Hosted by Dunton Folk, the church of St Mary Magdalene welcomed a gathering of friends old and new for the official launch of Daria Kulesh’s third solo album, Earthly Delights. Daria’s gigs are like that – there’s always someone good to talk to. This was the big band – the first time I’d seen the line-up – with regular collaborators Kate Rouse, Marina Osman, Jonny Dyer and Vicki Swan on nyckelharpa and bagpipes. With them were Katrina Davies on fiddle, Heather Sirrel, whose 5-string bass is almost as tall as she is and Edwin Beasant on drums and percussion.
We weren’t expecting too many surprises. Daria sang the album in order but embellished the stories behind the songs and sometimes got quite impassioned about the iniquities of rulers, raising an ironic laugh when she talked about coming to democratic Britain after living in Russia and carrying with her the history of the Ingush people. She confessed in her introduction to ‘Earthly Delights’ that one of her delights was turnips – that got a real laugh – but someone reminded me that she is Russian, after all!
Players came and went but everyone was back on stage for the first half closer, ‘Vasilisa’. The mix and the arrangements were tight but this was Daria’s event and the job of the musicians was to project her which, of course, they did admirably. This wasn’t a night for extravagant soloing but even so I do wish that Jonny had been a bit higher in the mix – it may just have been where I was sitting, of course.
In the second half, before ‘Cap & Bells’, Daria introduced the composer, Joseph Sobol. He was sitting just behind us so, of course, my wife had already engaged him in conversation during the interval – I said that there was always someone good to talk to. I should say that, at the time, I was chatting to someone I hadn’t spoken to in nearly twenty years – that’s the sort of evening it was! ‘Greedy King’ is perfect for a big finish with everyone back on stage.
For the first encore, Daria soloed a song called ‘The Highlanders’ and let us into a secret. This is a hidden track on Earthly Delights – more of an Easter egg actually because it’s track zero. Daria assures me it’s there but I haven’t managed to access it yet. Finally the band came back for ‘Heart’s Delight’ from Long Lost Home – a perfect ending for a evening of songs that are, on the one hand, about human weaknesses but also about human happiness. Of course there were still people to talk to before we wended our way into the night.
For their many fans there is sadness at the news that the latest iteration of Kara has disbanded. With the plan not quite coming together, both Phil Underwood and Pete Morton have had to take their leave to continue with other projects with founding members Daria Kulesh and Kate Rouse enthusiastic to focus on new music. Daria goes back to the beginning of the story.
“I started my musical journey as part of Kara and then, on a whim, decided to release my solo album, Eternal Child, and thought it would just be a little vanity project. Then Long Lost Home was an epic project for me and I really poured all my heart and soul into it and hopefully it’s paid off. The last year has been really incredible on the back of that release and all my adventures and journeys that went with it. Effectively Daria Kulesh has become a thing – I don’t even really know who she is any more – and that has taken over from Kara.
“It was following Kara’s gig at The Troubadour that Pete said it really should be about my leading the band. I was quite excited about working with Pete and sharing the spotlight but what he felt was that I needed to be a mean diva with a mean band backing me.” Pete always had a neat turn of phrase.
The first recruit to the new line-up was pianist Marina Osman. “We’ve known each other for a long time. We were doing some covers…” At this point Daria interrupts to explain that the episode in question was too embarrassing to talk about and then proceeded to explain that they were doing Lady Gaga covers. Marina finally gets a word in again. “It was a great experience but Daria had some much creativeness in her that she could not do just simple covers…and she decided to be a diva.”
Marina starts to explain that they have been working together as a duo on “the Russian project” and Daria leaps in again. “There is just so much serendipity in all of this. Marina and I were, not exactly out of touch, but we hadn’t done anything together for quite a while.” And now it gets complicated – let’s see if I’ve got it. Daria’s song ‘The Moon And The Pilot’ went viral after her appearance on the BBC World Service and her name was out there in Russia and Ingushetia. The presenter also suggested her for an event at Pushkin House, the Russian Cultural Centre, performing music that is virtually unknown in the UK.
“Marina and I learned thirty minutes of material for this event and the director of Pushkin House immediately rebooked us for a full set so we started work on a set of Russian film songs and some Russian folk classics. We kept getting repeat bookings and started mixing it up with some original material and then Marina had a little jam with Kara at The Troubadour. That was when Pete told me she was gold dust and to get her in my band.”
