The events leading up to this, the debut recording of Snail Records, bring tears to the eye. As Dragi Šestić recounts in the liner notes, all he had to go by was a creaky old tape, his only musical brush with the voice of Ljiljana Petrovic, a legendary Gipsy vocalist who, like so many others, had disappeared during the dark decade in the Balkans. But this tape was enough to convince him that his debut album would star Ljiljana no matter what. He did eventually track her down in Düsseldorf, now under the name Buttler. But it would take endless cajoling and convincing to get her back in front of a microphone. After the commitment had been made and famous Serbian Gipsy musicians, upon hearing about the planned record, appeared out of the woodwork to participate and honor the prior star, Ljiljana disappeared again - to Serbia, untraceable. It took Dragi another 9 month of frenetic detective work to find the singer again who had taken the time to prepare for her musical reemergence.
And what a reemergence it is. Think Cesaria Evora gone Balkan - rich smoky alto voice of honey mixed with melancholia and sadness, then spiked with sweet Port warmed to above room temperature, deep enough in timbre to nearly suggest a man's throat; the barefooted simplicity, emotional honesty and depth stemming from a hard life faced by an indomitable spirit to survive; down-tempo ballads; and plenty of huge open heart wherever your ears turn. Think clarinet, trumpet, accordion, violin, solo and rhythm guitar, bass, piano, various hand drums and backup singers. Think Romani influences - Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, hence tunes like "Djelem" and "Ciganine Sviraj", though their usually energetic Cossack mien turns minor-key Delta Blues here, the dance elements sublimated into something slower, denser, like a shallow lazy river at the end of summer.
And the voice! What a voice. Restricted mostly to two octaves of gentle alto though it occasionally veers higher for effect and emphasis, Ljiljana's instrument is one of those soulful, bottomless pits we expect of old Blues singers that wrap themselves around a simple melody and imbue it with a gravitas that would completely elude the conservatory-trained hotshots. Add the peculiar Balkan way with odd harmonic progressions and limping beats, all throttled back to slow speeds, and the prior morna connection to the Cape Verde diva Evora is truly fitting. Heads up to Snail Records then for a killer opening opus on what seems destined to become a specialty label for worldmusic aficionados; and for bringing back into active service and international limelight this special Roma lady and her famous but otherwise disappearing art.