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.”