Zmei3's Paula Turcas (photo by Marilena Delli)
Zmei3’s Paula Turcas (photo by Marilena Delli)

A soprano opera singer and a vibraphone comprise an unlikely musical pairing, especially when set against the backdrop of Transylvania’s largest mountain.

In August 2015, genre-breaking Romanian band Zmei3 brought their unique style of blues- and soul-influenced music to a region best known for its folk traditions.

Taking their name from a mythical dragon, the band crowdsourced funds to fly Grammy award-winning producer Ian Brennan to Transylvania to record their debut album Rough Romanian Soul (April 2016, Six Degrees Records).

Brennan collaborated with singer Paula Turcas, vibraphonist Oli Bott, guitarist Mihai Victor Iliescu, and double bassist Arnulf Ballhorn to record the album’s 15 beautifully raw-sounding tracks—many composed and performed for the first time on location.

Ahead of the band’s performance in the July 2016 WOMAD festival, Brennan spoke with Apsara about the process of working with Zmei3 and about the band’s innovative take on tradition.

Your work as a producer has spanned many different countries, including Zomba Prison Project, your recent Grammy-nominated album focusing on prisoners in Malawi. How did you first connect with Zmei3?

They reached out to me. Over the course of a year, we corresponded and then finally met in person and ultimately set a course for their debut album.

Zmei3 (photo by Marilena Delli)
Zmei3 (photo by Marilena Delli)

Rough Romanian Soul was recorded in the Transylvanian mountains, and you traveled to Romania to work with Zmei3. How did that environment influence the album?

I set Paula up so that she could look out over Romania’s main mountain, Mt. Omo (“Mount Man,” since it is claimed to look like a person lying prone), as she sang. We all slept and ate in the same building, so all energies were devoted to and in synch for the record for that week.

The members of Zmei3 come from diverse musical backgrounds. Singer Paula Turcas, for example originally sang soprano opera and Oli Bott’s vibraphone is the central instrument throughout the album. What was the process like of collaborating with these artists?

They all are united around the Romanian folk tradition. And Paula and Oli do an extraordinary job of using only the positive elements of their virtuosity and forgoing the rest to instead approach each song as “novices” putting truth before chops.

Although rooted in traditional Romanian music, Rough Romanian Soul is distinctly original and many songs describe life during or after the Communist era. What aspects of contemporary Romania do you feel the album captures?

The country of Romania is growing, but still has struggles. Many people—particularly in the north—continue to live in villages that are quite unchanged from earlier eras. Horse-drawn carriages are used, widows wear all black, and those who suicide are buried in separate graveyards. Zmei3 are classic in that they sound vintage and modern simultaneously, and they are able to achieve a timelessness that is rare.

In listening to Rough Romanian Soul, what would you most like people to take away from the music?

The physicality of the music is almost palpable. And emotional truth transcends language—you don’t have to know what someone is saying to understand what they “mean”…and if they truly mean it.

Zmei3 performs July 29th at WOMAD; Rough Romanian Soul is available from Six Degrees Records. 

July 7, 2016, S.L. Bhatia


Some albums take a while to warm up to, but every so often I come across one I know is going to be a fixture in my music collection for a long time. The first few bars of harmonica on Senegalese singer-songwriter Badu Boye’s new release We Can Win decided it for me.

"We Can Win" by Badu BoyeBadu Boye’s open-hearted harmonica, guitar, and vocals on We Can Win evoke Bob Dylan at his best in the early 1960s, but with a thoroughly contemporary edge incorporating electric guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, violin, cello, mandolin, and other instruments. Composed individually, the songs represent different musical moments from over a decade, including “Mboolo Mi” from the 1997 album Woyou Talibé, which Badu released with Pape Armand Boye, his brother and the producer of We Can Win.

