choral training programs and produced many concerts of traditional Bulgarian music in Sofia and other centers, including her home region of Padzarzik,

Tzentanka was an invaluable mentor. Today the Bulgarian musical legend directs the Balkan Ensemble at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. Moira Smiley calls Tzentanka and her husband Ivan the “Pied Pipers of Bulgarian music.”

Ivan Varimezov is a master of the gaida or Bulgarian bagpipe, and a descendent of one of the most famous bagpipers in Bulgarian history. If you want to know just how distant a cousin the gaida is of the Celtic bagpipe. Below is the YouTube of Ivan’s gaida solo. The warm emotiveness of the tones and variety of rhythmic figures he produces are enthralling.

Rounding out the family band are daughters Radka and Tanya who contribute vocals and enrich the instrumental texture. Tanya plays the double-headed tupan with mallets while Radka plays not only the hand-beaten doumbek, sometimes called the goblet drum for its shape, but also the bagpipes. In addition Tzventanka sometimes accompanies on the mandolin-like tambura.

The Varimezov Family’s repertoire has roots in medieval Europe and reflect the social and historical changes the Bulgarian people have experienced over the centuries. Songs of longing for home document the flight of Bulgarian young men to the mountains at the time of the Ottoman conquest. Other pieces celebrate birth, marriage and other life cycle events. Some deal with the sorrows and joys of life for women living in a patriarchal society. A particularly exquisite love song compares the beauty of a young woman to the sunrise when she smiles, to the wild roses, and to the dew of the morning dew that is as pure as her soul.

The final portion of the concert will bring together the Varimezovs, VOCO, and Smiley in a collaboration I predict will be a feast for the ears.

This concert is part of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center's World Series and offers a setting suited to the caliber of talent it attracts. The 880-seat Aratani Theatre makes an outstanding venue for the assembled musicianship of Smiley, VOCO, and the Varimezovs. With a custom designed Bose RoomMatch sound system and a warm, intimate ambience, the hall will pick up the nuances of performance like few audio environments of its size in Los Angeles.

Tickets are available through the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center website, or call Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111 . Orchestra seats cost $35, balcony seats $25. Both areas offer superb sightlines and acoustics. The theater is located at 244 South San Pedro Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012. There are a number of parking lots in Little Tokyo plus street parking for early birds. Speaking of early, please note that the performance starts at 7:00 p.m. and there will be a pre-performance conversation led by Yatrika Shah-Rais at 6:00pm. Enjoy!

Audrey Coleman is a writer, educator, and ethnomusicologist who explores traditional and world music developments in Southern California and beyond.