Enter the Labyrinth with the True Life Trio

True Life Trio
True Life Trio: playing Berkeley’s Grace North Church on Saturday and Sunday. Photo: April Renae

While neuroscientists are busy trying to unravel the mysterious ties between music and memory, the women in True Life Trio are conducting their own investigation. A spin off of Kitka, TLT has expanded on that innovative all-women vocal ensemble’s powerfully evocative repertoire of traditional Eastern European and Balkan songs with finely crafted arrangements of Cajun, Appalachian and even Mexican standards. Singing gorgeous three-part harmonies, Leslie Bonnett (voice, fiddle, percussion), Briget Boyle (voice, guitar, percussion) and Juliana Graffagna (voice, bass, percussion) weave together disparate cultural currents to create an improvisation-laced sound that’s raucous, soulful and achingly beautiful.

The trio presents their most ambitious work yet, Like Never and Like Always: A Memory Project, Saturday and Nov. 15 at the Rose Labyrinth in Berkeley’s Grace North Church. A collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Gari Hegedus, Like Never and Like Always is a site-specific song cycle designed to unfold as a life lived backwards. In many ways the Labyrinth itself provided a jolt of inspiration for the project. Initially conceived as a seamless sonic journey, the piece took shape when the women encountered the rose-patterned floor design in a hall ideal for presenting unamplified string music.

“We thought that we could move through it, singing about how life shifts and changes and turns, and how memories are created,” Boyle says. “We’ve been fleshing out the idea about how perception can shift through the years, the way that we remember things differently as we change.”

Combining Eastern European tunes, poetry, movement and original music, Like Never and Like Always takes the women into new territory. While they usually accompany themselves in performance, they recruited the string wizard Hegedus to create settings for their traditional and original songs. Half of the extraordinariy duo Teslim with violinist Kaila Flexer, Hegedus also performs with the world music group Stellamara and Persian vocalist Hamed Nikpay. In addition to violin and viola, he plays an array of string instruments from Greece and Turkey including laouto, oud, and saz.


“Gari can create these amazing textures with all these string instruments, underscoring our singing,” Graffagna says. “He’s such a great improviser, with a combination of being rooted in tradition but also interested in experimentation.”

True Life Trio came together about four years ago when Graffagna was looking for a creative outlet after leaving Kitka. She also performs with the inventive Near Eastern quintet Janam, but was missing singing harmonies with other women. A few informal get-togethers with Boyle and Bonnett found the women walking around Lake Merritt and enjoying singing so much they decided to launch a new band. It didn’t take long to settle on a “nice, tidy simple and descriptive name,” Boyle says. “This is like life. You get together with friends, take a walk, and sing.”

The group raised its profile considerably in 2012 with a concise seven-song debut CD, Home, that captures the band’s far-flung repertoire. From the stirring Albanian tale “Malino Mome” to a haunting rendition of the Mexican ballad “La Llorona” to the Cajun standard “Old Time Waltz,” True Life Trio creates music steeped in tradition but crafted in their own image.

“It felt very freeing to be starting this group from scratch,” Boyle says. “Leslie has been playing Cajun music for a long time, and she roped us into doing a couple of shows with her. We’re branching out to do more Americana. We’d never heard each other sing in English before! I’m starting to write some more music, and it’s a natural forum to showcase that. And the world of Eastern European music is so vast. On paper it can look like too much of a hodge podge, but it kind of works. We program shows like a journey, and the continuity is our voices.”

Good luck to Billy Buss!

Berkeley High graduate Billy Buss is competing in the Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition on Saturday. He’s one of an international cast of 13 semi-finalists vying for a shot at the finals on Sunday, when three players face off for a $25,000 first place scholarship and a guaranteed recording contract with Concord Music Group. Every year the competition focuses on a different instrument, and the last time trumpet was up in 2007 another Berkeley alum, Ambrose Akinmusire, took first place. No pressure Billy.


Don’t miss: Marcia Ball, Myra Melford and Ben Goldberg Dialogue

Marcia Ball
Marcia Ball

Vocalist and songwriter Marcia Ball is an Austin institution, and one of the most reliably entertaining musicians around. She celebrates the release of a terrific new album “he Tattooed Lady” and the “Alligator Man” (Alligator Records) tonight at Freight & Salvage.

Myra Melford and Ben Goldberg Dialogue Performing together as a duo since 2008, Berkeley clarinet master Ben Goldberg and Berkeley pianist extraordinaire Myra Melford have steadily developed a protean language encompassing their far flung musical passions, from blues and ragas to post-bop and free improv. They bring the project, which they dubbed Dialogue, to Maybeck Studio For the Performing Arts on Saturday afternoon, in preparation for recording their first album next week. Reservations are required.

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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