The Boye brothers debuted on Senegalese television in the early 1990s with a sound that was a bit different during a time when synthesized mbalax music dominated the airwaves: a simple pairing of acoustic guitar and bass. Through their ground-breaking early performances and recordings, they led the establishment of acoustic music as a genre still thriving today in Senegal.

A current of optimism runs throughout We Can Win, not least of all in the title track’s call for positive development and image building across Africa. “Everything single thing I do is to make you proud,” Badu sings. “I know that we can win—yes we can.” On “Senegal,” one of the album’s very strongest tracks, he describes the experience of living abroad while still cherishing the country he has left behind: “Everything is beautiful, but I’m homesick for Senegal my country. I’m sure that one day I’ll be back!”

The album’s arrangements are layered around Badu’s signature harmonica and acoustic guitar, and are filled with bursts of shimmering, beautiful sound when you least expect them. Sukjong Hong’s violin catches you unawares with its pure sweet sound on “Politique,” while Will Martina’s cello ripples in and out of the melody toward the end of “Mboolo Mi.” Of all of the tracks though, the loveliest of all perhaps is “Melokaan,” a simple arrangement with Badu’s brother joining him on acoustic guitar.

We Can Win is one of those albums I pull out when I need a gentler perspective on life after a harsh day, and more than deserves its place as a long-term fixture in my music collection. Samples of the tracks can be previewed on Badu’s website.


Fifteen minutes after San Francisco’s Mezzanine opened its doors for the evening last Thursday, I could already tell it was well worth staying out late on a weeknight to hear Chilean reggae stars Gondwana and the legendary Wailers perform.

Aston Barrett with a new generation of Wailers (courtesy the artists)

Reggae music fans steadily filled the club over the next half hour. Some congregated around the bar ordering drinks or chatting, while many danced to the mix of reggae, world music, and hip hop spun by San Francisco-based DJ Julicio. In a far corner, a vendor pulled toasted empanadas from a small portable oven for hungry audience members.

Beneath the friendly, laidback vibe, excitement stirred as the dance floor filled with more and more people. Gondwana entered Mezzanine around 10 PM, skirting the edge of the dance floor on their way backstage. One fan raced after them, grinning from ear to ear as band members stopped to pose for a photograph and shake hands with him outside the stage door.

When Gondwana came out a short while later, the audience went wild and pressed closer to the stage. The band’s performance hung together nicely, with ballads such as “Piensame” and crowd-pleasing numbers like “Irie.” Only the electric guitar-charged “Revolucion”—a surprisingly intense song—stood out a little.

Gondwana’s band members clearly love performing together and interacting with their audiences, and their energy spread throughout the crowd at this concert. Their Bay Area fans turned out in full force for the show, but whether people came specifically for Gondwana or for the Wailers didn’t matter. Those who knew the lyrics sang along with Gondwana’s MC Jona, and everyone else enjoyed dancing. The crowd came to the show, first and foremost, for good reggae.

After Gondwana closed with a rendition of the Wailers’ “Could You Be Loved,” DJ Stepwise, a Bay Area-based DJ and producer, came out and played a 30-minute set of classics-heavy roots reggae and dancehall. Mezzanine was fully packed by the time he wound down, but there was still enough space to dance and the good-natured energy of the audience kept flowing.

The Wailers stepped out onto the stage to an explosion of cheers and whistles. After warming up with an all-instrumental set and performing numbers from their mid- to late-1970s repertoire such as “Roots Rock Reggae” and “Natural Mystic,” the band moved into the “standards” known and beloved by all, including “I Shot the Sherriff” and “Stir it Up.” The evening’s crowning moment was, of course, the entire club singing “One Love” together.

Even with a new lineup of younger members, including lead singer Koolant, it felt throughout the show as if Bob Marley was there with the band too. Bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett, who originally performed with Marley, still plays with the group with undiminished energy and a steady hand, and the music hasn’t lost any of its original spirit.

