So a Croatian, a Brazilian and a Hungarian walk into a bar…
A collective of vocalists from different corners of the globe (as well as the set up to a great punchline), Asaran Earth Trio is a group dedicated to signing beautiful music from around the world. With New York City ...
Some places, in their verdant abundance, in their stark beauty, speak, as if they had a voice and words all their own. They defy language barriers, coalesce into song, and beg the question: Why Should Your Heart Not Dance?
Asaran Earth Trio poses this query to listeners, sharing their own answers and drawing on perfected harmonies, serious grooves, and a spirit that honors the earth and its profusion of voices. The multinational vocalists intermingle beats and melodies, passing along the best of their homelands (Brazil, Hungary, Croatia) to each other and to their listeners with an easy grace.
Why Should Your Heart Not Dance (release date: November 3, 2017) leaps between wild improvisation and crafted counterpoint, between salty flirtation and slow laments, between jazz standards and folk pieces. Judiciously experimental, the music aims to draw listeners in, an intention reflected in the group’s concerts, when they pass around handmade instruments crocheted from plastic bags and invite the audience to sing with them.
“My goal in life is to write things that groove, even when those things are very complex. It has to feel good,” laughs Brazilian-born singer and percussionist Anne Boccato. The New York-based group sprang from an idea Boccato had, that she could unite a few women to sing and play the kind of music she loved.
Boccato invited two vocalists she knew and respected to give it a whirl, one with an earthy resonant alto and the other with crystal-clear high notes. They came from different parts of the world, from different sides of the scene: Astrid Kuljanic hailed from the western edge of Croatia, the heavily Italian-influenced region of Kvarner, and Artemisz Polonyi came to New York from Budapest, Hungary. Though their roots were farflung, the chemistry was instant.
They didn’t have a name for their group, but they knew they had stumbled on the right sound, a blend of playful percussion and resonant vocal expressions. The melding of their very individual timbres became as seamless as the name they eventually chose, borrowing the first syllable from each singer’s first name to create something new and intriguing. They taught each other what they knew and loved: Boccato brought the groove, Polonyi the devotion to vocal blend, and Kuljanic a passion for folk vocal styles.
Though dedicated to technical perfection, Asaran also revels in improvisation, loosing songs from their moorings and letting them drift into novel, thoughtful places. “We have strong jazz backgrounds,” says Polonyi, who started a group tradition of warming up via grounding, relaxing improvisations. “Improvisation is important to us. It’s a foundation we can return to in difficult passages, and a way of finding new expressions. We leave a lot of opportunities built into arrangements,” which they often work on collaboratively.
Asaran has always found repertoire easily, first bringing in favorite songs from their home cultures. Polonyi arranged Hungarian song, “Két Dal,” with breathtaking grace for the group, taking cues from a favorite folk singer’s recordings. Kuljanic found some songs from her family’s stomping grounds, learning from her bagpipe player cousin. “I asked him to sit down and play a bunch of songs, and this crazy one came up, ‘Divojčice Rožice,’” she recalls. “It’s about a guy wooing a girl, describing all the things he wants to do in these different villages, one of which is my mom’s village. It’s pretty graphic and very geographically specific.”
Though they start with songs from particular traditions and lineages, they often employ ideas learned from other sources, as the reggaeton-style bounce of “Divojčice Rožice” proves. Kuljanic applied the South Asian classical principle of the alap, the rhythmically free exploration of a mode or scale that often introduces a more structured piece, to a folk-pop hit from 1980s Yugoslavia,“Jovano Jovanke.” “I was thinking about how alaps introduce the raga as we created that section of that piece,” explains Kuljanic. “But we didn’t follow specific rules. We explore the scale, but we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen when we sing that section. Live, we often fade out from there. In the studio, we found ourselves hitting a peak and then stopping. It worked.”
Songs have also fallen into their laps as they traveled. The trio picked up “L’Amante Confessore” on tour in Northern Italy, studying and practicing the song furiously as they drove to a gig where they got older audience members singing along. “They sent us the music ahead of time, a scratchy recording of an old lady singing it,” Boccato says. “ “We thought it was the coolest fairy tale in the world, it was great to be able to sing it in the area it originates from.” When the group headed to Portugal, they had more time to perfect “Milho Verde,” a cheeky euphemistic piece about the wonders of corn they learned after reaching out to a Portuguese percussionist friend. “We thought it was the grooviest song in the world!” exclaims Boccato.
Along with adapting songs and being the brains behind the group, Boccato has crafted several original pieces for Asaran, combining her love of poetry, visual art (she contributed several drawings to the album’s charming booklet), and creative percussion, a fascination handed down from her artist mother and musician father. She based the title track on a pivotal scene in C.S. Lewis’ retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Till We Have Faces, a book she shared with the trio. She turned a beloved poem from her childhood into a funky duck-themed maracatu, “Patacoada.”
“We love to bring people into whatever we’re singing,” muses Boccato. “We have shakers my mom makes from discarded materials, and we hand them around, until everyone is grooving the same groove together. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a church or a house concert, in a casual or formal setting. We give them shakers, and strangers become friends. That’s our big goal: to create connection. Between us and them, and between people in general. We want to create connection in a time of disconnection.”