There’s a book in the Vancouver home that Julia Úlehla shares with her husband, Aram Bajakian, and their two small children. It’s a big book, revered in Úlehla’s ancestral country, the Czech Republic, and a talismanic one: it contains much of the singer’s past, and in a way it also holds her future.
It’s probably not the book you’re thinking of.
The Úlehla family Bible is actually Živá Píseň (Living Song), written in the 1940s by Julia’s great-grandfather Vladimir Úlehla, a biologist who somehow maintained a parallel career in ethnomusicology. Active in rural Moravia during the first half of the 20th century, he was the Czech equivalent of Béla Bartók, although unlike his Hungarian contemporary he didn’t transform the folk melodies he collected and transcribed into scintillating avant-garde compositions. That work, it seems, has been left to his great-granddaughter and her partner, who are just on the cusp of releasing The Book of Transfigurations, the second effort from their band, Dálava.
It’s astonishing music—and the story behind its creation is emblematic of how Old World traditions can be born again, thousands of miles and several generations away from their roots.
As a child, Úlehla didn’t quite comprehend her extraordinary heritage. At home, in New York, she led a fairly typical American life, but on family visits to the old country she was struck by the stern portraits of Vladimir that hung in her grandparents’ home, and by the reverence they provoked. Like Einstein, Freud, or Beethoven, her ancestor was known by a single name: Úlehla.
In the States, things were different. “What my dad says to me is that he always thought it was a little bit overdoing it, the way that they talked about Vladimir,” Úlehla explains today. “And also he didn’t care about the folk music; he wasn’t interested in it, and his brother, who was a rock musician, really wasn’t either. And then the kids—me and my sister, and the kids of my uncle—no one cared about it until I started working on this project.
“Since then, my father is having this new romance with traditional music,” she adds. “It’s really cute, actually, to see him waking up to it. His tastes, of course, are much more conservative: he loves it in its traditional form, even if he also, I think, is embracing what we’re doing.”
On its simplest level, Dálava is the sound of Úlehla delving into centuries-old folk melodies, and the lyrics—often dealing with love, death, and the aftereffects of war—that went with them. She plays the music relatively straight, sticking close to the old tunes, but Bajakian sets her voice in many unconventional ways. A guitarist who has worked with John Zorn, Diana Krall, and the late Lou Reed, he obviously has a deep affinity for his wife’s heritage, but cradles her Moravian tunes in layers of psychedelically fuzzed-out guitars and clattering percussion, sensitive fingerpicking, or enigmatic avant-jazz arrangements. A who’s who of local improvisers—cellist Peggy Lee, keyboardist Tyson Naylor, bassist Colin Cowan, and drummer Dylan van der Schyff—contribute some of their most emotionally gripping work, too.
But this never overwhelms the music’s essentially Moravian character. That’s proof, perhaps, that Vladimir Úlehla was right when, in Živá Píseň, he advanced the then-radical notion that folk music grows organically out of the contours of its birthplace.
“He thought that somehow features of the landscape were responsible for forging the melodies,” Úlehla explains. “For example, in South Moravia there are these big alluvial fields, and a lot of the songs have this sort of carry. People sing in these big, sweet, robust voices, and they sing outside a lot. Like, many of the folk festivals are outside, and people sing outside at wineries; the way that the songs are sung is somehow part of these big, expansive places.”
The older Úlehla also viewed folksong as a living entity, and part of the Dálava project is ensuring that the organism survives, even though it now finds itself half a world away from its rural origins.
“He [Vladimir] spoke about people and generations being responsible for moving culture through time, and that there were different things that threatened its survival,” Úlehla says. “There’s a whole part at the end of his book where he meditates on ‘Well, should it be protected, like an endangered species?’ He collected through the first four decades of the 20th century, so there were a lot of changes: many people were leaving, there was rapid industrialization, and there was brass music coming in from Germany that he thought was threatening the string music from Slovácko. But his ultimate conclusion was ‘No, it shouldn’t be protected, but things should be done to help it survive.’
“I feel like, in some way, this whole Dálava project is a continuation of that idea and that research,” she adds. “Like, can a song be alive, when you think about it moving through migration, moving through the Communist regime, moving through western industrial culture… Or just think of electric guitar with these songs! That’s the big experiment of what we’re trying to do.”
It’s not the only experiment that Úlehla and Bajakian have embarked on. He’s studying composition, working with the Armenian scales and modes that he’s inherited from his own family; she continues to explore theatrical concepts gleaned from her studies with famed Polish director Jerzy Grotowski. And together, the two have been looking into the aesthetic links between Moravian, Haitian, and American song, as part of an electronically assisted presentation called Sonic Ecosystems. But that’s just scratching the surface—there’s much more to come.
Julia Úlehla and Aram Bajakian present Sonic Ecosystems at the Western Front on Thursday (March 9). Music on Main hosts a CD-release concert for Dálava’s The Book of Transfigurations at the Fox Cabaret on Tuesday (March 14).