There’s something to be said for a band that continues to draw large enthusiastic audiences after four decades—that’s the hallmark of good music. And whether we realize it or not, we all have Wailers lyrics stored away somewhere in the depths of our subconscious, and to have a chance to sing along at an actual Wailers concert is an experience not soon to be forgotten.

Gondwana performs Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Concrete Jungle”

The June 7 Gondwana-Wailers concert was presented by Earshot Entertainment.


Jef Stott’s new album Arcana invites listeners to follow a strong, snaking bass line to a place of skillfully balanced power and peace.

A female voice mingles with a buzzing bass line for a few moments and then crescendos through and above it on “Deep Playa,” the opening track of Arcana, San Francisco-based musician Jef Stott’s latest album.

Throughout the entire recording, Stott merges vocals and acoustic instrumentals—at once ageless- and ancient-sounding—with electronic beats and percussion loops. He pairs the future with the past and strength with sensitivity, revisiting many previous collaborations along the way.

“This album is like a scrapbook of my whole career,” said Stott during a recent interview. “Sonja Drakulich from Stellamara is on it, for example, and she and I hadn’t worked together in more than 10 years. There’s also some motifs from earlier pieces that I’ve written.”

Stott, who has been releasing albums since the late 1990s, never completely stepped away from music while pursuing a career path in a different direction and a master’s degree in interactive media. But Arcana represents his renewed focus on music after life dealt him a series of blows, and symbolizes his coming back to the beginning and re-gathering strength.

“The sound of the album is me artistically and personally reclaiming space,” he said. “It’s letting the world know—and letting myself know—that I’m still here and that I still have something to say.”

Arcana draws on Stott’s years of expertise in Middle Eastern music, including studying with oud virtuoso Hamza El Din, and on his success as a DJ at festivals like Burning Man. But at the album’s heart is actually a much earlier and simpler musical experience.

“I started playing guitar when I was around 11 or 12 years old, and went through all of the permutations—punk rock, heavy metal, and all sorts of different things,” he said. “For Arcana, I started working with acoustic guitar.”

Jef Stott playing oud (courtesy the artist)

Stott built upon this six-string foundation with lush, synthesized sounds and with skillful juxtapositions and looped recordings of talented friends like singer MC Rai, tabla player Jason McKenzie, and multi-instrumentalist Eliyahu Sills. On “Hero’s Return,” for example, Stott interspersed segments of Sills playing bansuri, an Indian bamboo devotional flute, throughout the track.

“There was a lot of editing in the bansuri parts because I didn’t want it to overpower the song,” he said. “I had to find just little pockets and phrases that were going to complement the melody.”

The intense bass line from “Deep Playa” snakes its way throughout Arcana, stopping short of the final track “White Tara.” Compared with his earlier recordings, the powerful sound of Arcana may take some listeners by surprise.

“I kind of stepped out of the shadows on this one,” Stott said. “What I was trying to do was just to be really open and lay it all out emotionally—that was my main goal with this record.”

Even with the bumpy road Stott encountered before recording the album—or perhaps because of it—Arcana presents a perfect balance of power and peace. It tells the story of coming full circle, and of honoring the past while welcoming the future.

Arcana is now available on Six Degrees Records.

“Deep Playa” from Arcana


When Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony, he saved his show-stopping piece, the “Choral,” until the very end. Seattle indie rocker Damien Jurado and musician/producer Richard Swift have inverted this idea.

They’ve created a grand entrance for Jurado’s latest album Maraqopa with the opening song “Nothing is the News.” The album explodes, like a supernova, with full-on psychedelic sound before settling into nine quieter tracks.

Jurado and Swift specialize in creating lush, layered audioscapes, a trend they established with Saint Bartlett (2010), their first album together. On Maraqopa, they playfully intersperse chimes throughout several of the songs, and utilize different backup singers for choruses and vocal harmonies as they do in “Life Away from the Garden” and “Working Titles.”

There’s such a range of songs and sounds, but there’s always Jurado’s voice and guitar—so sincere, so nostalgic sounding—that make them authentic. It’s in their stripped-down acoustic versions that the songs really shine.

