It's probably a hangover from watching too many Hollywood movies. but when I think of Eastern Europe I can't help seeing in my mind's eye a dark and mysterious landscape. Gloomy forests climbing the sides of sharp mountains suddenly give way to deep lakes under whose surface lie mysteries better left undisturbed.
It's hard to imagine the sun ever shining in this environment, let alone it ever being daytime, as if it exists in a state of permanent twilight. It's in woods like these you'll find the gingerbread cottage of "Hansel and Gretel", or perhaps chance upon a girl in a red cloak making her way to her grandmother's house.
However, in spite of the darkness, there's also a haunting beauty which can take your breath away in the same way that plunging into an icy mountain stream will leave you gasping for air and in pleasure at the same time. Yet it's a beauty that seems tinged with sorrow, like a heartbreaking poem or song. Perhaps it's an overly romantic view of something I know very little about, but it's also based on knowing some of the history of the region and the hardships faced by a great many of those who have lived there. Subsistence farms carved out of available land, continual invasions by one army or another, and the twentieth century's contribution to horror - ethnic cleansing after the fall of Yugoslavia and the death camps of WWll.
A new release by vocalist Lily Storm, If I Had A Key To The Dawn on her own Songbat Records label, of primarily traditional songs from that region shows, no matter the country or language, the music does nothing to dispel those impressions. Whether Russian, Armenian, Albanian, Romanian, Bulgarian or Hungarian each of the songs she performs on this disc are beautiful but hint at sorrow in their music and lyrics. Yet for some reason there is nothing depressing about them either, as the honesty of emotion exhibited by each song is beautiful onto itself.
One of the hardest things about singing in a language, or as in this cases languages, that your audience is not going to understand is to communicate with them the nature of the song. Although Storm has included translations for all the lyrics they aren't really needed to make these songs work for us as she shows herself capable of expressing their overall feeling with her voice. What I really appreciated about her singing is this is the type of situation where a singer could very easily give in to the temptation to over emote in order to get their message across. Storm not only refrains from doing that, she is also able to imbue her voice with character that gives the listener an idea of the story behind the song as well as the emotional content.
As for the material itself they remind you that folk music can be in the right hands a genuine expression of a people's experience. Whether a lullaby or a love song these tracks are devoid of the sentimentality that are the hallmark of so many contemporary songs that deal with similar themes. First of all they employ poetic imagery to convey their ideas that you would never find in even the best folk songs in North America let along most popular music today. Not only does this give the material greater emotional depth, it also allows for an ambiguity of meaning that makes you have to think about the song's real meaning.
The opening song of the disc for instance, a traditional Ukrainian lullaby called simply "Sleep Child" is only two verses long, but contains a world of meaning. A mother tells her child to sleep and she will cover it with leafs and leave it by the water. From Moses on down there's a long history of hero legends where the baby is set adrift by its mother and goes on to become a great leader after being rescued. However, the same lyrics could also express a young mother's frustration and resentment at being tied down to a squalling baby and her desire to be free of the noisy and demanding thing. Listening to the way that Storm sings the song you notice a certain amount of ambiguity in her voice, and a definite lack of anything that can be construed as heroic. While you wouldn't be able to discern the alternative meaning from just hearing her performance, you can tell that this isn't your typical lullaby.
Of course having the translations also makes a world of difference when it comes to appreciating some of the nuances of material. The sixth song on the recording, a Hungarian piece whose title is translated as simply "Love, Love" is both an ode to the pain of love in general and a long ago love in particular. "And for my love of long ago/what I wouldn't do/the water of the sea/I'd scoop out with a spoon/and from the bottom of the sea/I'd gather small pearls/and for my love of long ago/I'd make a pearl wreath".
What starts out sounding like one of those poems that are describing the lengths somebody would go to in order to express their devotion for their lover, is quickly turned into something else by the last word in the song. The singer isn't going to drain the ocean one spoonful at a time to make a necklace celebrating love, no, it's to make a wreath to place on its grave. Of course that the music accompanying the lyrics sounds like a dirge, and Storm sounds like she's just lost her best friend, gives you a good idea of the singer's mood and their opinion of love even without understanding what she's saying.
Probably when most of us think of the music of Eastern Europe we either think of the colourful and exuberant folk dances of the Ukraine, the fiery music of the Romani, or perhaps even polkas. If I Had A Key To The Dawn, from the atmospheric photographs included in the accompanying booklet and on the cover, to Lily Storm's magnificent singing, brings a different side of that part of the world to life. Listening to the music on this disc reminds you that just as there is beauty to be found in the darkest part of a forest, it can also be found in the expression of some of our darkest feelings. A song from the heart is a beautiful thing no matter what language its in or what its about. You may not have thought that a broken heart could be as beautiful as a lover's kiss before, but after listening to this disc you'll see how it's possible, and you'll understand how tears are just as special as a smile.
(Originally posted July 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.