Eva Salina's Love For Balkan Music Is Lifelong — And Accidental The singer has Dutch and Jewish roots and hails from a quiet California beach town — but musically, she's traveled a path far afield from her upbringing.

Eva Salina's Love For Balkan Music Is Lifelong — And Accidental

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When I say Santa Cruz, Calif., you'll likely think surf, sun, the Beach Boys maybe. Traditional Balkan vocal music? Probably not so much. Well, meet Santa Cruz native Eva Salina.


EVA SALINA: (Singing in foreign language).

MARTIN: That's a song called "Boza Limunada" off the new album "Lema Lema: Eva Salina Sings Saban Bajramovic." Eva Salina joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us, Eva.

SALINA: Thank you so much, Rachel. It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: How did this happen to you? How did the nice girl from Santa Cruz, with a Latina-sounding name no less, end up immersed in Balkan music?

SALINA: (Laughter) Well, it would be my Dutch and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, I'm sure, that would lead me...

MARTIN: (Laughter) That led you there.

SALINA: Every country surrounding the region certainly shows up in my ancestry.

But it was chance, actually. I was interested, always, in other cultures, and someone gave me a tape of some Yiddish songs when I was 7 years old. And I taught myself all of those songs.

My parents, in their desire to encourage my interest, looked around in the community for someone who might be able to teach me. And when the search for a Yiddish singing teacher came up dry, they stumbled upon a young woman who grew up in Hawaii and (laughter) had been singing Balkan music for 15 years at that point.

MARTIN: This new album, you are performing works by a musician named Saban Bajramovic. I hope I said that right that time.

SALINA: That's perfect.

MARTIN: He died a few years ago, in 2008. Can you tell us about him?

SALINA: Yeah. He was kind of like this archetypal outlaw figure. He operated so far outside of convention that the legends about him are - you know, the urban legends of him - someone told me once that he insisted on being paid in gold, which I have to say, in the modern economy, doesn't seem like a bad idea.


SALINA: But, you know, he was a gambler. I think he lived, to a large extent, the huge spectrum of life experience that shows in his songs - songs about being a drunk and losing all your money, of your wife cheating on you, of your children being hungry because you failed to provide for them.

MARTIN: These are like American country songs.

SALINA: They really are. I tell people often it's country music. And I think, you know, people respond even without understanding the language, which is Romaneste, which is Indo-European. People pick up on the tension between the tragedy and the happy dance feeling of the music.


SALINA: (Singing in foreign language).

MARTIN: What was most challenging for you, tactically, when you were learning how to sing this music?

SALINA: It was really lyrics. I could pick up - I could osmose melodies. But I, for a long time, struggled to be able to find the lyrics, which truly were the barrier between me and the songs because I always knew, instinctively, that language is how you show respect in terms of when you are taking somebody else's music and trying to make it your own, trying to interpret it. I feel like language is something that can't really be compromised. You know, if somebody comes and they hear you singing a phonetic imagination of their language, it can be quite offensive. And it was always really important for me to sing them with respectful - with respect to the language.

MARTIN: We played a little bit of a cut off the album called "Boza Limunada," and that's your take on the original that was done by Bajramovic. Let's listen to his version, though, first. And then we can talk about what you connect with in it.

SALINA: Oh, great.


SABAN BAJRAMOVIC: (Singing in foreign language).

MARTIN: What do you hear in that voice?

SALINA: Oh, there's more life lived in his life than I could, I think, ever hope to live (laughter) and fewer teeth, probably, too.


BAJRAMOVIC: (Singing in foreign language).

SALINA: You know, I mean, the thing about Saban is he was so iconic that when I sat in a Vietnamese restaurant with The Trumpeter and Jewish Music, and I said, you know, the thing about Saban is that he's so different from me that I'm going to have to change those songs in order to sing them.

And so once I started recording the songs, I kind of had to stop listening to him. I had to let the songs change in me and hope that they would be informed by my hours and hours and hours of listening to him.

MARTIN: Speaking of making it your own, let's listen to one more track off the album. This is the last cut on the CD. And, you know, most of his work has this kind of gentle, acoustic quality. There is something different happening on your version of this last song.


SALINA: (Singing in foreign language).

MARTIN: I'm going to wager a guess that that is not how the original sounded.

SALINA: (Laughter) And it's a good thing.


MARTIN: How did that happen?

SALINA: (Laughter).

MARTIN: How did this come to be, this version?

SALINA: Well, I have to say I loved the original of Saban. It was so distorted, and it kind of had this, like - this very spaghetti Western feeling. And I thought, OK, we have to take it somewhere. And we just said, let's let it rock.

I mean, there's this fascination all over the world with American rock. And for someone like me, being across the ocean, being fascinated with Balkan culture - I realized the gaze goes both ways. Plus, I also just felt like let's make something epic out of this song. Let's make it our funeral procession for Saban.

MARTIN: Eva Salina's new album is called "Lema Lema." She spoke to us from our studios in New York.

Eva, it's been so fun to talk with you. Thanks so much.

SALINA: Thank you so much, Rachel. Enjoy the day.


SALINA: (Singing in foreign language).

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