And as on previous albums, Jurado displays his fierce love for Seattle and for his home state of Washington. He sings of evergreens and mountains, and even names one track for the Museum of Flight.

Maraqopa released on Feb. 21 and is available through Secretly Canadian Records.


Since first hearing Nick Takénobu Ogawa’s album Exposition this past summer, I’ve been a fan of this versatile cellist. I was surprised and excited to discover his December release of an album based on a famous Japanese folktale I grew up with.

Cover of “Momotaro” (Art by Iris Scott)

Japanese folktale hero Momotaro’s (Peach Boy) life begins inside a giant peach floating downstream, where he’s found and raised by a kind elderly couple. After growing up, he successfully subdues the fierce ogres of Oni Island with the help of a dog, monkey, and pheasant—and magical millet dumplings. Triumphant, Momotaro and his companions bring home riches, and they all live happily ever after.

Cellist Nick Takénobu Ogawa’s instrumental album Momotaro lovingly retells this story from his childhood. Sensitively composed and performed though it is, Momotaro isn’t really a children’s album. It’s a serious set of compositions well suited for fans of contemporary classical and electro-acoustic music.

Nick Takénobu Ogawa live in concert (Kate Orne)

A one-man ensemble, Ogawa (or simply Takénobu on stage) uses a laptop and loop pedal to create intricate layers of staccato and rippling sound. It’s Ogawa, and only Ogawa on this album, although the looping technique gives the illusion of multiple performers.

Each track depicts a scene or character from the story, with the opening song track conveying the loneliness of the childless couple before they adopt Momotaro. For the first few measures, Ogawa plucks the strings of his cello to resemble the pentatonic sound of a koto. The song builds into intense bowing before transitioning into the lighter moment when Momotaro’s peach appears.

The album’s tracks are composed to flow seamlessly from one into another, which they do with just one barely perceptible pause in between. For example, the excitement of the “Voyage Home,” when Momotaro and his companions sail back across the sea from Oni Island, blossoms into the victorious-sounding “Hero’s Welcome.”

Ogawa’s Momotaro is a short, but lovely album that’s a good introduction to his music. He also sings on several tracks on his two earlier albums, which are absolutely worth checking out.

I look forward to seeing what Ogawa does on his next cello-bending album, and hope to catch him in concert on the West Coast one day.


Today, just five days before Christmas, U.S. President Barack Obama held a ceremony to conclude the Iraq War. But battles sometimes come to a standstill even without official sanction, as John McCutcheon sang about on his 1984 album Winter Solstice.

German soldiers celebrate Christmas during World War I

Christmas 1914: Groups of German and British soldiers living in cold, muddy trenches in France struck up an unofficial armistice. Lonely and far away from home, these young men met spontaneously in the “No Man’s Land” between the trenches to sing carols, play football, and toast the holiday together.

American folk musician John McCutcheon captured this event on his album Winter Solstice, released on Rounder Records in 1984. Listening to McCutcheon’s song “Christmas in the Trenches,” the beautiful simplicity of the 1914 truce still hits home a century later.

‘There’s someone coming towards us!’ the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.
Full lyrics

McCutcheon says that he first heard the armistice story from an unassuming janitor backstage at a concert decades ago. “Christmas in the Trenches” has become a beloved holiday classic, and it’s one of McCutcheon’s most well-known songs.

The entire album deserves being listened to each holiday season, and it’s no wonder after three decades that it still appears on “must listen” Christmas music lists.

McCutcheon’s delicate hammer dulcimer both kindles the warmth of being inside on a late December afternoon as well as conjures the crisp chill of the days leading up to the solstice. He was joined on the recording by members of the Washington Bach Consort and of Paul Reisler’s folk ensemble Trapezoid.

Winter Solstice features songs as diverse as “Willie’s Waltz,” a melody written for McCutcheon’s oldest son, and the popular Hebrew love song “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (Evening of Lilies).

