Interview Spirit

VARTRA channels the world’s music into a pastiche shamanic current

In recent times, few places in the world have been as misunderstood as the Balkans. Centuries-old ethnic tensions, war, and general indifference from the West have all contributed to this. Historically, its mountainous geography has often meant that its cultures were fragmented, while simultaneously its physical position has meant that different influences were constantly coming through. The country of Serbia is indicative of this, having been inhabited since the paleolithic age, its history showing itself in the plurality of the cultures, religions and historical sites found within.

While the eyes of the West pointed mostly elsewhere, the music and old traditions of the region rooted and flourished. Traditional folk music is still very much a part of the culture in the Balkans as well as many practices that exist as relics of the pre-Christian era. Some of these have been twisted into regional Christian customs, as has happened with pagan cultures around the world, but they’re still very recognizable as indigenously Slavic. Magic and mysticism find prevalence in rural villages, faded but holding fast.

In 2017, a group of friends in Serbia’s capital city of Belgrade came together to create music for a conceptual performance and realized they had far more to create. Brought together by an interest in folk music from around the world, Slavic paganism and spirituality in general, main instrumentalist and drum crafter Siniša Gavrić and sisters Ivana and Aleksandra Stošić, both versed in traditional singing created core of the project that is now Vartra. The group has extended into more of a collective, with many contributors adding instrumentals, costumes, dance and visuals to every song and live show.

“When Siniša came back here from living in Canada, we had to come up with a concept for this audio/visual performance. Myself personally, I’ve always been interested in world music and world instruments, also having sung with my sister in the local cultural association growing up,” describes Aleksandra. “We all come from totally different places with the music, meeting in the middle with our common interest for a tribal, neo-Slavic folk sound. The dominant sound is definitely Balkan because of the vocals but if you listen to the music it’s all over the place. Especially the little doom flair that Siniša likes to add in there, that’s where I completely check out,” she laughs. “This whole project is really a result of us constantly clashing. The darker that Sinisa goes with this project the harder I try to make it more bright. Where we do come together is really in our pathos, and in those musical moments of catharsis.” Ivana adds, “It’s a bit of a musical battle honestly. Our writing process is literally just building something and destroying it and then building it back up and taking it apart, and so on until we finally have a song that we agree on.”

Vartra is heavily inspired by the indigenous cultures of the region, with a lean towards the hermetic Vlachs who are predominantly found in Eastern Serbia. Much of their lyrics stem from old Slavic mantras locally known as “bajalice”. These are used as incantations or spells for things like healing, love, good harvests, and luck as well as curses and getting rid of them. The inspiration for their first song came about when they found a video filmed by ethnomusicologist Paun Es Drlić. This video depicts a Vlach shaman – a woman, as are most shamans in the culture – in the Majdanpek region of eastern Serbia ahead of the springtime holiday of flowers (now Palm Sunday in Orthodox Christianity). In the video, she dances and sings a song in Vlach to invoke a trance in which she is said to be convening with the “demons of destiny” who give her access to premonitions about the future of the village and region. The song that she sings would eventually become “Flori”, their first piece and the first song on their debut album Rošu Čera.

“This first album is mostly sung in Vlach,” says Aleksandra. “Then we went for a wider scope, looking for other bajalice – and if you look around, some people have made collections of these on the internet and you notice that the same ones exist in different regions throughout the Balkans and other Slavic countries. They’re all variations on a theme, they may not be exactly the same but you see the same motifs throughout. So a lot of our lyrics aren’t completely of our own creation, rather motifs that we’ve taken from all over. “Luna Nuoa” is a Vlach incantation for good health: ‘my moon, we give you this bread, please give us good health instead’. “Vartra” is our made up incantation for love, one of the more commonly used kinds of bajalice. We twisted it a little because the motifs we use in the song don’t really have much in common with actual love spells.”