The fourth member of the new band is guitarist Tristan Seume who also works with Jackie Oates and admits to combining classical guitar lessons with busking Levellers’ songs in an underpass. I get the impression that Tristan knows pretty much everybody but how did he end up here?
“I got an email from Kate just over a year ago, asking me if I’d like to try out for a band. I was flattered to get an invitation but at the time I was so committed elsewhere that I left it in my unread folder because I wanted to write a nice, polite, thoughtful response but it just slipped further down my to-do list. Fast forward a year and a change of circumstances and I was going through unread emails and decided to respond to it. Because I was in a silly mood I thought I’d write something just to say ‘for what it’s worth I’ve got some time on my hands’. Within an hour I got a response from Kate.”
Prior to the formal interview, I’d watched the band at work, developing a new arrangement of Daria’s single ‘Vasilisa’ and working on a new song, ‘Pride Of Petravore’, a Percy French piece that had been suggested by Pete. Daria knew the song; Kate knew it in a different key, because Kara had performed it as an instrumental, but neither Tristan nor Marina knew it at all. Within about thirty minutes they had it ready to take into the studio to record a demo. That is the measure of the new band. The interesting thing is that Kate seems to be the one with the ability to sift through all the ideas and pull together the best ones.
“It’s my background”, she says modestly. “I’ve always been arranging my own parts and perhaps hearing things in a slightly different way. I’m the one more familiar with the Kara material but we’ve all learned lessons and become more aware about refining the music in a certain way. Someone needs to say ‘I think it should be this’ and not be shy about it. Plus the dulcimer is a big part of the band and I’m a bit protective about it.
The name of the new line-up was, for a while, a matter for debate. It might have been The Daria Kulesh Band or Daria Kulesh And Friends. I made several suggestions that were, quite rightly, rejected but they have now settled on The Daria Kulesh Quartet. Daria and Marina have recorded some new tracks which may figure on a Vasilisa EP and the new band has spent time in the studio preparing for their first gigs in the new year. It’s all very exciting and I’m looking forward to the finished product.
February 23rd is a date that should be known in history. On this day in 1944 the entire population of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, those who weren’t away at war fighting for the Soviet Union, were told they were being deported for alleged collaboration with the enemy. Many were children and resistance was met with death.
Move forward to 2017 and February 23rd was the date chosen by Daria Kulesh to launch her second album Long Lost Home at Cecil Sharp House in London. The location was appropriate because, as Daria said, CSH collects and stores folk memories so that they are available for future generations and Long Lost Home is more than just an album of songs as Daria through her Grandmother, Fatima Akhrieva, is Ingushetian. The evening was a celebration of her journey to find that link to her past.
February 23rd 2017 will also be remembered for Storm Doris, which provided a suitably tumultuous backdrop to the event but unfortunately disrupted travel and meant some audience members were unable to attend. They missed an evening of powerful, moving emotion that was also uplifting with its message of hope for the future.
The evening began with two well received pieces from Timur Dzeytov, People’s Artist of Ingushetia, including a song about the deportations followed by a traditional tune. He played the dakhchan pandar, a form of the balalaika, and it was obvious even to me that this was not “Russian” music. There were resonances of the near- and middle-east in the sound. It was a suitably exotic opening.
Daria then took to the stage wearing a most beautiful dress that had been hand made and decorated in traditional style. She opened, as does the album, with ‘Tamara’ a dark song about sorcery and death. The simple accompaniment from Timur and Evan Carson (percussion) emphasised the words well. Evan came in as an emergency replacement but it certainly didn’t look that way, the sign of a very talented musician.
I’ve been fortunate to have seen some of these songs before, at least one on its debut, often with just Daria accompanying herself on guitar or shruti. For the album launch we were treated to a full backing band which allowed the music to be fully expressed. At various points during the evening we were also introduced to Jonny Dyer (piano and guitar), Kate Rouse (hammered dulcimer and piano), Vicki Swan (double bass, nyckelharpa and small pipes) and Phil Underwood (various accordions and guitar).
The evening followed the album so we were quckly enraptured with the ‘The Moon and The Pilot’, the story of Daria’s great-grandparents, Diba Posheva and Rashid Akhriev. Diba was one of the deportees in 1944, two years after Rashid died a Hero of the Soviet Union in the battle for Leningrad. It could not save his wife and their two young children, one of whom was Daria’s grandmother. It was impossible not to be moved by Diba’s story of resilience and love for her children.
