Julia Ulehla is an American singer, grand-daughter of Vladimír Úlehla, the Moravian musicologist and collector of folk songs and author of the legendary book Živá píseň (Living Song). Together with her husband, the guitarist with Armenian roots Aram Bajakian and former player with Lou Reed and Diana Krall, Julia set up the group Dálava, which works in a non-traditional way with Moravian folk music. They have recorded what is already their second album, The Book of Transfiguration, and we talked about it with Julia and Aram during their recent stay in Brno.
Your second album was given the name The Book of Transfiguration. Did you already have that thought up at the beginning?
J: We talked about it for a while and we even came up with other possible names. But I was fixed on that name, I really wanted it …
A: I had some doubts about this name because the composer John Zorn, who I worked with, often called his works “Book of…” I took part for example in the extensive project Book of Angels, which is a series of about thirty albums. So I said that people would link us with that. It took me a while to realise that the people who would listen to us would not know John Zorn and even less his Book of Angels, and so would not make the association. What’s more it is a beautiful name and suits us, since we really are transforming songs.
J: The title is linked also to the overall conception of this album, framed by a pair of songs which I know from my grandfather Jura. He sings them accompanied by Antoš Frolka and given that our material comes from the collection Živá píseň, it seemed to me a nice way of showing that all of these songs make up a kind of whole. Furthermore each song involves some kind of transformation. I write about it in the booklet. In the lyrics of these songs for example a girl marries and becomes a women. Another women is changed into a bird. A man becomes a soldier …
At the same time there has been a gradual transformation in your music. The new album sounds different to your debut one.
A: It is quite amusing. Not long ago Facebook reminded me that we first played together exactly five years ago in John Zorn’s club The Stone. And we didn’t record it. But I have a recording from the first rehearsal, which took place I think the previous year at Christmas, and that is pretty awful. I think that since that time we have improved a lot. At the very beginning it went something like “Hey, look at this book – let’s play something from it” and we had no idea how deep a tradition was associated with these songs. We had to learn everything, despite the fact that Julia’s family is part of that tradition. We had to immerse ourselves deeply in it until we found a way to make the songs ours.
There is a gap of three years between the albums. How do you see the main difference in them?
J: I think the way that we work with songs has changed. The difference between the first and second albums lies in the fact that we truly immersed ourselves in the work and – I’m not sure how to say it precisely – but here I have a feeling of a certain personal and also collective transformation. I perceive a certain process, possibly a certain change in energy, something going on with these songs when we work with them. I almost have the feeling that I am communicating with the songs and was their disciple. As if I asked: “Songs – how do you want to look?” It is obvious that if you work on something for a long time, then you end up going further and into greater depth. It seems to me that the material we work on now speaks more for itself. Our role now involves more perception and less activity. Everything is flowing more easily. And something else occurs to me. Just yesterday we had a joint concert with Petr Mička and his Horňácko muzika. And for me and Aram it was incredibly powerful, the chance to immerse ourselves directly in their playing, which is different to ours. It seems to me that as we approach the carriers of the Slovácko traditions, our approach to these songs is also transfigured or transformed. I see it as a process and we are looking at the next step.
At the time when you founded Dálava, you did not really know how folk songs are played in Moravia. Lately you have been regularly going to Slovácko or to Brno and playing with Moravian musicians. How does it influence your work?
J: When I work on songs in Canada, they are versions which I heard from Moravian musicians, stored somewhere deep in my subconscious. I do not try to duplicate them directly but my approach is influenced by such traditional examples. I have a video from yesterday’s concert and I can see that I sing completely differently when accompanied by Moravian musicians than when I am just with Aram. But when working together with Aram it is a completely different process. At the moment I don’t have much idea what comes next. Maybe if we work more with traditional musicians we will better understand these changes. For now there is a difference between both approaches which may disappear some time. But for now I don’t know.
You moved to Canada from New York. How does the life of a musician differ between New York and Vancouver?
J: Perhaps I would say that life in Canada is similar to here. People are often outdoors, spending a lot of time in the countryside, which is gorgeous there. Life there is also a little calmer and slower, not as crazy or stressful as in New York. Maybe it also shows on the disc. It was also important that we had a lot more time to prepare the album with other people. While in New York everyone has too much work, in Canada we could really concentrate and record the album in peace and quiet. Actually I am not sure we could make such a recording in New York at all. It seems to me an organic whole and without big-city pressures.
