Many musical projects have noteworthy origin stories. But Dálava’s is truly one of a kind. Julia Úlehla and her musical and life partner Aram Bajakian began performing ancient Moravian folk songs – which they hadn’t heard – after happening upon them in a book named Živá píseň (Living Song). It had been compiled in the early 20th century by the former’s great-grandfather Vladimír Úlehla, a remarkable polymath.
Dálava are based in Canada but have a very international background. Úlehla, whose father left Czechoslovakia in 1968, spent time with a song-focused theatre company in Italy after training as an opera singer at the famous Eastman School of Music in New York State. Guitarist Bajakian, whose background is Armenian, has played with top avant garde musicians such as Marc Ribot and John Zorn and toured with Lou Reed and Diana Krall.
Dálava’s most recent LP is the powerful 2017 release The Book of Transfigurations, which followed a first collection that came out under Bajakian’s name.
The pair, who regularly spend time here in the summer months, recently did a short tour of the Czech Republic. When we caught up in Prague, Úlehla told me a little about her great-grandfather.
Úlehla: “Vladimír was primarily a biologist by trade, but he was really a Renaissance man.
“He was I think pretty important for the intellectual and cultural life in Moravia in the first part of the 20th century.
“He was a quite forward thinking person. He did this beautiful time-lapse photography of plants growing and innovated these techniques.
“He was also a great lover of folk songs and started collecting folk songs. He lived in Strážnice in Slovácko and started collecting when he was 18.
“That was under the influence actually of Hynek Bím, who was also a folk song collector and a colleague of Leoš Janáček’s.
“In Živá píseň, in this book that he wrote, he dates all of his transcriptions and some of them are really from when he was 18.
“And they move all the way through his life, so you see them until 1947 – just months before he died he was still collecting songs.
“He also made a film Mizející svět , documenting the disappearing folk life in Velká nad Veličkou, another village in Slovácko.
“He wrote books in biology, in philosophy, philology – his work really encompassed many disciplines and domains.”
Julia, how did your family come to move to Canada, was it?
Úlehla: “My dad escaped Czechoslovakia in 1968. He had crazy travel, going through I think Holland and then through Toronto and was, like, cleaning toilets in Toronto for a few months and was accepted into a physics programme at the University of Texas, in Houston, where he moved.
“I guess they had some family friends who were Czechs there, who sponsored him. And my mom is from Texas. They met and fell in love in French class.
“He’s the only one who came. My babička is here, my cousins are here, my uncle is here, and then half my family is in America.”
When you came across these songs, Aram, what was it about these songs that said to you, We’ve got to record these, or do something with these?
Bajakian: “They’re really unusual. The melodies have really unusual modes and they’re in really unusual time signatures.
“What I really love is that the songs are these little masterpieces that are completely anonymous.”
“And the phrasing is unusual. There’ll be seven-bar phrases or 10-bar phrases.
“It’s not what you typically see in Western music. It provided a really good seed to create a musical project with and to explore.
“When we started I tried to not listen to how the traditional music is done. It was almost like we were imagining what if 1,000 years from now we find this book and we know how to read the music, what would we do with it?
“We did it with these musicians in New York and grew the songs there.
“Yeah, they’re really unusual. And the poems as well.
“I think what I really love is that they’re these little masterpieces that are completely anonymous.
“And there’s a real beauty in that – to know that some of the lyrics are really ingenious and the melodies are ingenious, but it was written by someone who we don’t know who they are, necessarily.”
Were there a lot of songs in the collection? Is there more to draw on if you do more albums?
Úlehla: “There are so many songs. There are more than 300.
“And yeah, it feels like the work is not done. I have a feeling that we will continue working on it.
“It keeps opening new directions.
“We started this collaboration with Petr Mička and his Horňácká muzika ensemble. Also there’s this work in Vancouver.
“It feels almost like the songs are entering into life in these different ways.
“It’s about musical composition and invention and beauty and novelty and structure and the elegance of the melodies.
“But it’s also something else, which is almost, like, existential. Or deeply personal – and almost connecting out in many ways to many people, back in time, in the future, horizontally.