“All around the world in shamanism and spirituality you see the same motifs and rituals. While they do vary they’re all at their core very similar. So for us all of this fusion in our music really makes sense,”
– Ivana Stošić

While dwindling in the face of modernization and globalization, these incantations are still used to this day, and regional cultural norms and customs are still influenced by these spiritual beliefs in rural areas. Shamans act as healers for many and combine bajalice with traditional remedies for mild ailments as well as less tangible ills. “A really banal example is that of one of my friends in the south of Serbia, who had a doctor tell them to go to one of these women to get rid of a wart,” says Aleksandra. “The point is a lot of these things have stuck around for so long and haven’t gone away, maybe they’re dying off now that we’ve become more scientifically literate and rational. It seems more and more unlikely to people that these things will actually cure you,” she says. “Today in Serbia there are still women that continue to practice the oldest traditions we have here – ancient Slavic traditions and specifically Vlach ones,” says Ivana. “I mean really, they’re all over the country. In a lot of places you go to the doctor for some things and to these shamans for others. Now they’re not of the mind that you shouldn’t seek out medical professionals at all, obviously some things require a doctor. But for problems that have more to do with the spirit then only they can help you.”

“Since bajalice have been carried on through oral tradition, they’ve been scrutinized as something that’s perhaps evil or forbidden – witchcraft. When essentially they’re just pieces of knowledge and belief that have been carried on through time since before Christianity. From a cultural standpoint I find it really interesting and that’s part of why it’s a big element of our music,” says Aleksandra. “Because to be frank, the last generation that had comprehensive knowledge of these things was the generation of our grandparents, even our parents’ generation belongs to a more modern time. Not to mention the effect the communistic period had on these things. During that time even Christianity was looked down upon so you can imagine that any kind of magic or witchcraft went even further underground.”

In addition to the incorporation of these traditional aspects, Vartra’s musical vision is imbued with a primal, organic sound that people around the world might find something familiar in. Best described as doomy neo-Slavic folk, the sisters’ vocals float above the tribal beat of Siniša’s handmade drums and rattles as well as less traditional elements such as the saz, guitars and ambient synthesizers.

The animal-skin drums are a pulsing, hypnotic undercurrent throughout Rošu Čera and give the music a deeply resonant heartbeat. “When a shaman uses these, it’s supposed to be punch through and be heard on other planes of existence. We use them for musical purposes though, they have a soothing sound that at the same time awakens something in people,” says Ivana. “The tone they have, the frequencies are completely different from modern-style drums,” adds Aleksandra. Sinisa uses animal skins from all over the world, combining indigenous North American and Nordic drum making techniques as well as crafting the more regionally familiar tarabuka. “Animal skins obviously sound way different from plastic and metal,” says Siniša. “And every animal skin has its own unique sound and energy. When I play a bison drum it gives a totally different energy to a song than when I use a deer skin drum. Every drum I make is unique and has its own special quality.”

Aleksandra and Ivana’s vocals are the other half of Vartra’s distinct sound. Their strange harmonies add more magic to the music, bringing the incantations to life. “The way that we sing in our music is tempered, which is to say it’s sung using modern scales when before that, our folk music would have been sung a bit off of the keys we’re used to to day,” says Aleksandra. “So that would be the big difference between the modern folk vocals you hear now and the way these things were originally sung. And really because of the fact that we are going for that tribal ethno-sound we want it to be as simple as possible. We want to attain the simplicity of those ancient times – hopefully one day we fully succeed and write an untempered song. To try and sing in that old key and take apart the concept of the modern equally tempered scales. Which would be really ‘sexy’ but the reality is if you hear that in our current songs it’s probably because we were a bit off,” she laughs. “It all plays into the same idea – we’re not going for virtuosity. We’re playing on more basic, primal frequencies and sound. While a lot of our music isn’t exactly soothing and there’s a lot of intense moments, and however much of a dynamic thread exists in our music, we’re always floating somewhere in those middle frequencies. When we do use things like electric guitars and synths they’re more atmospheric than anything.

Their live shows are like a cleansing ritual, casting out whatever one might need to cast out. Dressed in costumes and augmented by entrancing visuals and dance, it’s an all-encompassing experience. “What we’re trying to do with our lives shows is to loosen those people that are used to going to a show and just watching a band – without having a real connection to what is happening,” says Ivana. “We want them to ease up and let it carry them, we want to draw them in a bit further. We want people to participate in the atmosphere that we create. Because spectators aren’t there to just listen to us produce that sound and atmosphere, we want them to be part of that bit of magic together with us. For everyone to enjoy it in their own way – sitting if they want to sit, standing if they want to stand, dancing if they want to dance without even thinking about whatever the person next to them might be thinking. Like a kind of group therapy for us and for them.”

