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Singer Moira Smiley and VOCO bring Balkans to Los Angeles

Moira Smiley and VOCO (April Guthrie and Sally Dworsky) performing in Los Angeles March 24, 2012
Moira Smiley and VOCO (April Guthrie and Sally Dworsky) performing in Los Angeles March 24, 2012
Simone McSparran

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On a cool Los Angeles evening, about thirty people gather at a home in Mt. Washington known as the 'Polish Plantation' -- so named for its former owner, a Polish immigrant who dedicated years to decorating the entire house with elaborately carved wooden ornamentation. Out back, the roof of a shed has been turned into a stage. Three women stand atop it, dressed warmly against the chill, an enormous pine tree strung with lights rising behind them to form a backdrop.

As the crowd falls silent, the women begin to step, clap and beat on their chests and thighs, eyes closed to focus together on the rhythm they're creating with their bodies. They start to softly hum, then sing, three voices joined together in harmony, no instruments needed - a sound nearly as old as music itself.

To hear VOCO is to be transported across waters, across worlds, across time. As Moira Smiley, the group's main composer, arranger and musicologist says, "What I love about old music is that there is a sense of your smallness in the big story, and that your song is about reaching out into the unknown with your voice as a searchlight."

Smiley began exploring the world's music as a little girl, growing up in a farmhouse in Vermont. Her parents were avid music lovers. "[We] had a record box that was a big wooden chest, and all the records were in it, and at an early age, I wanted to organize them and understand the differences between these different styles that my parents liked. Primarily it was jazz, folk, classical, and a little bit of pop from the 60s and 70s...they were interested in classical music and art music and folk music. Basically, they were wanting to understand the world through music."

Understanding the world through music became Smiley's passion as well. She started her exploration at the age of 12, going to Russia with a folk singing troupe, where she got to experience folk music on a large scale. Since then she has traveled from far-flung European villages to the corners of the southern United States, all to listen, learn, and absorb the music that people have lived with for generations, in places where music is woven into everyday life. "It tends to be places that are not cities, that are rural," she says, "often people don't think of themselves as musicians, and they would laugh if you said they were, but then they come up with fifty songs that they know by heart."

Early on, she was drawn to the folk music and harmonies of Eastern Europe: Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria. "Mostly the songs that the women would sing and songs to accompany dance," she says. "And they were full of harmony, at least two, often three and four part vocal harmony."

She found that when people sing together, no matter what part of the world they're from, it's with a purpose. "People use harmony singing to express celebration," she says, "but also woe, and just the most eternal longing."

In traditional Eastern European music, voices blend together in long, river-like tones, harmonizing in ways that mesmerize and surprise our ears. Smiley explains that the songs are based on a harmonic structure that developed differently than the western music we're accustomed to. The vast landscape, she says, contributes to the horizontal feel of the music. "You feel time differently in some of these more eastern cultures, and some of the early music reflects that as well."

Smiley brought home the music she learned, taught it to her friends, and VOCO was born. A classically trained singer, she found that capturing the essence of traditional Eastern European music isn't just about learning melodies and lyrics. It means learning a whole new way of using your voice, absorbing a new body language and internalizing a culture.

That evening at the concert, under a full moon, the voices of VOCO blend with the usual Los Angeles soundscape: dogs barking in the distance, the occasional fly-over, a hint of ranchera radio coming through the speakers. But they can still take us to a place where songs like these have been sung for centuries - and where the things we sing about never change. Smiley introduces an ancient Hungarian song with this universal theme:

"Love, love, wretched love! Why do you not blossom on every tree, and why do you not come for every boy, every lonely girl and every orphan boy?"

Moira Smiley continues to reach into the unknown, using her voice to light the way.