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The album cover of Balkan Soul by Zana Messia and The Balkan Soul Orchestra depicts a group of musicians playing outdoors as night begins to fall, while a belly-dancing temptress twirls her skirts in the center. The musicians’ sheer joy is plainly obvious, but the woman’s smoldering expression piques your curiosity. Who is she? What secrets is she hiding? But more importantly, what is she going to do? All this and more is revealed while listening to this exotic record.
Together with an ensemble of top LA musicians, former Yugoslavian native Zana Messia blends traditional jazz with Eastern European and classical American music styles to deliver a mesmerizing debut album, the likes of which I guarantee you’ve never heard before.
Born into the war-torn Balkan region, Zana was only nine-years-old when she and her family had to escape to Sweden as refugees. Even though music had always been part of her life, it was her experiences during these next few years which molded her into the artist she is today. Zana was mentored by Sandy Garrick, a jazz pianist and composer who introduced her to the genre. Jazz helped her forget the atrocities she had witnessed at such a young age and inspired her to become a singer. She went on to record a demo, win a national competition and land a record deal with Sony Music in Sweden before coming to Los Angeles and teaming up with Harvey Mason to create Balkan Soul.
“I feel like many people live in shells afraid to experience the amazing variety of emotions that life offers us,” she said of the album’s message. There’s definitely no shortage of them here. The record touches on themes of love, loss, growth, forgiveness and inspiration, with Zana proving herself to be a powerful storyteller.
Her sensuous phrasing and breathy effects are simply intoxicating. Each melody follows her slow, deliberate pace like a snake being charmed. She is never hurried, nor does she over-sing anything, which adds to her authenticity. It’s incredible how her tender vocals work well with so many different genres. She tackles Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight” with the same ease as “Djelem Djelem” in her native tongue and then confidently switches to the Afro-Cuban tune, "Radio," without missing a beat.
“Musically the album is organically recorded and contains no synthetic sounds. It’s an homage to the way music used to be made back in the day,” she explains, which is probably what makes Zana’s performance even more believable. With the underlying strains of the Balkan Roma music she grew up with, we are indeed transported back to simpler times where the spirit of the region captivates us.
To pick a favorite song or at least one that stands out above the rest is simply impossible. Each tune is more alluring than the last, sung with a passion and conviction by an artist who obviously lives for her craft. Balkan Soul is an intriguingly diverse CD that is irresistibly dreamy, sultry and humbling to listen to. I highly recommend you get yourself a copy.
For more information on Balkan Soul, please visit Zana Messia’s website.