Playing neo-folk or world music leaves a lot of room for experimentation, which also means more opportunities to blunder. The problem there being that unlike in a lot of other genres a common thread in the sound is harder to pin down. “I think the problem is we’re constantly trying to figure out some kind of core to our music. But I don’t think that exists,” says Aleksandra. “Just like over history, cultures have been created by all of this movement and mixing around, for better or for worse, it’s hard to pin down something that hasn’t been created like that. It’s really hard to define what’s ‘really’ Serbian or what’s ‘really’ from somewhere else, and that’s what you can hear in our music. You hear that ethnic sound that you can say is old Slavic, but different people hear different things because it’s really a mixed bag. Especially when we play around quite a bit with Eastern sounds as well. In some sense it’s a kind of pagan cosmopolitanism.”


Covenant Records Premiere

AOS SI exalt the otherworldly on “Volume I”: Full Album Debut

It is at this interstice that Covenant is proud to release the long awaited first volume of the music of Aos Sí. Concisely titled Volume I, the band has meticulously honed and shaped this release over the last two years.

Featuring music firmly routed in the realms of mythology, dream, and the fantastic, Volume I is an album that explores the worlds that lie beyond the senses, conjuring images of hosts of phantoms, sprawling landscapes, old spells, and other dimensions.

In these 6 songs, totaling 24 minutes, the band takes you on a journey that is filled all at once with whimsical highs, ensnaring lows, and ultimately the triumph of the Hero’s Journey -in which both the adept and the listener are transported in mythic process.

Sayeth vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Culain of the album:

Scrying the roots of our collective Ancestors, Aos Sí’s journey begins in Volume One (V.I) with the experimental weaving of estranged myths, dreams, psychedelic rituals, and our alchemical reality, all flown by and through gripping folk instrumentation and otherworldly voices, to encapsulate an experience of self discovery in the face of the wholly other.

The artistic direction of the album was handled by none other than Mexican legend Arturo Albarran of the Cold Poison Design institute. On top of carefully crafting a brilliant and evocative cover for the record, so too has he pieced together a visually stunning music video for the song ‘Oratio Draconis’.

While the band handled all the recording and mixing of the record themselves, mastering was taken care of by X.T. of Studio Tehom in Montreal, providing a robust, rich, and immersive finish to the songs.

The band will be making their first ever live performance in a collaborative effort with Night Profound at Covenant Festival V in Vancouver.

Aos Sí Volume I is out now digitally on Covenant Records on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube Music, and of course available on the band’s BandCamp page.



SANGRE DE MUERDAGO exists between worlds and speaks with the poetry of a collective folklore

Pablo Ursusson is the creative heart of SANGRE DE MUERDAGO, a folk group birthed out of the mysterious romance inherent to his native Galicia, a remote region on the northwestern edge of Spain. Over the years, rotating backing lineups have revolved around him through the band’s album cycles, but Pablo has always remained a calm centre, providing confident voice, gentle guitar, and dancing hurdy-gurdy. The band has steadily grown with each release, touring Europe, North America, and recently even Asia. They’ve recently returned to North America shores for the third time, and are playing a string of dates up and down the west coast.

Ian Campbell (CROOKED MOUTH, HARROW) travelled to Vancouver, BC, to play as a backing member of NIGHT PROFOUND at a concert featuring Sangre De Muerdago, and Oakland California’s LATONA ODOLA. Before the music began, Ian and Pablo sat in the green room talking about folk music, the particularities of Galician music and soon paused so Ian could record it as an interview on behalf of the Covenant group. What followed was talk of language, poetry, DIY ethic, and mistletoe.

We pick up the conversation here:

Ian: We just spoke a bit about Sangre De Muerdago being recognized more abroad before you were accepted at home in Galicia. I’ve watched the band grow, starting off in the neofolk scene, releasing your first album via Brave Mysteries on cassette, and now you’ve grown to the point of touring in Asia. It seems like the band has graduated from its small beginnings into almost a sort of world music group. What are your thoughts on that?

Pablo: I’ve listened to folk music my whole life, and once we got to record the first demo and then the first album, that’s when I got to know that there’s a neofolk scene. I didn’t know about it before, and we definitely don’t come from there. I know that part of our audience is from there, I’ve got to know very beautiful people in that scene too and we’ve made friends with a few very interesting bands. But, the general feeling of our band is being in a sort of no-man’s land, belonging to no scene at all, but at the same time, belonging a little bit to all of them. Our audience is always super diverse and there are people from many different musical backgrounds. Even the musicians who play in Sangre have many musical backgrounds, so it is a nice mixture.

