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Written in fRoots issue 216, 2001

The Black Slavics

Jaro Voice JARO 4233-2 (2000)

Unlikely premise, but rather magnificent music.
      The concept, a piece of what producer Thierry Van Roy calls “music fiction”, is that African slaves, originally brought to Russia in 1684 by Peter the Great’s eccentric brother Evgeni, were relocated to the Ukraine, Urals and Balkans, where in now-disappeared colonies they adapted the local musics to their own style.
      What you get, sung acapella by the largely Congolese Brussels-based 11-member choir Les Anges Compagnie, mixed but predominantly male, are Russian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian and Croatian traditional and ecclesiastical songs each usually starting in Russian-chorale style arranged by Ukrainian guest Borys Cholewka and Van Roy and progressing to multi-part African-style vocal improvisation in Lingala. The singing is splendid, rich and resonant, individual voices taking plenty of space and freedom. In overall sound there are echoes both of Russian choirs and of that Misa Luba African mass record of many years ago, and perhaps a hint of Zap Mama, and techniques include occasional female hocketing and Cholewka’s resonant bass-baritone mutating into whistling throat-song.
      Oh, I know, described it sounds terribly arty, tacky even, and the Jaro label has something of a track record of well-packaged awed-portentous marketing, but these are wonderful and inventive singers and they make surprisingly natural-sounding music with a great deal of character - something of a classic of group vocalisation.

© 2001 Andrew Cronshaw

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