Why traditional songs?
Each folk song is a miniature containing a wealth of information wrapped up in its twists and turns of melody. They are travellers by nature, bringing us their stories from other times, other places. They weave through the centuries and through cultures, binding us to the real women and men who came before and left such ephemeral traces. I am fascinated, soothed and strengthened by their beauty, and it is that sense I hope to pass on to others.
The music I have studied most extensively is that of Eastern Europe, and the neighboring regions of the Causasus, Asia Minor, and Siberia. Although a very broad and diverse region, there are certain musical threads which serve to bind this part of the world together. This is music that has existed for thousands of years at the center of the vast continent of Eurasia (and with strong ties to Africa as well), and the scales, rhythms, and ornamentation all speak to this wealth of musical knowledge, inherited and continually exchanged: Arabian and Chinese scales, Mongolian and Ethiopian ornamentation, Indian and European instruments, pre-Celtic rhythms, sub-Saharan harmonies. We are left with the puzzle of our own origins, humanity refracted in every direction.
In my music I try to understand what makes these folk songs, cut and polished by time, so beautiful, and I refrain from innovation for innovation's sake, but I cannot help but also bring to them an American and modern perspective. For that reason, I also want to point towards those who are closer than I am to the original traditions, traditions that were once unrecorded except in the movement of air particles, the membranes of the ear, the minds of children as they grew.
A very subjective list of excellent ensembles, singers, and recordings from Eastern Europe:
Albania: The Lela family of Përmet is very good. Also the Ensemble of Gjirokastër. These are both examples of the pentatonic polyphony of the southern part of Albania. For the northern style, try to find Fatime Sokoli.
Armenia: One of my favorite Armenian singers is Mannik Grigorian. Hasmik Harutunyan is also very good. Hayrik Mouradian has recorded a wealth of songs from the Lake Van region. But probably the best thing about Armenian music is the duduk (a double-reed flute carved from apricot wood): Gevorg Dabaghyan and Djivan Gasparyan are two of the most famous players.
Bulgaria: Some of my favorite singers are Stefka Sabotinova, Vulkana Stoyanova, Radostina Kaneva and Kremena Stancheva.
Georgia: Hamlet Gonashvili is a masterful singer of the Eastern (Kakhetian) style. Lela Tataraidze is a female singer with a more modern style. Drinking Horns & Gramophones 1902-1914 is an excellent collection of historic choral recordings.
Greece: The Petro-Loukas Halkias ensemble performs Epirot instrumental music (with occasional singing) very beautifully. Hronis Aidonidis is a master of the Greek Thracian style of singing. The Έλληνες Ακρίτες (Guardians of Hellenism) series is generally very good, and the series produced by the Μουσικό Λαογραφικό Αρχείο (Music Folklore Archive) is even better.
Hungary: Márta Sebestyén is always lovely to listen to, singing in a highly embellished style. Éva Fabian sings in a more conservative straight tone. Éva Kanalas performs ancient Moldavian songs with purity and grace. There is also the excellent ensemble Kalyi Jag, performing music of their own Rom (Gypsy) heritage.
Poland: The Warsaw Village Band is doing very interesting things, mixing a modern youth aesthetic with ancient mountain tunes.
Russia: If you are truly into village sounds, there is a 7-volume collection of field recordings on the label Boheme Music which is fascinating. Also not everybody's cup of tea, but a group I happen to like a lot, is Ivan Kupala, a d.j. "band" of sorts which takes old vocal and instrumental samples and mixes them with synth and drum patches and somehow (surprisingly) makes something really nice!
Turkey: There is an interesting ensemble based in Instanbul called Kardeş Türküler, performing Kurdish, Armenian, Laz and Alevi music with sensitivity and respect.
Ukraine: Mariana Sadovska is somebody to look for, as is Nina Matvienko.
E-mail with feedback or suggestions for this list.