We never had any target. I think when your band plays a specific genre or you are deep into a scene you have things to target. Probably you want your album reviewed in this or that magazine, released on this or that label, or to play at certain places. But, we’ve released albums with such a diverse spectrum of labels, we are signed to nobody, we have a couple of offers on the table from bigger labels, but we like the motion things are going and we are happy. We get to record, play around the world on different continents. Last year we went to Asia, which was a total surprise, but of course we’d do it! I’d say our aspiration is simply to play music and go around the world with it.

Ian: I’ve been amazed watching you guys grow and seeing the things you’ve been able to do with very little outside support. I always wonder “how do they do that?” but it’s just organic, I suppose.

Pablo: Yeah, I’ve been playing music for many, many years in many, many bands, from punk to everything else, and always with a very strong DIY spirit just because we wanted to do things on our own. And, somehow with Sangre it just worked the same way. We just do as much as we can ourselves, and, slowly, things just happen. The band recorded the demo 11 years ago already, which is quite a long time. I’ve never had a band that’s survived this long, or got to release 4 albums. I think the maximum with my other bands has been 2! Then we’ve always moved on to something else. But Sangre became some kind of life-commitment many years ago and I think we’re just not the kind of people who like to sit down and wait for things to happen. We like the make the things happen. If no one is knocking at our door, we open the door and go out. The first time we came to North America nobody knew us.

Absolutely nobody, I’m pretty sure! But, we got invited to the Stella Natura festival, and that was a good excuse to book three weeks of concerts around the west coast of the United States and I did it all myself. I just made contacts, wrote people, and made it happen.

Ian: Before I started recording this conversation we were talking a bit about your homeland of Galicia and Galician folk music. I was wondering about the language itself. Is it a dialect of Spanish?

Pablo: No, not at all, it’s a language of its own. It is one of the four official languages of Spain.

Ian: I’ve heard that under the Franco regime that languages like Basque were actually banned from being spoken-?

Pablo: So it was with Galician as well. The language was very damaged during the dictatorship. Brutally damaged. All the teachers from Galicia were sent to other parts of Spain to teach in Spanish and Castellano. And then they would bring teachers from the south and other parts of the country to teach the Galician kids in Castellano. And all the smaller languages spoken in other areas like Basque, Catalan, or Galician, suffered a lot.

Ian: Folk music and language are very obviously tied together, and it’s interesting to me to see how folk music has been tied in many places to a sort of cultural rebirth, for example the Irish incorporating a lot of Gaelic into their music as a sort of remembering of who they are. I feel like Sangre might be taking part in that sort of phenomena for the Galician language.

Pablo: My reason to speak and sing in Galician is that to sing this music that I write from the depths of my heart, this is the deepest way I can find to feel it is singing Galician. I don’t think I would feel the same way about the songs if I were to sing them in English, or Spanish, for example.

Ian: You’ve had a few songs in English over the years, though.

Pablo: Yes! Only 2. “Haunted Glow,” from the demo [and re-recorded on Deixademe Morrer no Bosque]. That was a song written by Jorge, who was a founding member of the band, who passed away in 2009. He wrote that song, and he wrote it in English. We don’t have to force things to be in a certain way. Same as it happened with the other song, “Paths of Mannaz.” It just happened that I wrote those lyrics one day, not necessarily thinking that it was going to be a Sangre song. Those lyrics came to me in English. I’ve spoken English for many years, my wife is German, we speak a lot of English. It became my main language for a long time. So those lyrics just came naturally in that language and I didn’t want to force them or translate them. And I liked the piece and thought it would be good for Sangre even though it was written in English. No other reason than that.

Ian: So it could potentially happen again in the future?

Pablo: Absolutely! It hasn’t happened since then, but of course it could. Sometimes I even think of writing a song in German because I’ve lived in Germany for six and a half years. But, when we talk about it, it always winds up as more of some kind of a joke!

Ian: This question relates a little bit to language too; the name of the band, Sangre De Muerdago, meaning Blood of the Mistletoe. I know about the Mistletoe’s connection to Nordic myth, being the plant that can kill Baldur, the invincible god of light. Is there a mythic connection in Galicia? The name to me can conjure many images, and I’m wondering if there’s a specific one for you.

Pablo: I’d say it is a compound of different things that brought us to that name. We really wanted to have the name of the plant in the band’s name because of all the mythology and also the medicinal side of the plant, the Druidic tradition, and so on. And, also the singularity of the band itself, often in the folklore it is considered a plant in-between worlds, between earth and sky, because of never having roots on the ground, always being a parasite plant living on other plants. It’s been said the mistletoe stands between realms.

