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. 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.
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 makes the sadness of heartbreak somehow seem magical and life affirming.
“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.
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. 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.
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.
I moved to L.A. in 2009 to study audio engineering at Musicians Institute. ” She began networking and playing with different musicians and soon formed “The Balkan Soul Orchestra,”.
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. “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.
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. 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 Balkan music) to a powerful, brassy run through The Romani anthem “Djelem Djelem” and the traditional folk-influenced ballad “If You’re Wondering.”
“To me, the connection between traditional Balkan music and jazz is that they both stem from the honest and bare emotions of people. 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.