As our own war concludes and we move into the holiday season, the lessons of the 1914 Christmas armistice are well worth remembering: peace can be spontaneous and the truest kind is often unofficial.

As McCutcheon sang on Winter Solstice: “The walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war, had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.”

Full Winter Solstice track list

1. Christmas Day Ida Moarnin/Un Flambeau Jeanette Isabella

2. Erev Shel Shoshanim

3. Willie’s Waltz

4. Christmas In The Trenches

5. Star In The East

6. Old Christmas Morning/Breaking Up Christmas

7. Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head

8. For Unto Us A Child Is Born

9. Huron Carol

10. Detroit, December

11. Down In Yon Forest/New Year’s Eve


Raga? It’s one of the building blocks of Indian classical music, but it’s also one of the world’s hardest musical terms to define. In the simplest sense, “raga” means “color,” and consists of a collection of notes that musicians build a song around. Toronto-based lightsweetcrude’s debut album Listen to the Colour proves that “raga” doesn’t require a neat definition.

Lightsweetcrude plays with and creates new shades of traditional ragas on Listen to the Colour, which released in October 2011. Producer and keyboardist Jason Steidman envisioned the album, and brought together the ensemble’s team of talented artists. Before launching the project, Steidman studied Indian classical music for several years—even studying harmonium in order to learn the feel of the music.


Listen to the Colour draws on numerous other musical influences, including funk, jazz, and surf rock. On the track “Ahir/Now,” guitarist Fareed Haque weaves the fabric of the melody before the group launches fully into the song. Complete with handclaps and thumping piano and drums, “Ahir” evokes the spirit of Dick Dale’s famous “Misirlou.”

Now watch this clip of santour maestro Shivkumar Sharma perform raga Ahir Bhairav, with Zakir Hussain on tabla. “Ahir” is based on this very same raga, and listening to Sharma’s rendition it’s not hard to imagine the guitar layered over the santour.

“Raga Ahir Bhairav”

“A Call to You, Piloo”

On “A Call to You, Piloo,” Rez Abassi’s electric sitar bridges a combination of guitar, bass, drums, and organ with the more traditional classical instruments bansuri and tabla. It’s a mixture of jazz and funk, for sure, but it’s also built upon raga Piloo (Pilu), performed here with more “standard” classical form by sitarist Shahid Parvez Khan.

“Raga Piloo” 

Whether you’re a fan of classical Indian music or just curious about it, you’ll enjoy exploring the many shades of “raga” with lightsweetcrude.


To anyone living on the West Coast, taiko is a familiar fixture at folk festivals and at college events. But what about its history, especially in North America? In this Apsara guest post, Seattle composer and musician Byron Au Yong introduces the history of North American taiko and uses it as a lens for exploring the question: How can music be brought into a larger social, political, and spiritual sphere?

PJ Hirabayashi, Co-founder of San Jose Taiko (Mel Higashi Design)

How can music be brought into a larger social, political, and spiritual sphere? By coining the word “TaikoPeace,” PJ Hirabayashi (artistic director emeritus of San Jose Taiko) attempts to reconnect with the core of playing music. Along with her husband Roy, Hirabayashi received the 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellowship. As co-founders of San Jose Taiko, they have contributed to the development of taiko music in the Bay Area and beyond.

For new audiences, a group taiko (or kumi-daiko) show may seem to be music passed down through many generations. In actuality, modern ensemble taiko performances started in the late 20th century. Tokyo-based jazz drummer Daihachi Oguchi founded Osuwa Daiko in 1951. While Japanese religious, theatrical, or village taiko may influence kumi-daiko performances, most taiko in North America is a form of new music or neo-folk performance generated by a vibrant, soul-searching community of amateur and professional musicians.

