World history books remind us that the mountainous region of Eastern Europe known as the Balkans has endured countless wars and upheavals. Yet there is an enduring sense of joy in the traditional music of these countries that transcends political strife and has the ability to cross cultures, unite people of all origins and races and offer hope of a better world. On her beautifully romantic new album Balkan Soul, Zana Messia---a native of the former Yugoslavia who now lives in Los Angeles—joins forces with an ensemble of top L.A. musicians (The Balkan Soul Orchestra) to share a unique musical journey that combines her lifelong love of traditional jazz with the spirit of the Balkan Roma music that first captivated her as a child.
The exotic and sensual, genre-defying collection was executive produced by Harvey Mason, who has been the backbone of contemporary jazz group Fourplay for over 20 years; the legendary jazz drummer also plays drums, percussion, marimba on vibes on most of the ten tracks. Drawing on a rich array of influences and creating a multi-colored blend of world fusion sounds that stay true to Messia’s deep Balkan roots, the Balkan Soul Orchestra features multi-instrumentalist Dan Weinstein (tuba, trombone, viola, violin, trumpet), master accordionist Nick Ariondo, pianist Theo Saunders, Balkan guitarist Almer Imamovic, upright bassist Ben Shepherd and tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis. Several years before the current release of Balkan Soul, Messia placed one of its songs, the gently swaying, folk-influenced closer “If You’re Wondering,” in the 2009 independent film “The Lightkeepers” starring Richard Dreyfuss and Blythe Danner. Her most recent placement is in the 2010 film “Flying Lessons.”
While Messia has fashioned a hybrid of traditional and contemporary, Eastern European and classic American musical influences, she is also a master storyteller, a deeply emotional singer and poetic songwriter who, like pop superstar Adele, makes the sadness of heartbreak somehow seem magical and life affirming. While she cites jazz icons like Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln as chief inspirations, she’s also partial to the raw folk-rock edges of Tom Waits. Christopher Levine, author of “Eclectiblogs – Weekly Meanderings for Music Head Co – Eclectic, Inc,” captures her essence, the rich colors of her Balkan Soul, perfectly when he says, “Think really great female jazz vocalist with a touch of Tom Waits…on a world tour adapting the music to each culture along the way. She along with the Balkan Soul Orchestra plays some very addicting, not to mention some really great music.”
“I live and feel and experience life very deeply,” Messia says, “and sometimes I feel like I will look back someday on the struggles and pain I’ve been through and realize that when circumstances were the hardest is when I was most alive. I feel like many people live in shells afraid to experience the amazing variety of emotions that life offers us. The album Balkan Soul is my statement of passion and joy. The story I tell is not simply in the words and imagery that every song has but in the overall emotional palette I create with the band. When I was writing and demo-ing these songs with just vocals and guitar, I would hear certain instruments and harmonies that were later developed on the recording.
“The soul I am talking about is a lot of different things,” she adds. “First there is my Balkan hometown of Mostar, the fifth largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is such a unique mix of cultures happening there. The soul is also the essence of a person, and my musical heart begins there. I formed The Balkan Soul Orchestra that plays on my album after I moved to Los Angeles, but the idea has traveled with me for a long time. I feel like this music is not a choice for me, but a necessity. You can put a pop song in front of me and I could sing it just fine, but if you gave me a Billie Holiday tune, or a song from the rich Balkan tradition, I would put my heart in it so much more.”
Messia’s incredible journey from the heart of the Balkans to the recording of Balkan Soul truly makes her a musical citizen of the world. Spending the first nine years of her life in Mostar, she listened to “Sevdah,” a type of Bosnian folk songs with Oriental, European and Sephardic elements which some call the “Balkan Blues.” She was also influenced in her early years by Romani songs and Macedonian music, which was also present in the pop and rock music of the former Yugoslavia—all of which featured odd time signatures that are rare in Western music. When the singer was nine, the Balkan conflict escalated and her mother, two brothers and sister became refugees. They escaped to Sweden, where she met Sandy Garrick, a jazz pianist/composer who was leading an ecumenical gospel choir at the time. Garrick introduced Messia to jazz and the American music traditions.