My personal favourite on the album came not long afterwards. ‘Amanat’ is the story of a relative even further back in time, Chakh Akhriev, who was born in 1850 and essentially fostered to Russian parents as a hostage. It’s a story of a different time and place, yet of a man who never quite fitted in. The song appeals to me, maybe for that reason, and it is also a fine example of Daria’s incredible vocal ability. There’s so much power, range and control in her singing she entrances a room in the way very few other singers can.
This is not a review of the album so I will only mention one more song, ‘Heart’s Delight’. This is Daria’s translation of the Ingush ‘Song of Mochkha’. She also wrote the gloriously uplifting tune. The first time I heard it I thought it was the Ingush National Anthem, and it possibly should be.
“What is yours by right, May you always hold/May your heart’s delight become your fate.”
To show how music can cross boundaries this was the tune where Vicki Swan played her small pipes, a suggestion which originally came from Timur Dzeytov. It worked so very well; the drone of the pipes adding a frisson to the words that raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
For an encore we were treated to ‘Fata Morgana’, the opening track from debut album ‘Eternal Child’ and the start of Daria’s journey to her Long Lost Home in the Caucasus Mountains. To complete the journey Timur Dzeytov returned to the stage to play a lezginka, a traditional dance from the Caucasus. In the dance the man (on this occasion Anzor Aushev, who was one of Daria’s hosts in Ingushetia on her research trip for the album) is an eagle and the woman, whose name I don’t know, is a swan. It was a beautiful insight to a different culture, the dance involved no contact between the partners but the courtship aspect was more than clear. This is the dance which is also referred to in ‘Like A God’, the story of Daria’s great-great-uncle, and Diba’s brother, Aludin Poshev. It was said he could dance like a god.
We also had a speech from Khairudin, the leader of the Vainakh (Ingush & Chechen) community in London and I was left with the impression that Long Lost Home is a folk memory of Ingushetia that will become important to a country and people who are trying to reestablish their identity after many years of turbulence and suppression.
I sometimes feel that I’ve lived with this album for almost as long as Daria has. I heard all the songs as they were released in their various ways; I talked to Daria about the background to the project and some of the stories and even got a sneak preview of the cover art. After all the anticipation I began to have a niggling fear that Long Lost Home might prove to be an anti-climax. What do I know?
Daria’s first solo album, Eternal Child, was autobiographical in the personal sense: the story of a young woman travelling the world and having, shall we say, adventures. Long Lost Home is autobiographical in the historical sense. The long lost home is Ingushetia in the Caucasus, the ancestral home of Daria’s grandmother, a country whose people were displaced in 1944 on the orders of Stalin. There are some harrowing stories here as well as more reflective ones.
The first song we heard was ‘The Moon And The Pilot’ which originally appeared on a Folkstock sampler and then slipped into Kara’s live set. Now in its proper setting it has blossomed to become the keystone of the record. You probably know it by heart if you’ve read this far but if not I won’t spoil the story for you. It sits second on Long Lost Home, following ‘Tamara’, based on words by the Russian romantic painter and poet, Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov, about an immortal siren – there is an abrupt change in mood from the mythical to the painfully truthful in these two songs. Next comes ‘Safely Wed’ – arranged marriage was normal in Ingushetia but “Auntie Nina” defied the tradition – and the magnificent ‘Amanat’, another song that crept into Kara’s live set.
When I first listened to the record after every song I thought, “go on, top that” and, remarkably, Daria does just that. In the middle of the set is ‘The Panther’, the story of an NKVD officer who refused to aid the deportations and turned vigilante. Movies have been made of slenderer stuff. That’s followed by ‘Like A God’, about Daria’s grandmother’s uncle who defied Stalin in a different way and ‘Heart’s Delight’, based on a traditional Ingush song and set to a martial beat. Many of these songs are linked to Daria’s family going back three or four generations but the subject of ‘Gone’ is herself, still living in a land that is not her own but, unlike the Ingush of seventy years ago, she can return home.
