The Warriors aren’t the only team in the Bay Area with an improbably deep bench. When it comes to Balkan music, the Bay Area’s close-knit scene encompasses an exceptional roster of singular talents, which is why Janam has continued to thrive despite some major personnel turnover in recent years.
Founded by former Kitka music director and vocalist Juliana Graffagna about a decade ago, Janam has honed an intoxicating blend of Balkan rhythms, Near Eastern modes, and Appalachian roots music. The quintet, which performs Saturday at Berkeley’s Art House Gallery & Cultural Center, recently incorporated El Cerrito vocalist and violinist Shira Kammen, a renowned musician who’s recorded extensively with in an array of early music, Sephardic and Celtic settings, including Camerata Mediterranea, Ensemble P.A.N. and Ensemble Alcatraz (which has collaborated with Kitka).
“She’s one of the most exuberant and virtuosic fiddle players I’ve ever heard, and she’s a great singer,” says Graffagna, who also plays accordion in Janam. “We just meshed. She brings tons of energy to the group and it’s just a blast playing with her.”
Pronounced JAH-nam, a Macedonian endearment that translates as “my soul,” Janam brings together an unusually well-traveled cast of players. String wizard Gari Hegedus, who lived in West Berkeley for years before relocating to San Pablo, plays oud, violin, mandocello, and saz in the group. A master of a daunting menagerie of Greek and Turkish string instruments, he’s recorded and performed with Ross Daly, and plays in the world music group Stellamara and the duo Teslim with Oakland violinist Kaila Flexer.
“He’s an amazing, deep musician in lots of different styles,” Graffagna says.
Contributing on laouto, a Greek long-necked lute, guitar and percussion, Tom Farris brings extensive experience in bands like Anoush, The Helladelics, and Brass Menažeri into the group. And Berkeley’s Dan Auvil, a founding member of the Balkan groups Édessa and Ziyiá, who has devoted himself to the large, two-headed drum called the tupan.
The award-winning composer Dan Cantrell, an expert on accordion, piano and musical saw, opens Saturday’s show with a solo set, and then will join Janam for several pieces.
“We always joke that there’s all this cross pollination,” says Graffagna, who also plays in True Life Trio with fellow ex-Kitka members Leslie Bonnett and Briget Boyle. “Many people play in multiple bands and different projects. Gari has collected a lot songs while traveling in Greece and Turkey. Shira brings Sephardic music, a connection we’ve developed. We’ve included some original compositions by Gari and me, playing off the modes of Balkan music and crazy fun rhythms, meshing a bunch of different traditions. We want to take people on this journey from one disparate tradition to another.”
While steeped in traditional forms, the musicians of Janam aren’t looking to replicate old styles. The band has become a vehicle for uncovering unexpected intersections. For instance, an American folk tune gets a whole new feel set to a 7/8 Balkan groove.
“We’ll do medleys of one song right into the next,” Graffagna says. “There are a lot of connections. We’ve been playing together for so long, there’s a deep musical friendship and the band is truly a collaboration.”
Recommended gigs: Noel Jewkes / Silvestre Martinez
Two of the finest saxophonists around play the California Jazz Conservatory this week. On Friday, Noel Jewkes, whose career stretches back to the mid 1960s and late-night jam sessions at Jimbo’s Bop City, performs with his Legato Xpress Septet featuring trumpeter Dave Bendikeit, reed expert Charles McCarthy, trombonist Rob Ewing, pianist Keith Saunders, bassist Chris Amberger, and drummer Mark Lee. And on Saturday, tenor saxophonist Dann Zinn brings in an all-star quartet featuring piano star Taylor Eigsti, bassist Zach Ostroff and drummer Mark Ferber. Over the past 20 years Zinn, an esteemed educator, has mentored many of the best saxophonists to come out of the Bay Area, including Berkeley High’s Dayna Stephens and Hitomi Oba.
Also on Saturday, Oaxacan-born jazz drummer Silvestre Martinez celebrates the release of his second album, Vengo de la Costa, at the East Bay Media Center in Downtown Berkeley with his stellar quintet featuring pianist Erick Peralta, bassist Fred Randolph, drummer Dillon Vado, and saxophonist Isaac Narell (son of steel pan virtuoso Andy Narell).