Her father was in Bosnia in a camp at the time and she didn’t know if she would ever see him again. Garrick became a father figure to her until his untimely death when she was just 13. Undeterred by the loss of her mentor, Messia recorded her first demo at 15, won a national competition that led to her working with top Swedish pop songwriters and landed a recording offer with Sony Music, Sweden. By the time she was 16, she had performed before a live television audience of 20,000 in Sarajevo.
In 2006, seeking to change her life, she took a vacation to her shattered hometown Mostar, but stayed longer than expected to study the folklore and music of her ancestry and work as Musical Director at the United World College. “I led a choir of children from 26 different countries and we had many notable performances in the region,” she says. “I took time to reacquaint myself with the music of my home country and, gathering a group of local musicians, performed as the Balkan Soul Orchestra at major events like the Sarajevo Jazz Festival and Exit Music Festival in Serbia.” In 2008, she went on a songwriting trip to the U.S. and passed through Los Angeles (where her sister lives), among other cities. “Something told me that I should come back so I moved to L.A. in 2009 to study audio engineering at Musicians Institute. My goal was to learn how to produce my own album.” She began networking and playing with different musicians (including students from Cal Arts a first) and soon formed “The Balkan Soul Orchestra,” which began performing in the L.A. area.
Messia often sees her songs as “presents from another realm” and that it is her job “to try to hear them as clearly as possible and then write them down and record them.” The ten tracks on Balkan Soul are the first batch of 50 tunes that she plans to release in order to introduce the concept of Balkan Soul on a wide-reaching level. She adds, “The songs are about love, loss and growth, forgiveness and inspiration. Musically the album is organically recorded and contains no synthetic sounds. It’s an homage to the way music used to be made, back in the day.”
The timeless quality of Balkan Soul is evident from the first seductive moments of “My Invention of You,” a dreamy and exotic reflection on the way even the truest love can change over time. Messia’s sultry voice is complemented by Lewis’ soulful sax solo. The emotions heat up on “This Is How I Get,” which pits Messia’s breathy sultriness against a colorful backdrop of a trombone-driven harmony line, with sax and acoustic guitar sweetening. The confessional song ponders the human propensity to sabotage relationships that are at a crossroads, instead of sticking them out. Inspired by Messia’s love for the music of the Buena Vista Social Club (which came back to pop culture prominence in the late 90s), “On The Radio” is a hypnotic, smoldering Afro-Cuban romp that ponders a former lover one day hearing her songs being played on the air. The accordion-laced, increasingly percussive dance song “Red Shoes” is one of Messia’s favorites because “it’s written from a man’s perspective, about a middle aged man longing for a woman.” She adds that it was inspired by the music of Tom Waits.
On the sweeping, passionate ballad “I Never Loved This Way,” Messia feels some regret over the end of a relationship but chooses to look back with just a bit of wistful hope. But her ex-lover is warned that he might regret his choice. The Latin jazz flavored “Palm Tree Leaves” sways like the trees as she reflects poetically about the sweet memory of romance with the thought that “Life is a tango of golden green palm tree leaves.” The singer gets into a sassy and swinging, old school jazz vibe on “I’ve Seen Him Before,” a sweet look at the serendipitous meeting of the man who became her husband, David Marcus, who plays guitar on the song—and was playing guitar at a club on Sunset Blvd. the night they met. The final three tracks run the gamut of Messia’s many musical influences, from straight ahead jazz (a trombone and accordion laced twist on Thelonious Monk’s classic “Round Midnight,” done in a 7/8 rhythm that is indigenous to Macedonian music) to a powerful, brassy run through The Romani anthem “Djelem Djelem” and the traditional folk-influenced ballad “If You’re Wondering.”
Reflecting upon the dynamic fusion between styles that characterizes Balkan Soul, Messia says, “To me, the connection between traditional Balkan music and jazz is that they both stem from the honest and bare emotions of people. I am referring more to the origins of jazz, not the more intellectual forms of jazz that have developed over the years. There is also the element of pain and despair this music has served as an outlet for. I believe this kind of music is written out of necessity, rather than conformity, and that is why it is so powerful. The highest potential of a human being is to transform negativity and suffering into art and bring just a little bit of inspiration and pleasure to the people who take the time to listen along the way.”