Sample Track 1: "Titanic" from Contes Turbo Folk Stories
Sample Track 2: "Duj Duj" from Contes Turbo Folk Stories
Into the Mystery: Montreal’s Briga Dives into a Balkanesque World of Turbo Folk and Wildly Skillful Musicianship
Canadian and US Summer tour, July-August 2013
“Obscure? Marginal?” exclaims Briga, the bold Balkan violinist and sultry singer/songwriter from Montreal. “This music isn’t obscure! I’m telling stories anyone can relate to.”
The firebrand fiddler does so with such passion that even neophytes and skeptics hit the dance floor, as Briga and her band turn any concert hall or club into a red-hot kafana (Balkan coffee house/bar), with her Turbo Folk Stories (2012). To tell her tales, Briga draws on months spent playing at rough-and-ready Romany weddings with her Bulgarian fiddle mentor; on the sometimes kitschy, sometimes intense melodies and beats of Balkan folk-inspired pop; and on her own wild, sensual imagination.
Gathering a crew of like-minded musicians into a tight-knit band, Briga and company will hit London ON, Berkeley CA, Chico CA, Vancouver, Regina, and several other cities, in July and August 2013, with shows that promise to bring out the Balkanophile in even the most casual listener.
“Much of the music that has inspired me comes from a complex relationship between the emotions, love and hate, drinking and dancing,” muses Briga. “It’s a hyper-saturated photo, with all the melodrama and tragicomedy you can manage.”
Briga’s own story dovetails with the Balkanesque world her music evokes. As a young musician who had always seen herself as merely a Quebecoise with “a funny last name,” she grew up under the musical influence of her Polish father, who loved Eastern European roots and pop music, but never talked about his own, complicated past in the region.
After leaping into the diverse Montreal scene and trying her hand with a variety of groups, Briga wound up in a Balkan band and something clicked. “My band mates gave me a tape and said learn this by tomorrow,” Briga recalls merrily. “Half of the songs turned out to be what Dad played on the piano. It felt so familiar and yet it was a bit of a mystery.”
Briga wanted to get deeper into that mystery. So she studied for years with a Romanian Gypsy violin player in Montreal, the hard-boiled, hard-playing Carmen Piculeata who often performed for underworld characters, as well as high-ranking politicians, at shadowy gigs. From Piculeata, Briga picked up the feel and ornamentation of Eastern Europe’s regionally diverse sounds and roots.
Yet she kept hearing the same suggestion from her Balkan circle of friends: “Look up Yanev,” Briga’s fellow musicians insisted. “He’ll show you.” Georgi Yanev, a violin virtuoso from Plovdiv, Bulgaria, finally agreed to teach Briga what he knew, after the young Canadian musician pursued him for several months and traveled to Bulgaria to learn from him. Yanev, a down-to-earth mentor and high-caliber musician, took his newfound disciple with him to weddings in poor communities, one perched on the edge of a big-city dump. Briga played in situations and for listeners she had never dreamed of before, and the jarring, celebratory circumstances rubbed off on her.
That mix of wild joy and shadowy intensity, of quirky playfulness bumping up against pensive bittersweetness (“On the 40”), comes through in Briga’s songs and interpretations of classic Balkan forms (“Vihor”). The teasing vocals, supple violin line, and driving accordion of “Lela” would feel utterly at home in some long-lost, smoky post-Hapsburg cabaret (right down to the French lyrics), while the raucous “Night at the Officers Club” twinkles with Balkanesque Turbo-pop flourishes. Instrumentals like “Duj Duj” groove hard, effortlessly melding the exuberance of Roma-style violin and lively tupan (drum) with the polish and funk of jazz and rock.
The energy is especially palpable live, when it’s hard to miss the pleasure Briga and her fellow musicians find on stage, in each other’s company. “In Montreal, everyone plays with everyone else,” explains Briga. “It’s funny, a lot of times people pick musicians for their reputation or skills. I want to work with people who have nice personalities, not special talents who are assholes. I think he seems cool and the musical side can come next, though everyone has turned out to be amazing. They’re still surprising me.”
Briga the band continues to surprise audiences, often drawing people into festival tents or catching skeptical ears in clubs, listeners who never suspected they could get into Hungarian Roma dance numbers or Bulgarian chalga pop.
“I believe that the audience is intelligent, more intelligent than people give them credit for. There’s no need to water it down or put a damper on what we love,” Briga enthuses. “There are so many levels of understanding, and if they are riveted, that means they get it, they understand.”