Music writer tricks of the trade: when I’m reviewing gigs, if I don’t know a song that I think I might want to refer to I’ll jot down a lyric or two and look it up on Google when I get home. It’s not a foolproof system – my friend Cat tells me she once missed that Bruce Springsteen had let one song bleed into another, and the commenters didn’t let her forget it – but it’s gotten me by.
Until, that is, I saw Songs of the Roma.
Edinburgh-born classical guitarist and composer Simon Thacker has spent the past decade turning reinterpretation of popular song from around the world into art, with three Made in Scotland international showcases and tours of the US, Europe, India, New Zealand and beyond to his name. Songs of the Roma, his collaboration with Polish cellist Justyna Jablonska and Roma singer/violinist Masha Natanson, premiered in 2016 as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Made in Scotland showcase, and arrived in Glasgow at the mid-point of an 11-date Scottish tour.
Songs of the Roma sprung, in part, from Karmana, Thacker and Jablonska’s recent album. As well as showcasing Thacker’s new six-movement suite for guitar and cello, the duo teamed up with vocalists including Natanson and Karine Polwart to record reinterpretations of traditional Gaelic, Romani and Polish song. What began as a single recording of “La Carciuma de la Drum”, based on a work by the Romani singer Gabi Lunca, became an entire show.
We crept in a little late during the show’s low-key introduction: two instrumental selections from the Karmana suite. With a row of candlelit tables set in front of the stage, the Glad felt even more cafe-like than usual: Thacker strumming something gentle, sombre, almost Flamenco-influenced, his face a picture of concentration as his fingers danced their way over his frets.
A pause, and then the tone shifted completely as Jablonka’s otherworldly cello transported us to somewhere darker still on the second piece from the set. When Thacker plucked the low notes he had chosen to accompany her from the ground, it felt almost as though he would tear the strings apart.
Serbian folk song “Niška Banja” provides the first vocal performance of the night. The lyrics, we are told, celebrate a town famous for its “healing waters” – which, according to a famed Serbian poet, can even prevent pregnancy, assuming you don’t lie down next to your husband afterwards. Thacker’s arrangement turns the guitar and cello into almost atonal – almost, but not quite – percussion, while Natanson’s piercing voice, sweet and heady with vibrato, carries the tune. The arrangement ends with a simple string melody in a minor key, Thacker’s classical guitar once again dancing deftly in the background.
Next up is perhaps the most famous Roma song of all: “Ederlezi”, named for the Spring festival which coincides with the Slavic celebration of Saint George. The melody, says Thacker, is usually an upbeat one, despite one apocryphal origin story of the song pointing to its being composed spontaneously on the Nazi death trains. It’s a story that hangs heavily over me at least during the trio’s sombre reinterpretation, which places Natanson’s voice front and centre against a minimal musical background, plaintive and keening.
It’s a sparse, haunting performance that an awestruck room almost has to be given permission to applaud afterwards – and one that doesn’t get any easier on second listen, when we call for it as an encore.
Thacker comes across as much as a historian as a composer, his respect for his source material striking even as he digs deep into the melodies to make the songs his own. “To challenge the original on its own territory would be a foolish thing to do,” he says, of his reworking of Esma Redzepova’s “Abre Ramce” (“Cruel Ram”), a song traditionally performed with a massive band behind it. His reworking is skittish, bassy – and then Natanson begins to sing, and the sheer fury Redzepova’s lyrics direct towards a feckless lover pours through.
Because here’s the thing: these songs are neither precious relics, nor historical oddities, but living, breathing, soulful things. Most famously performed by women, their lyrics – the parts that Thacker and Natanson translate for us anyway – focus on love, loss and community, with humorous little vignettes on ageing and redemption. And while Thacker’s arrangements often pack a gut-punch, there is plenty of fun to be had here too: like Jablonska’s little pizzicato opening to “La Carciuma De La Drum”, drawing out the Spanish influences in an arrangement that fair dances with mischief even before it reaches its la-da-di-di refrain; or “Aruna”, the frenetic, ecstatic, original duet for guitar and cello that is the penultimate song of the night.
The Songs of the Roma tour runs until Monday, when it finishes up at Birnam Arts Centre. I’d strongly urge you to catch it if you can.
Songs of the Roma on tour:
TONIGHT! NEW GALLOWAY, CatStrand
TOMORROW! PITTENWEEM, Kellie Castle
06/05 LYTH, Arts Centre
07/05 BIRNAM, Arts Centre
Live photos by Barbara Ostrowska, used with permission.
An earlier version of this review mistakenly credited the original “Abre Ramce” to Gabi Lunca – I apologise for the error.