Interview with World Music Ensemble Stellamara

American world music ensemble Stellamara will be performing at the symbiosisgathering.com. The electronic music festival includes world music and will take place September 22-25 at Woodward Reservation Regional Park in California.

Stellamara’s sound has evolved throughout the years, bringing together musicians from diverse cultural backgrounds in a shared devotion for folk and classical music rooted in Near Eastern, Eastern European, Medieval European, Arabic and Persian traditions.

The ensemble is led by vocalist and producer Sonja Drakulich and multi-instrumentalist Gari Hegedus. Stellamara also includes percussionist, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Evan Fraser; percussionist Sean Tergis; and their newest member, accordionist, vocalist, programmer and keyboardist Dan Cantrell.

We talked to Sonja Drakulich about Stellamara’s background, evolution and upcoming concert.

Angel Romero – Can you tell us about the band you will be taking to the Symbiosis Gathering?

Sonja Drakulich – It’s the lineup we’ve had for the past year with our newest member, Dan Cantrell on accordion, vocals, keyboards and programing; as well as my original music partner in Stellamara, Gari Hegedus on oud, violin, mandocello and saz; and Evan Fraser on ngoni, vocals, mbira and percussion. Myself on vocals and percussion.

When and why did you start playing?

I didn’t have a choice. I knew I needed to sing as a child. I have always needed to express what I hear, feel and sense through singing. I was very shy however, so I sang alone in my bedroom for the first 14 years of my life with only my cats, dogs and my stuffed animal collection as my audience.

I also spent my childhood singing quietly to the bees, moths, butterflies, snails, pill bugs, and any other non-human creature I commune with in Los Angeles. I then moved close to Long Beach (South Los Angeles) with my mother when I was a teenager, and began singing to the ocean on a daily basis.

Gradually, my passion overgrew my shyness and I was encouraged by friends and family to continue with my singing and songwriting. I then sought out many teachers around the Los Angeles area, ranging from North Indian Hindustani to Persian to Bulgarian and Turkish vocalists to opera singers, and I joined both early music choirs and Bulgarian choirs. This wide range of study along with my passion for recording and creating sonic landscapes led me to where I am today.

 

Sonja Drakulich (Stellamara) - Photo by Aya Okawa
Sonja Drakulich (Stellamara) – Photo by Aya Okawa

 

What do you consider as the musical essentials, those songs or performers that you draw on as a group?

Both the songs and their players are essential, though I feel the players are most important, as I have been blessed to work with musicians who are truly open to the muse and are incredibly skilled at conveying the music that will always come through them.

How has your music evolved from your first album “Star of the Sea” and “The Seven Valleys” to your current sound?

It has evolved enormously as there have been many years and many life changes as well as band member changes between each album. I recorded ‘Star of the Sea’ while I was in my last year of high school and also attending recording engineering classes at the local community college. That album was recorded on an analog Tascam 8 track tape recorder!

I was also teaching myself how to sing on that album. I had so many ideas and visions and yet at that time barely had the technical ability to express them, but I did everything I could to manifest what I envisioned. That debut album was co-produced with Jef Stott who continued on into a solo career of electronic music production. ‘Star of the Sea’ represents a very special time in my youth, innocence and passion. We laughed about how it became what was referred to as “the missing link between goth and new age.”

 

Stellamara - Star of the Sea
Stellamara – Star of the Sea

 

The Seven valleys was a more collaborative process, after I had moved to The SF bay area and met the incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist, Gari Hegedus, who is still my main music partner in Stellamara. We co-wrote many of the songs and delved in deep into a multi layered approach to songwriting and production that has become a signature sound for Stellamara.

 

Stellamara - The Seven Valleys
Stellamara – The Seven Valleys

 

Your most recent album “The Golden Thread” features two Greece-based artists we’ve featured often in our magazine, Kelly Thoma and Ross Daly. How did you connect with them?

In short, Ross Daly was (and still is) the greatest living musical inspiration and mentor for both Gari and myself. We were greatly inspired by a particular album of his that features NY cellist Rufus Cappadocia. As fate would have it, I met Rufus at a club in the mission in San Francisco shortly after hearing this album. We became instant friends and bandmates that night, staying up until dawn listening to music and sharing stories and inspirations. Ross then heard Stellamara’s music through Rufus, and out of the blue I received an email from Ross inviting us to perform at his music school and concert series in Houdetsi, Crete.

Ross and Kelly performed with us in Greece, and we stayed with them in Houdetsi for six weeks, immersing ourselves in the music, land and sea. Ross and Kelly were already booked to be in San Francisco the following month for a performance, so we decided then to record an album together based on the repertoire we had developed in Crete.

They stayed with me for two weeks and we recorded almost every day. It was the highlight of my life so far as a producer. Their attention and care for every detail of every track was phenomenal. As individuals, musicians and composers, I cannot speak more highly of their virtues and integrity. They have since catalyzed a new genre of modal musicians who span the globe and who are recording some of the most beautiful, innovative music on the planet at this time (in my humble opinion).

 

Stellamara - The Golden Thread
Stellamara – The Golden Thread

 

Vocals play an essential role in your sound. How do you project the vocals and what kind of effects do you use at the studio and live?

I like to experiment and express vocal music through a wide range of vocal colors and textures. i actually became a vocal teacher partially because it was a challenge for me to find teachers who focused primarily on expanding the singers range and color palette without confining the voice to one particular style or another. It was always important to me to retain rawness and freedom of expression and I was apprehensive about becoming limited into one particular style, or sounding overtrained, especially within a western classical format.

After 10 years of study and training with vocal teachers from the East and the West, I compiled a method that can be utilized in any style, and that is focused primarily on freedom and ease of expression.

