In perfect unison
By Joe Wiebe, April 2013
The Balkan Babes have travelled a long way.
In performance, the Balkan Babes exhibit a calm serenity that underscores the eerily beautiful eastern European melodies and harmonies they sing. At their CD release concert in Duncan in early February, the music is mesmerizing, punctuated occasionally by trills or whoops. Some songs are soft and elegiac, while others are belted out with fervent ferocity. For an all-female choir, the range of voices is impressive. Some songs begin with one or two singers and then slowly grow in complexity until all nine women are singing. Even though they sing unaccompanied without a conductor, no one ever seems to miss a mark or wander off key.
Between songs, members take turns introducing each tune, which are all sung in the original language: Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Georgian or Ukrainian. Each quirky, folksy synopsis earns a warm chuckle from the audience: “Marry me off, old mother, while I’m young and the girls are still interested in me,” or “The grass has grown high in my beautiful green field. The proud girl will cut it and feed it to her horse.”
The Balkan Babes clearly love singing these songs: their eyes shine brightly as they sing, smiling at each other in obvious friendship. It’s not surprising, considering the long journey they have travelled together going back 13 years, a story they shared with me at a rehearsal about a month before the concert.
What a different scene. Seated in a circle in one of the member’s living rooms, with tea available for all, the Babes (as they refer to themselves) make it clear that they are a group of individuals. They have no leader by choice, making all decisions collectively, even if that process sometimes drives them all crazy. That dynamic becomes immediately apparent as they answer my questions—often interrupting each other with corrections, anecdotes or inside jokes that send them all into raucous fits of laughter. My head is on a swivel, bouncing from voice to voice. It is very entertaining, if a little confusing.
Faro Sullivan starts off describing how it all began with a Thursday morning musical get-together for women in Fernwood. A lot of the original members were stay-at-home moms with young children, so it was something to do socially.
“It’s definitely still a group of women that need to meet and vent,” Chantal Leblond adds, earning a big laugh. “It’s a sisterhood, for sure.”
“Almost everybody had a baby on the floor at some point,” Faro says.
“A lot of our babies ended up at shows, too,” Chantal says. “Holding them. Nursing them.” Karen Visser recounts how she had her infant son asleep in a sling at an early concert. One song, “Dobro Do?le,” has some loud keening in it—which woke him up—so she nursed him onstage. “He wasn’t hungry, but it kept him quiet.”
The original group began performing publicly and recorded a couple of CDs, but their sheer size made it difficult to grow in ability. “It was crazy,” Faro says. “At one time we were in a basement recording studio with 17 of us.”
Not everyone could attend practices regularly, so it was difficult to learn new songs and expand their repertoire. As a result, in 2004 they decided to form a performance group made up of those who could commit to a regular weekly practice schedule. That pared the group down to 13 members; a couple more left over the next few years. And now they are nine.
They grew in ability and repertoire, and began performing at festivals such as Luminara, Victoria Folkfest, and the Islands Folk Festival. Then, in 2008, they sent a four-song CD to CBC Radio’s Choral 2008 choir competition.
“We were not even thinking about it, and then we found out we had already been through three or four tiers of the competition,” explains Genevieve Charbonneau.
They found themselves singing in the live-to-radio final of the Pan-Traditional category against a Georgian men’s choir. The Balkan Babes performed at Ryerson Church in Vancouver while the male choir sang in Toronto.
“We heard the other choir singing while we were standing there,” and then it was their turn. “It was terrifying,” recounts Genevieve.
But to their surprise, they won. The prize was a trip to Montreal to perform in a choral festival that featured all of the various category winners. That success has given them more confidence.
“It’s almost an unconditional commitment now,” says Kelly Sherwin. “We see each other every week. It’s part of our lives.”
“It’s like being married,” agrees Genevieve.
No one in the choir actually speaks any of the Balkan languages, and only one member, Laura Matthias Wilder, has any connection to the region in her family background (she is “Slovakian, among other things”), but they have all developed a strong interest in Balkan culture and would love to travel and perform there if they can ever find the money for such a trip.
“I think the complexity of the music is a big part of the draw,” Genevieve insists. “The material is getting more challenging as we go along, and we are more drawn to try to work on songs that are harder, or even more foreign.”
They find new material in a variety of ways, including workshops with native Balkan singers. They worked with one couple who, Chantal says, “toured into remote villages and collected field recordings of songs so they’re not even widely published or heard.” Three of those songs ended up on their newest CD, Volio, which came out in December.
Regardless of how they learn the music, the Balkan Babes definitely put their own stamp on each song. Some are meant for male or mixed choirs, but that doesn’t stop them. And they have resisted the urge to add any instrumentation.
“We almost went instrumental on the latest CD,” Chantal admits. “A cowbell. There was a huge debate.”
“Hours and hours were devoted to the cowbell,” Karen adds above big laughter from the entire group.
Now that they have released Volio, they are looking forward to performing more. What else does the future hold?
“Bulgaria 2015!” shouts Genevieve. It’s just a dream, but it is something they’d love to do. “If we sell our CDs, maybe we can think about that kind of thing,” adds Chantal.
As the interview ends, I hang around to listen as the Babes get ready to rehearse. Chantal fetches her baby, Will, who just woke up from a nap. He ends up in someone else’s arms as they stand to sing a warm-up song.
One moment, they are all chatting, multiple conversations overlapping, and then, suddenly, they are singing in perfect unison. It’s a cliché, but a shiver really does go up and down my spine. It’s such beautiful music. And I can still picture them standing in a close semicircle, smiling at each other, with baby Will in the middle, gazing up at the shining, smiling faces above him. He couldn’t be happier, and neither, it seems, could the Balkan Babes, doing what they love best: singing together.
The Balkan Babes will be performing April 6 at the United Church in Ganges on Salt Spring Island; on May 5 at the Victoria Folk Music Society at Norway House on Hillside Ave, Victoria; and on June 22 at the Campbell Bay Music Festival on Mayne Island.
Joe Wiebe is a Victoria writer who specializes in stories about the arts, sports, travel and beer. His guidebook to BC's booming craft beer scene, Craft Beer Revolution, will be published in May. www.joewiebe.com or www.thirstywriter.com.