“Even if you look at the song texts, there’s an ethical… hierarchy of relationships, where humans aren’t somehow the centre of the universe but are very much in relation to animals and spirits and weather patterns and mountains.
“This whole cosmology… I feel as we work more and more and more it soaks into our lives, in more and more ways.”
You were telling me earlier Julia that you don’t have much Czech. Has it been a challenge for you to sing not only in Czech but in this old-fashioned, archaic Czech?
Úlehla: “[Laughs]. You know, it’s so many things.
“In one way, it’s a total pleasure, because I work with my dad really closely on it.
“We spend so much time translating and talking about it and singing together and discussing it.
“It’s been this beautiful way to be with my dad. He left when he was 19 and he told me he always hated traditional music as a kid.
“And so now as an almost 70-year-old man he’s having this new romance with it, in a way.
“So there’s this aspect, which is really beautiful.
“There’s also a terrifying aspect. Because as someone who’s a hybrid Czech, I always feel like I will never be Czech enough.
“To sing these songs, which are really people’s personal treasure… at the beginning I didn’t realise how sensitive the cultural property issue was.
“These songs are really people’s personal treasure. At the beginning I didn’t realise how sensitive the cultural property issue was.”
“And it was really undertaken with some naiveté, I think, on our part.
“It was almost like, OK, Vladimír, who are you? And what is this book and what is this personal relationship?
“Then as we do it and it becomes somehow out in the world more, or more of a public thing, you realise that people care A LOT about these songs.
“They have really deep relationships to them and strong ideas about where they should be or how they should be or what is important for their perpetuation and their continuation.
“So that is a thorny thing to negotiate.”
Has there been some questioning of your right to do these songs?
Úlehla: “Yeah, for sure. I’ve heard people be angry. Sometimes on Facebook people will make comments like, You should learn Czech first.
“Someone told me that I sing like a man. There’s like gendered behaviour that I’m violating.
Bajakian: “When we were first doing it, my thinking was that the songs are so beautiful, and the way Julia sings them is so beautiful.
“But, when we’re performing in Canada, people don’t know about her accent.
“And yet people are still moved by them and affected by them and how she does them.
“What I’m starting to see is that at the beginning, I feel, people here were more talking about your accent and stuff, but now they’re also moving past that.
“And this is a really important issue, not just for the Czech people – it’s for all people of diaspora.
“Because this world is changing. People are moving.
“What does that mean for that person? What does it mean when it comes to identity?
“Julia and I are both children in the US of immigrant parents.
“We’re Americans but we also have this really strong tie – and do we have a right, is it appropriation, in the same sense that if I were to use African music? That is a different thing.
“I think also especially with Julia’s history with her great-grandfather, he wrote this book.
“The fact that there’s this family relationship really is a moving thing – that she’s able to go back and explore that.”
When you have played here, what has been the reaction?
Úlehla: “It’s really beautiful to play here. Sometimes, like last night, when we played in Trutnov, people are so warm.
“We had a big standing ovation at the end and people were hugging. Sometimes people tell me that they’re crying. It’s really strong.
“Maybe because I have that little bit of fear, like, Is what we’re doing OK? I don’t know how you will receive this.
“So last night was really beautiful.
“When we first started I remember we played in Folkové prázdniny [in Náměšť nad Oslavou] and there was a review of the concert that said, For some people it was the best experience of the whole festival and for some people it was complete incomprehension. And even the reviewer was like, I didn’t know what to say after it.
“So it’s really mixed.”
Bajakian: “I think people are starting to see it and understand what we’re trying to do.
“The important thing is that people are starting to understand that we also have a really deep respect for the music and for the traditional music.
“That we’re not just making weird sounds, as an experiment just to see what will happen. It comes from a love of the songs.”
“The fact that there’s this family relationship really is a moving thing – that Julia is able to go back and explore that.”
Just out of curiosity, if you didn’t listen to the songs before first recording or performing or learning them, did you later go back and find Czech versions?
Úlehla: “Now I’m doing a PhD in ethnomusicology, so we spend a lot of time here over the summer and try and hear as much traditional music as we can.
“And yes, I have a lot of recordings at home that we’re listening to.”