The key musicians supporting Daria are multi-instrumentalists Jonny Dyer and Jason Emberton, who also produced the record and Ingush singer Timur Dzeytov who also plays the traditional dakhchan pandar, providing some of the more exotic sounds. Kate Rouse’s hammered dulcimer is a distinctive presence as are the nyckelharpas and smallpipes of Vicki Swan. Daria is in superb voice as befits these literate songs – the word “operatic” keeps coming to mind but that isn’t right at all. It’s about power and heart and love and melancholy and about telling important stories in a very human way.
Dai Jeffries talks to Kara about their comings and goings
This has been a turbulent year for our friends Kara. It began with the departure of Gary Holbrook and the search for someone who could learn the repertoire in a very short time. It ended – well almost ended – with guitarist and songwriter Ben Honey leaving the band because of work commitments and relocation and another search was underway. In the middle of all this Kara recorded their second album, Some Other Shore. Daria Kulesh picked up the story for me.
“The second album was a make-or-break moment. Replacing Gary was much trickier than we thought – we tried a couple of people and things were not working out – nobody’s fault, it just seemed that the stars we against us – and we knew that we couldn’t lose all that momentum. At the same time we knew that we had to make the album and the album launch tour happen and we only just managed to get the record out on time.”
Kate Rouse, singer and dulcimer player, reflected further. “In the end, the year has turned out really, really well. Gary’s work was building up and up and I think he was always going to be the first person who struggled. His was a tough role to fill but we completely fell on our feet with Phil Underwood. There are lots of musicians round here – Russians – but they want to do something very, very pure and are not so interested in the creative element.”
And then came the enforced departure of Ben Honey. Daria again:
“Hopefully, as a songwriter, Ben will remain very much a part of Kara – that was the first question that we asked him, that and whether we could play his songs with the new line-up. His answer was a resounding yes.
“When we cast our net in searching for a new band member our first approach was to ask the guitarists on the scene because we already had Ben’s songwriting in the bag so how about we find a really, really amazing guitarist? But the problem there is that the amazing guitarists tend to be very, very busy so we thought that sometimes you have to think outside the box and look for another songwriter and once we started asking songwriters the response was much more encouraging. Then I thought ‘why don’t I ask one of my favourite songwriters who, I think, encompasses a bit of the madness of Kara’ [and who happens to live a few miles down the road]. I called him and by the next morning he’d said yes.”
Kate: “Before, Daria kicked herself that she’d known Phil for ages and hadn’t thought to ask him so this time we thought ‘sod it’. I didn’t matter how cheeky it was – if you don’t ask you don’t get. Pete, bless him, practically bit our hand off. The creativity of the project appealed and, certainly, our early rehearsals have gone really, really well. Even when he’s winging it it all goes “whoop” and when he nails it completely it’s going to be pretty special.”
Cue Pete Morton.
“A number of things have come along that make it a perfect idea for me. I do so much of being a front man; predominantly solo and a few other things like the Christmas show, but it’s mainly me and I’m always playing that same role. What was lovely was that I got a phone in the middle of the day from Daria and for the first time in my life someone has asked me to join their band and it was one of the most beautiful feelings I ever had.”
I should say that our meeting was in danger of falling apart at this point in a welter of emotion and hugs but Pete held it together. “I’m not being over-dramatic here, there is substance to this. Being a front person people think that you’re the person in authority and I don’t always see things like that. I like the idea of being in the situation of playing the guitar, being in that different dynamic; it just fits in with everything I want to do now.”
Dare I ask how Pete sees his role in the band developing? “I just like the idea of playing Ben’s songs on the guitar and playing along with the tunes. I’ve played a lot in ceilidh bands and it’s nice to do that. I’m interested in being involved in the vocals but that’s Daria’s role. I like the theatrical aspects and I like the idea of occasional duets but that’s further down the line.”
Phil Underwood arrived – Kara were meeting for a photo-shoot and rehearsal – and chaos almost reigned but I did want to ask Phil how he felt about joining a band, learning the back catalogue and recording an album within the space of a few months, only to find a key member leaving.
“There was a lot of work to get into it but Ben made the decision that was right for him and I think it’s timely in a way. It’s wonderful that Pete has come along and I think we’re going to go in a different direction. Ben saw himself as the engine-room of Kara and that helped me because it settled me into the band and gave me enough leeway to put my mark on the band.”
