January 26, 2003
CROSSING OVER WITH HER ‘BALKAN SOUL’
By Corey Takahashi
A young, classically trained piano player has emerged from Belgrade – where bombs once served as the backdrop to her shows – with a life-affirming sound she describes as “Balkan soul.” Marina Arsenijevic was in New York recently for a performance at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall – her first in the city, and the beginning of what could be a promising career in the United States.
The packed, 268-seat performance space drew a curious mix of supporters, including a noticeably high number of young fans and a handful of U.S.-based Central European delegates and ambassadors. Dressed in conservative black, this was a different Marina than the one known to followers in Europe, where her shows regularly feature a transparent piano; wild, rock-concert lighting, and racy outfits to match.
“They call me there Balkan Madonna,” the stylish 30-something said in an interview before her New York show. “They were always asking, ‘Where is that Marina, what is she doing?'” The Madonna likeness was underscored by her dark-blue Dolce & Gabanna pantsuit and the fact that she’d just cut short an interview with a Belgrade radio station, and the similarity extends with her career of conscious reinvention.
This being her first gig in Gotham, the Serbian star, who has been performing since 1978, toned down her usual flashiness, though she couldn’t suppress her enthusiasm, striking down on the keys, exploding out of her seat and bowing to the crowd after nearly each number. Following an emotionally wrought performance of the song “Kosovo,” she circled the black Steinway onstage, tripped and nearly fell to the floor. “So now you know why this Balkans is a turbulent region,” she quipped. Earlier, she introduced the song simply as “Muslim and Christian melody together.” (She is a Christian.)
Marina’s original compositions can swing from a forlorn soulfulness to a sort of new-age kitsch (she has played with Michael Bolton, though she observes they don’t share the same audience). And while Marina describes her sound as “classical crossover” or “ethno-classical,” American audiences might readily associate it with jazz, albeit with less emphasis on improvisation. Trained in a strict school of Russian piano-playing, Marina has cast herself into uncharted musical territory. “It was too tight for my temperament,” she says of the classical forms on which her latest work is based.
The decision to compose and perform her own material came around the time of the 1999 U.S.-led NATO air raids on Belgrade during the reign of Slobodan Milosevic. “I was performing during the bombing,” she says of that turbulent creative period, which would culminate in her 2001 album, “My Balkan Soul.” She plans to mix elements from the old country and America, her new home, in a debut U.S. album this year.
Marina’s family still lives in Belgrade, and she says music allows her to maintain a connection without getting overly nostalgic. The pianist, singer and composer now resides in a Detroit suburb and has found America fertile ground for her musical experimentation. She’s currently seeking ways to incorporate rock and Latin rhythms. “Unity in the face of diversity” is a phrase she likes to use.
The question remains how Marina’s music, infused with its Balkan stylings and Gypsy melodies, will translate here. But she’s already building a base among classical and world-music lovers, resettled compatriots and those willing to hear something different. One of the most interesting moments at her New York debut came with a rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” an idea hatched when Marina was giving U.S. concerts for post-Sept. 11 charities. Organizers implored her to play at least one song that American audiences would easily recognize.
“I tried to find something bohemian in your rock and pop music,” Marina explained to the New York crowd, eliciting slight chuckles before she executed the song with subtlety building to dynamic, bursting duality. “‘Balkan soul’ means people who feel in between victory and defeat, in between nothing and everything, in between reality and dreams,” she said before the concert. She added, with a touch of awe, “I actually lived through those compositions.”
To check out Marina’s music and upcoming performances, go to www.arsmarina.com.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.
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