Imaginary folks

Some refer to it, others prefer to distance themselves from it. In my opinion, Opla and Širom’s latest records sound like contemporary folk made in large cities and their peripheries. Fiery and delicate at the same time, it takes a winding slalom course leading back to tradition.

Translation: Aleksandra Szkudłapska

At first listen, the two albums seem very different, but the more I listen to them, the more common points I see. Both Opla and Širom briskly circle around tradition, referring to it in various ways: the former with the rhythm, raw nature and trance, the latter with their tranquillity, instrumentation and frivolous melodies. At some point halfway through the course, their paths cross for a moment. In their press release, Širom rectify information provided earlier by journalists: we do not play traditional music, we do not improvise. But they say: we play imaginary folk. Opla provide cues: big-city oberek dances, an alternative vision of reality in the event no pads and synthesizers ever existed (which Zemler and Bukowski like to use in many of their projects).

Opla takes you on a journey through rhythm, wild and raw sounds, oberek scales and unbridled instruments. Zemler, whose albums are always clean, perfected in the studio, with noticeable details and elements of playing with silence, is unusually cocky here. He occasionally sounds like an amateur drummer who sits behind the drum kit for the first time, banging away with abandon. Yet restraint is here too: in “Barbara”, the drums – powered by the polyrhythmically intertwined kettledrums and hi-hats – seem muted, flooded by Bukowski’s guitar, only to explode in minute three thanks to the snare drum. In turn, Bukowski’s guitar is wheezing, the amp is very punky, the sound is high on distortions, as if precision was not the objective here. Yet this all just adds to the atmosphere of this record. Opla could be playing on one string (like here) and one drum only, and it would still make sense to me. Zemler’s arrogant manner in the finish of “Jan” is a culmination of this wildness, which, nevertheless, does not obscure the duo’s meticulous approach to composition and improvisation. The musicians delve into oberek scales, but without attempting to translate folk melodies into contemporary sounds. They weave their variations, allowing themselves to get carried away in the process. The guitar reminds me of Three Lobed Recordings releases, occasionally also of Raphael Rogiński’s lyricism (“Zofia”). Zemler, on the other hand, cautiously controls the rhythm – lightly juggling various patterns, as if in spite of the dense, blues-like idiom. “Marian” is where the duo get most crazy – at one point, the track could really do with bass, but what’s most interesting about Opla is that space in between: the raw, coarse nature of their music and non-obvious solutions employed. A passion for oberek and a fiery character locked in a raw big-city formula.

While Obertasy are big-city to the bone, A Universe that Roasts Blossoms for a Horse oozes a rural, natural atmosphere. The Slovenian trio also has no trouble composing – there’s not so much percussion-based rhythm here, but the trance aspect is paradoxically heightened. This comes through brilliantly in the meditative “Sleight Of Hand With a Melting Key”, where Iztok Koren stubbornly plays a repetitive banjo riff, constantly counterpointed by the guitar and violin (with the drums only making a momentary appearance in the finale). A rhythm similar to Opla’s twists and turns may be found in “A Pulse Expels Its Brothers And Sisters”. The only difference being that in the end, the polyrhythmic percussion – rural, raw, and scruffy, with flutes, bells and other paraphernalia coming in halfway through – seems to be transported onto a mountainous pasture. This is a very complex piece: the underlying motif changes twice, with the guitar and percussion instruments taking turns to dominate the sound, until the whole thing explodes ecstatically at the end. The melodious aspect of folk is wonderfully emphasized in “A Pulse Expels Its Brothers And Sisters”, only this is not Slovenian folk as Širom mix up their trails: if the violin and banjo add a rural feel, an additional oriental touch is provided by the Turkish rebabt, Iranian qeychak, Western African balafon or bendir from the northern part of the continent. There is also the hurdy-gurdy or the Serbian-Croatian tampura brač. While Širom are citizens of the world, they do not seek refuge in mighty, pathetic sounds, but hidden lyrical and meditative melodies. They subtly build mighty, trance-like suites, nodding both towards Steve Reich’s minimalism and ethnic excursions of Don Cherry. Consistently, yet with their own style. A truly engaging album.

Širom, A Universe that Roasts Blossoms for a Horse, Glitterbeat
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Opla, Obertasy, Ersatz Recordings