So was there a feeling of ‘oh, no, what have I let myself in for now”? “Absolutely! It’s that kind of band. It’s a great band. It’s a very quirky and lively sort of band and everybody in it is quirky and lively which reflects in the music. I’m really looking forward to what Pete’s going to bring.”
The light was beginning to go, there were wardrobe decisions to make and Phil was eager to show off his newly-acquired 1963 long-necked Pete Seeger banjo so it was time for me to go. We’ll hear the results of all their efforts when Kara return to live performance next month. I, for one, am looking forward to it.
Fronted by the Russian-born (but quintessentially English-sounding) Daria Kulesh who also plays guitar and bodhran, alongside Kate Rouse on hammered dulcimer, guitarist Ben Honey and latest recruit Phil Underwood on melodeon, the Hertfordshire quartet’s latest fusion of traditional English and Russian folk also features one-off contributions from fiddle player James Delarre and Lukas Drinkwater on double bass with producer Jason Emberton providing any undefined extra bibs and bobs.
For those unfamiliar with the band, such as myself, the first thing that strikes is the crystalline purity of Kulesh’s often soaring vocals, clearly a voice born to sing traditional folk, to be followed by the heady marriage of diverse cultural stylings, characterised by the musical interplay between Rouse and Underwood. This time round, the majority of the songs and tunes are self-penned, opening with the five minute, fiddle-featured ‘Tamara’s Wedding’, Kulesh’s lyric about a woman seduced to hell by a duplicitously consoling demon after the death of the bridegroom inspired by ‘The Demon’, a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, itself drawing upon Georgian folk legend. Next up is the first of Honey’s five contributions, the far more English folk influences of ‘Seaview’ which, in talking about how certain places hold collective memories, may well be about the Edwardian resort on the Isle of Wight.
A similar wistful and whimsical quality informs his second song, ‘Adrienne’, which the notes describe as being about a song fairy, but is essentially about those magical singers who sometimes pop up at folk clubs, dazzle everyone, and are then gone. On a somewhat darker note, the melodeon-led, Drinkwater-featuring ‘Carousel Waltz’ addresses the cycle of addiction with slang references to cocaine and heroin before giving way to the frisky urgency of ‘Stormteller’ with its “pitter-patter” chorus which is all about those dark rain clouds that sometimes seem to hover over only you, although here Honey seems to suggest that such folk warrant having the soul sodden. His final number, ‘Devilry Dance’, is a clarinet-coloured jazzy folk swirl tale of Faustian pacts and metaphorical femme fatales that lead you on, promising to lift you on high only to see you fall.
Underwood makes his mark with two tracks, ‘Leigh Fishermen’, a traditional-flavoured tribute to those who risk their lives trawling the seas on which he harmonises behind Kulesh on the chorus, and the two sprightly- and, as you would expect, melodeon-led – English folk tunes ‘Hollingbourne/Broadhurst Gardens’, the titles referencing the village in Kent and his London suburb home.
Not to be left out, Rouse (who also appears on Ange Hardy’s Esteesee album) is featured, provides harmonies and arranged the six-and-a-half minute ‘Lovers’ Tasks/Black Tea Waltz’ which pairs a gently waltzing Appalachian version of ‘Scarborough Fair’ with her self-penned coda.
Of the three remaining tracks, Kulesh is wholly responsible for the haunting ‘Goodbye and Forgive Me’, its spooked musical box intro introducing a dark murder ballad, inspired by “Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District”, about a woman trapped in an imprisoning marriage who conspires with her lover to have the husband killed, only for the crime to be exposed and her lover to take up with another woman, the end echoing the novel’s finale where both women drown.
Things are no cheerier on the dulcimer-based ‘Misery and Vodka’, her translation of a lugubrious Russian drinking song, sung in both English and the original, set to a Russian Gypsy tune (known as ‘Two Guitars’) by Ivan Vasiliev, though not the ballet dancer of the same name. The final track is also a traditional Russian tune and lyric, again translated by Kulesh, the title, ‘Ataman’, being the name given to Cossack military leaders, Rouse’s dulcimer solo precluding a mournful Russian and English sung story of a group of soldiers contemplating their fate (“rain will fall upon my bones…crows will feast upon my eyes”) in the coming battle. Not, perhaps, something to send you off into the evening full of the joys of life, but a terrific conclusion to a fine album but a band that deserve much wider recognition.
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The Kara showreel video (with Gary Holbrook on accordion):