Ian: It certainly fits with your idea of not belonging to any one musical world…

Pablo: Somehow, I never thought of that, good point!

The plant appears in many traditions. In the Druidic tradition the mistletoe is one of the most sacred plants. They gather it only with little golden sickles, and it can never touch the ground. It has many different medicinal properties. And also, the druids only gather the mistletoe from oaks, and not when it grows on other trees. They consider the Oak to be the king of the woods, so the mistletoe is the crown of the king. And they are collecting that crown.

When we recorded the demo is when we baptised the band. We had it very clear that we wanted the word Muerdago in the band’s name, and we ended up with Sangre De Muerdago.

Ian: The last thing I wanted to ask you about was the process of adapting poems by national poets. The new album has the song “Longa Noite de Pedra,” which I know is adapted, and you’ve had several other songs that have taken inspiration from Galician poets. This would seem like a very daunting task to me. Do you find it to be difficult?

Pablo: Well, each song has a different story. I’ve adapted 3 poems into our songs. The first one was by a poetess called Rosalía de Castro (Sangre adapted her work into the song “A Xustiza Pola Man” from the Braided Paths split with NOVEMTHREE). She is quite a literary and historical figure in Galicia. She lived in the 1800s and was a one-of-a-kind woman. A very independent, strong writer, and at the same time she had such roots in Galician history and the way in which she describes things.

That poem is really visceral. It is a story of the vengeance of a mother who loses her children because of social injustice. She loses her children because some powerful people kick her and her children from their house and they end up living in the woods and roaming around, and in the wintertime the kids die from hunger and cold. Then the mother takes vengeance. It’s an incredible poem, it gives you goose bumps. I had always wanted to write a song for this poem. And one day it happened.

The story of the second one, “Longa Noite De Pedra,” happened because the poet, Celso Emilio Ferreiro, is just such an incredible writer. He’s one of the main writers you read in school when you’re studying Galician literature, language, history, and such. It happened that a couple of years ago that I came back to one of his books I had read while I was in school. I’ve turned 40 this year, so of course you perceive everything in a very different way. When I read his poetry 30 years later I was very touched and I could somehow relate to him and the way he wrote about the land itself; the woods and the stones, and the collective folklore, and all the myth and mysticism that we all carry in our hearts through growing up in that part of the world. There’s a very specific feeling in the air in Galicia. We have some words that don’t exist in any other language. So there’s that. That thing. He can turn it into visuals in this magisterial way.

Same story with the third one. Manuel Maria is unbelievable. I can picture my Galicia in Maria and Ferreiro’s words very, very strongly. And the stories are very different. Ferreiro’s is a story of suffering and the death of human freedom, and the Maria’s is just the most incredible love poem I’ve ever read.

Actually the song (“O Amor”) is just an extract of the poem. I love those words so much that somehow I wanted to put them into a song. And its not something I force and think “I want to adapt a poem,” it just happens sometimes.

[We hear Latona Odola begin to play inside the venue]

Ian: That seems like a good ending point, I think they’re playing now, should we go watch?

Pablo: I’d love to!

Sangre De Muerdago is touring the world promoting their new album, Noite, which is available on multiple formats, and comes highly recommended.






AOS SI unveils “Oratio Draconis”, an unheard offering of Other-Worldly Music

After whirling whispers, swirling rumours, and teased samples, it is the pleasure of the Covenant to share a first glance at the premier offering from Aos Si: a video for “Oratio Draconis” from the upcoming new album titled “Otherworldly Invocations: Vol. 1”, out soon on DUMAH Records.

Sayeth Aos Sí vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Cú of the song and its vision:

“The Dragon is one of the most ubiquitous mystical creatures. Archatypically a coincidentia oppositorum; the Destroyer and Creator of man. The Dragon has woven itself into the navel of our ancestors minds and has presented itself to me in trance as Quetzalcoatl, playfully wayward in a torus Taijitu. We honor and revere.”

This video is the manifestation of yet another conspiracy between a Covenant circle band, and long-time collaborator, Mexican visionary mastermind, Cold Poison.

Let your prayers rise and fall into the Dragon’s trance!

Aos Si is the mysterious and self-described Ætheral Otherworldly Music emanating from the inner Covenant – Equally ancient yet free from the bounds of time and place.