A: And although in New York there are a lot of excellent musicians, each of them has a thousand projects. It is also difficult to agree a rehearsal a come together from various parts of the city. If you live in Queens and the rehearsal is in Brooklyn it will take you the whole day. Before recording the first album we only rehearsed perhaps twice, because everyone was on tour and those were the only two possible dates when we could get together. We recorded the album in a single day and then we only had a few concerts. In Vancouver we have time to really play with the group, work on the songs and discuss arrangements. Furthermore in Vancouver we have the help of the local community. One of the biggest jazz festivals in the world takes place there and they give us great support. I have no idea whether something like that could happen in New York.
J: I would add that our work with Moravian songs has aspects beyond music. For example the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society, which runs the Vancouver Jazz Festival, invited me to run a number of workshops, during which we talked, sang and played music with people. I also work with a group of women who I teach Moravian songs. So music is not played just on stage but I also emphasise its other aspects and its place in our lives. And that is important to me because we don’t only want to give concerts …
A: Exactly. There are groups which just come and play well but it is always the same. I would like it if our listeners had the impression that our performances were different each time. So sometimes we improvise, but primarily we try to emphasise that the songs are still living. It is difficult to explain. Playing technique is of course important, but we also concentrate on the specific moment, on the idea that the song is alive and on how it lives just now. It has happened to us for example that a song that is usually very loud, requires that in a particular concert it should be played quietly. And all at once something happens. And it is precisely in those things that we try to be open.
Returning to your recordings. While on the first album you had a pair of violins, in the second the cello plays and important role …
J: It is connected to how our musical family developed. When we moved to Vancouver, someone advised us to get in touch with Peggy Lee and Dylan van der Schyff. Dylan plays percussion and Peggy the cello. We got to know them at a barbecue and told them about our project. At that time we still hadn’t brought out our first album. So we started to play material from the first album with the new group in Vancouver, and we gradually began to work on new songs.
A: We recorded the first album with two violinists and an excellent double bass player. I have a group called Kef, with which I play Armenian music and many other projects including the previously mentioned work with John Zorn. Our cooperation on the first album arose from my other activities. They are all excellent musicians. I need people that I work with not only to play well but it is also important to me what kind of people they are. For example the keyboard player who participates on the album The Book of Transfiguration, is highly reserved. We really had to work hard on him to get him to loosen up a little. And in the end that is what the album showcases, with incredible power! It is similar with the bass player who greatly enriches the song Dyby ňa moja maměnka stará (with the English title ‘Grass’). We have simply been lucky with the good people around us, with their openness and sensitivity. They understand that my efforts are directed toward the best possible accompaniment for Julia’s singing and they do the same.
What I admire about Dálava is not just the music itself, but also the care you take with the project. Particularly I enjoy reading Julia’s notes on individual songs in the booklet, because many of her observations would never have struck me, and I find them enriching. It is very interesting to think in that way of Moravian folk songs in a broader context. But that way of thinking is peculiar to you, I think?
J: Yes. For example I have taken part in several ceremonies concerning the exchange of cultural heritage with the original native nations. One of the older members of the Cree nation told me that the Moravian songs that I sang greatly reminded him of the songs of the original inhabitants of the western coast of North America, for example Eagle Song and West Coast Anthem. I began to think about how the lyrics influence the melody. Many Moravian songs sing of eagles or swallows. I was singing one of them outdoors as the swallows flew. And I became aware that the melody of the song Lítala vlaštověnka lítala (about swallows flying) was linked to how these birds fly. As if the way they moved showed me how I was to sing. The ethnologist Lucie Uhlíková told me in this connection: “I don’t know, it probably isn’t like that. That connection can’t be there because various lyrics are sung to that one melody.” But I don’t agree. Even if it were true, contact with nature, and perhaps how birds sing, has some kind of meaning for us. In every folk culture relationships and meanings important, and there is certainly also some kind of link with nature. On the album we have the song “Fašanku, fašanku, zabil jsem galánku”, which are very strong words (about killing a girl). In Vladimír’s collection we then find other lyrics to the same melody, for example “Hody, milé hody” (about a feast) or “Má stará mamičko, až já od vás půjdu” (about leaving mother behind). These songs differ from each other, but when you look at them all together, you can see that each describes some kind of borderline state. In one case a girl bids farewell to her parents and leaves them. In the second song a man kills his beloved. And in the third there is a man who has not slept for several nights because of a celebratory feast. In each of these songs I try to find what they have in common.