San Jose Taiko formed as part of the Asian American identity movement in 1973. As the third kumi-daiko group created outside of Japan, San Jose Taiko currently performs for over 100,000 people a year. In 1968, Seiichi Tanaka started San Francisco Taiko Dojo, which was the first kumi-daiko group in North America. The second group, Kinnara Taiko, started at  Senshin Buddhist Temple in South Central Los Angeles as a musical club that transitioned from a chant and gagaku (court music) group to a taiko group in 1969.

In less than 50 years, over 150 taiko groups outside of Japan have formed. Many follow the model of a community music-making group such as San Jose Taiko, a school such as Taiko Dojo, or a Buddhist temple activity such as Kinnara. Additionally, there are taiko professionals influenced by jazz pickup groups such as Russell Baba and Jeanne Mercer of Shasta Taiko, Kenny Endo Contemporary Ensemble in Hawai’i, and rock bands such as LOUD from Vancouver and On Ensemble from Los Angeles.

On Ensemble: Taiko & Turntable

Kumi-daiko groups have varying aesthetics, philosophies, and skill levels. Most taiko players are hobbyists. “TaikoPeace” provides a framework for personally engaging with music.

At the closing session of the 2011 North American Taiko Conference in August, Stephen Sano, professor and chair of the Department of Music at Stanford University, admonished the audience of nearly 800 taiko players and enthusiasts to consider “work” as a verb as well as a noun. Thinking only about the performance or the recording can dampen the spirit of working. His reminder to treat “work” as a verb allows taiko players to be process rather than goal oriented by focusing on the resonances and repercussions of making music.

During the discussion session “Taiko and Social Change,” curated by Alan Okada of New York City-based Soh Daiko, Hirabayashi referenced Karen Armstrong’s “Charter for Compassion.” Kenny Endo commented afterwards that taiko was an instrument historically used for war and that he supported Hirabayashi’s idea to use taiko for peace. With TaikoPeace, Hirabayashi continues her work delving into what it means to play taiko.

Taiko, the drum, has no inherent power. Rather, taiko musicians create meaning through their actions—whether it is rehearsing and performing within community groups or competing in Australia’s Got Talent 2011. Endo cautions that any taiko performance may be the first and last time to make an impression on an audience. Taiko can continue to be thought of as an instrument of war, rather than peace.

Australia’s Got Talent 2011

Misrepresentations of taiko continue to exist. Often presenters and even taiko players remark that this 50-year-old art form is thousands of years old. Perhaps a way to interpret TaikoPeace is as a continual reinvestigation of motives. TaikoPeace has the potential to become a space of compassion that supports multiple individual stories informed by a search for integrity within this art form.

Considering TaikoPeace, Hirabayashi wrote to me in a recent email: “TaikoPeace invites one to reflect on our own taiko journeys where we can see the impact of our thoughts, words, and actions. TaikoPeace is an initiative to become heart-centered. TaikoPeace is not playing to impress. TaikoPeace is playing to inspire.”

Hirabayashi continues to inspire with her recent transition from artistic director of San Jose Taiko to independent taiko artist. TaikoPeace strengthens the core of playing music to balance oneself as well as connect with the social, political and spiritual reasons that make taiko potent.

KTEH TV Profile of PJ and Roy Hirabayashi


Musician playing the ravanhatta at Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort. (Sarah Lin Bhatia)
Musician playing the ravanhatta at Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort. (Sarah Lin Bhatia)

After an exhausting and incredible month, I’m back from my travels. Work requires a bit of extra attention right now, so I’ll publish Apsara‘s first fall feature next week.

India stays with you long after you’ve left. I’ve been thinking a lot about the performances that my husband and I were lucky enough to catch in Rajasthan, and especially about the marketing of Rajasthani “folk” music as a genre. I’ll be discussing this in next week’s feature.

In the meantime, here’s “Rajputana Road,” a well-produced song by Gaurav Venkateswar that he created from an iPhone recording of Rajasthani folk musicians. It conveys the musical conundrum of “tradition” and “technology” and where these two fit together.