Brooklyn-based singer Eva Salina tells Alexandra Petropoulos about how she’s immersed herself in the Balkan songbook, despite being an outsider
Authenticity is a subject that crops up from time to time within these pages. How ‘authentic’ is an artist? Is he or she qualified to perform music from a certain tradition or is it merely ‘cultural appropriation’? These questions have the potential to squelch creativity and originality in favour of a static ideal, but Eva Salina is one artist that refreshingly faces them head-on. Having grown up in a musical tradition outside her own, she addresses authenticity with a direct but gentle touch – delving into the history and tradition, while always remaining true to herself.
She grew up in California to parents of mixed European ancestry, and without her own unified cultural identity, was curious about other cultures from an early age. When she was just eight years old she started singing lessons with a young woman who taught Balkan music. “I heard these sounds and it was like something ignited inside me. I totally immersed myself into those traditions.”
This meant that she spent time with the local Balkan community, most of whom had recently emigrated to the US following the conflict back in Eastern Europe, and grew up in a primarily Bulgarian music tradition, but without any direct lineage. “When you’re a kid,” she explains, “you don’t have the mechanism that says this is not part of your lineage.”
Salina found that it was mainly the older repertoire that resonated most with her. These songs had a depth and complexity that appealed to her. “You can have a very happy sounding song with intensely sad lyrics, and there’s a beautiful tension that’s created there. I find inspiration from that acknowledgement that emotions are layered and complicated, that you can be feeling joy and sorrow, anger and confusion while you’re dancing. It’s such an honest representation of reality.”
For her debut album, Lema Lema, Salina decided to offer the first musical tribute to Serbian singer Šaban Bajramović (1936-2008), whose music mined those depths of human expression and complexity. But there was another motivation for tackling his songbook. “It has a lot to do with not being a native from the tradition. There’s a tendency to make direct comparisons, to measure me against so and so. And quite frankly I only ever want to be myself.” By taking on the repertoire of a husky-voiced Serbian man, who Salina knew she sounded nothing like, those lines of comparison would be obscured. “I knew that the adaptation and transformation would be an unavoidable part of the process. So I couldn’t say I had to resemble this person because I knew it would be ridiculous to even try!”
With this in mind, she was able to tackle Bajramović’s songbook as herself – a Brooklyn-based young American woman – rather than trying to transform herself into something she’s not. “I’m not going to create some romantic Gypsy myth about myself because it’s damaging to the culture.”
While respecting the tradition, she interprets each song in her own way, exploring a range of influences and featuring guest musicians from Serbian trumpet player Ekrem Mamutović to Indian percussionist Deep Singh. But her goal is ultimately to introduce new people to Bajramović’s music. “I’d like to get these songs into people’s ears so that they will become curious and want to learn about Šaban, to understand where these songs come from. Because how did any of us become enamoured with any artists? We heard it, it was arresting and our hunger and curiosity were ignited.”