Music / “Zashto?”, Mara! Big Band. At The Street Theatre, May 13. Reviewed by GRAHAM McDONALD.
MARA! the band (with the exclamation mark) has a unique place in Australian music.
Mara Kiek is an Australian singer with a passion for folk music from across the Balkans with their eerie close vocal harmonies and complex rhythmic patterns.
With her multi-instrumentalist husband Llew Kiek, their musical projects over the past 30 or more years have brought together aspects of folk, early music and jazz to create music that acknowledges its origins, but goes well beyond them.
Mara! has always incorporated jazz musicians into its interpretations of, and music inspired by, Balkan vocal and dance music (which can often be the same thing), with bassist Lloyd Swanton and sax players Sandy Evans and Andrew Robson long-term members of the band.
For this tour Mara! Has grown from its usual five or six members to 12, with the horn section augmented by James Greening, Sam Golding and Paul Cutlan and the addition of percussionist Jess Ciampa, Gary Daley on piano accordion and singers Jenny Dorman and Jarnie Birmingham.
The core of this performance was “Zashto?” (Bulgarian for “why”), a suite of music written around the themes of immigration and incarceration with elements of Irish, Bulgarian, Persian, cabaret and what sounded remarkably like a central-African rhumba.
It has six parts, each a mix of vocal and instrumental sections. The vocal parts are in impossible harmonies, the drums, bass, bouzouki and accordion provide a rhythmic and harmonic foundation allowing the wonderfully complex horn arrangements to punctuate and add to the mix, while providing for improvisation and solos.
After an interval, the band returned for another hour of music, material the band had played in the past, but rearranged for the expanded line-up. The horn players got a bit more room for improvisation amid some glorious band arrangements and three-part vocal harmonies.
What was remarkable was the sense of fun these musicians were having. There were 12 people on stage playing intensely complex music, yet relaxed and obviously enjoying the performance, continuously smiling and encouraging each other. This was a memorable musical experience with more performances lined up over the next few months around NSW. If you can, go and see them for an evening of some of the most exciting music you’re ever likely to hear.
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