As far as vocal effects, this is another creative outlet of exploration. On recordings, I do like to add my own vocal harmonies and will use a combination of reverb, delay and occasionally slight chorus effects. For the past three years I have been using the TC Helicon Voice Touch Live on stage, as it is the closest effects unit on the market which allows a singer to control their own effects from the stage. This way I can trigger delays on and off and change reverb settings on stage, not having to rely on the sound engineer for this. That said, I do look forward to the day where I can work with an FOS engineer who can program all of this so that I won’t have to do on stage programming at all. I’d rather just focus on the music and dance!

Sonja Drakulich (Stellamara) - Photo by Trinette Reed
Sonja Drakulich (Stellamara) – Photo by Trinette Reed

 

And what languages do you use when you sing?

Bulgarian, Croatian, Hungarian, Persian, Turkish, Romanian, Roma, Ladino and English, and occasionally Spanish, Latin, Greek, Gaelic and Arabic. When I was with Faun’s vocalist, I also sang in German and Finnish.

Often however, I am singing in my own language based in the feeling, vowels and consonants that shaped naturally by the melody. I recently wrote (or rather channeled) an ‘imaginary’ language on a train from Norway to Berlin, inspired by my tours in Northern Europe, and it carries the feeling and energy of the old dialects of Finnish, which is one of my very favorite languages.

I love the process of creating not only melodies but imaginary languages, as it allows the singer to purely become a musical instrument and bypass the analyzation and interpretation of words. The meaning of this singing can then be found in the mystery of the sound itself.

What musical instruments do you use?

As far reaching as the languages, though most often: oud, violin, cello, viola, mandocello, saz’s of all sizes and tunings (baglamas), lyra, tarhu, ngoni, mbira, darbuka, dahola, daff, frame drams, riqq, carcabas, accordion, and we customize and incorporate some electronics as well.

Your videos show dancing. What types of dancing do you use in your live performances?

We collaborate with my dear friends, who happen to also be the most celebrated modern bellydance, Persian and Odissi fusion artists in the world.

Which are your favorite musical festivals, and what makes them so special?

Symbiosis is actually our favorite of them all, and we also love LIB. We have seen them both evolve greatly over the years in their expansion of artist programming. Last year was a breakthrough year for Symbiosis in their monumental hosting of creativity which included many acoustic based musicians, female musicians, butoh artists, and many other cutting edge experimental visual and sonic performance artist that are breaking ground at this time.

We also saw LIB [Lightning in a Bottle] break similar ground this year. We are fortunate to be a part of the productions on both of these festivals that set the bar for both quality and the risk taking required in producing phenomenal experiences- both internally and externally.

We also very much love the festivals in Oregon, nestled in the beautiful evergreen forests that contain their own vibrant magic. We have as well had the fortune of being hosted by festivals throughout Europe, which offer their own magic of both artists, craftsmanship and incredible historic locations.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with who would that be?

I am honored to say that I have already been fortunate enough to do this! I realized some years ago that success to me as an artist is the ability to co- create with my very favorite artists around the world. This has already happened and continues to! Each of my band mates are included in this category of my favorite musicians. Gari Hegedus of Stellamara is one of the most brilliant musicians I will ever meet, and carries a depth and soulfulness that is rarely expressed so purely in these times. As well, I am ever grateful for being a creative collaborator with Ross Daly, Kelly Thoma, and Rufus Cappadocia, and I am just now in process of collaborating with Efrén López, a multi-instrumentalist / producer from Spain, who has been one of my favorite musicians in this world, and a great inspiration for many years.

I am also grateful for the ongoing collaborations with the dance artists I work with, who inspire me to no end, as well as my European band mates in Faun, who I have learned a great deal from. There are also many other artists and producers I would love to collaborate with, and it’s just a matter of time!

What music are you currently listening to?

This varies greatly day by day. It’s usually a mix of source recordings of old, traditional songs and contemporary artists whose innovation and production techniques I appreciate.

 

Sonja Drakulich (Stellamara) - Photo by Aya Okawa
Sonja Drakulich (Stellamara) – Photo by Aya Okawa

 

Do you have any upcoming projects to share with our readers?

Stellamara is in the middle of recording after a long studio hiatus (largely due to my intensive tour schedule over the past few years) We will be releasing 3 / 3 song digital EPs as a triptych, which will be released as a full length album with bonus tracks after the digital releases.

I’m working on two music videos as well for Stellamara and one for another project with an amazing director from London and downtempo / trip hop / trap / soul producer. I am working on several projects with electronic music producers I am very excited about as well, and am thrilled to be expressing myself vocally in new ways. There is exciting film work in the works this year (I work in Los Angeles on occasion as a session singer for period / fantasy / drama TV and films).

A great passion of mine has been in the further development and expansion of the format for my teaching an integrated method of healing through vocal expression, increasing sensate abilities, nada yoga, and transformation/ integration through consciousness, movement and sound. This format has been developing over the past two years from three hour long workshops to week long intensive immersions, and I will soon be offering these programs more frequently and in a wider range of centers, internationally.

There are many projects happening at once, this year has essentially been nonstop. I’ve just been trying to keep up with it all, which is a good issue to have.

That’s all I feel I can say regarding these projects at this point, since I would rather the rest be a surprise 🙂

Discography:

Star of the Sea (City Of Tribes, 1997)
The Seven Valleys (Hearts of Space Records, 2004)
The Golden Thread ‎(Prikosnovénie PRIK135, 2009)

Official website: stellamara.com
Symbiosis Gathering: symbiosisgathering.com
LIB (Lightning in a Bottle): http://lightninginabottle.org

credits: headline photo –> Sonja Drakulich (Stellamara) – Photo by Aya Okawa

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.

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