Bajakian: “But a lot of the songs that we do aren’t performed anymore.
“Some of the songs even have words that we’ve asked every Czech audience about and no-one knows what they mean.
“That’s how old they are – that these words have completely fallen out of use, which is fascinating, really fascinating.
“We’re singing songs now and the Czech audiences don’t know what the words mean.”
Úlehla: “I think it also points to how there are different strands of dissemination. So there’s oral tradition happening and there’s this in-place tradition in Horňácko or Dolňácko.
“And people learning generation by generation.
“But in the Czech lands, in Moravia, it seems like textual documentation has been an important source since František Sušil and these early song collectors who were transcribing songs.
“Musicians are looking to them. And you have the oral tradition, you have these songbooks, you have recordings.
“I see this in the Czech Republic now that many musicians are engaging with this tradition and somehow moving between these different domains.”
I was intrigued by your translation of titles. For example, in Czech the title of one song is Dyby ňa moja maměnka stará and in English it’s Grass.
Úlehla: “Yes, we didn’t do a word-for-word translation. Somehow in English Would that My Old Mother…”
Bajakian: “It just wouldn’t work.”
Bajakian: “Part of it’s also practical, that it just wouldn’t fit on iTunes.
“We wanted to have a Czech and an English title and I don’t think there were that many characters.
“But also, the song is summed up in that one word as well.”
I don’t expect you guys to be experts on all areas of what I might call world music. To my ear this music sounds a bit like other kinds of folk music – but is there something that’s distinctive about Moravian folk music?
Bajakian: “I also perform with this trumpet player, Frank London, and he has a group called The Glasshouse Orchestra, which is Hungarian musicians.
“There’s a cimbalom player, there’s a violinist and vocalist.
“At first I was like, Oh, cimbalom, it all sounds the same.
“But now, having spent more time with the Moravian music, I’m able to hear that there are differences between how it’s done in Moravia versus how it’s done in Hungary.
“Even one time we were speaking to a bass player, the bass player Jakub Nožička, from Brno. He’s from the band Ponk, which is a great group that’s kind of doing what we’re doing – taking the folk songs and doing new things with them.
“He was saying that when he plays in the villages, depending on the village he has to bow his bass differently. Because there are different feels for how each village plays the songs.
“So I think it’s a subtle thing. It’s almost like being able to taste the difference between different scotches in Scotland [laughs]. To me they might all taste the same, but if you really know it there are big differences.”
Úlehla: “I’ve been coming here since 1983 but we start coming with Dálava and with our family and spending summers here about four years ago.
“We were at the Colours of Ostrava festival and they have something called the Crossroads of Czech Music conference that happens concurrently, or right before.
“They were thinking very much there about different traditional musics from the Visegrad countries, and what is really happening within the scope of the global music scene, in Moravia, in Slovakia, in Hungary, in Poland.
“And I remember somebody remarking about how Moravian music doesn’t export well. According to this person, it was not flashy enough, or not driving enough, or not danceable enough.
“I remember somebody remarking about how Moravian music doesn’t export well. They said it was not flashy enough, or not driving enough, or not danceable enough.”
“So I’ve been thinking a lot, like what is this characteristic of Moravian folk music? What is it really?
“And for me there’s something about it that I didn’t appreciate in the beginning, or couldn’t see, that I feel like I just start to see now, which is this tenderness.
“It’s really modest and humble and tender and beautiful and full of some kind of longing that’s really sincere, somehow, and almost powerful in its gentility, or in its lack of pompousness.
“I think that’s really beautiful about Moravian traditional music.
“Not to say that that doesn’t appear in other world music traditions, but as I go further and further with it, that’s what I start to see as its little core.
“I remember we were performing with Petr Mička over the summer in Brno and at one point it just hits you in the heart and you’re like, Aaaahh – that’s the thing, that’s the essence.
“It’s this longing… I don’t know, heartbreak or having grief and joy so much woven together… that I just love so much about these songs.”
Bajakian: “For me that experience felt like I was with John Coletrane on stage at the Village Vanguard – to have all those guys singing at the same time. They were really, really wonderful.”