It had been a while since I did a Creative Connection and wanted to do something a little bit different so started with Heart of Autumn and now I have the pleasure to do my first band interview on For Writing Out Loud. As a frequent contributor to Go Indie Now, I do my best to shine a light on independent musicians and bands who could use a little more exposure and whose music I think is perfect for everything from exercising to writing. I also LOVE exploring music from around the world and sharing that wealth and recently I came across Vartra, a Serbian band that explores world fusion, dark folk, and extremely ethereal music that to me is ideal music to write or for a film score. Founded in 2017 by Siniša Gavrić and sisters Ivana and Aleksandra Stošić, Vartra takes musical inspiration from Slavic and Vlachian folk themes and Native American drumming. It’s different, it’s out there, it’s downright magical quite often, and I’m pleased to have them over for a chat.
1. Zdravo, from the other side of the world! So nice to have you on the blog. Can you tell the readers a bit more about Vartra, the meaning of the band’s name, how the project came together and what the first years of the band has been like?
Zdravo! Thank you for inviting us. As you mentioned in the introduction, we are heavily inspired by the southern Slavic relics present in the oral tradition of the Balkan region. Even though the Slavic influence is most notable in our lyrics and style of vocals, our musical inspiration is drawn from a far broader pool. We are combining different indigenous musical practices from various regions (such as shamanic drumming, didgeridoo, middle-eastern instruments etc.) as well as the influences of musical subcultures we all grew up with (80’s and 90’s ambient, metal, post punk, gothic etc.). The name Vartra comes from the Sanskrit word for protection, defense, warding off – chosen to complement the ritual healing and protection spells from the Balkan region that inspired our early works. The band was founded through a friendly artistic collaboration of Siniša Gavrić and the sisters Ivana and Aleksandra Stošić. In the first year of existence, the founding trio was mostly focused on composing and recording the music that is now our first album “Luna Noua”. During this time, we also produced and recorded a few music videos for the songs with the help of the performers from Ivana’s dance studio “Twisted Dolls”. As the album slowly came together, there was a need to share this music with the world and other musicians were recruited to the band to bring the instrumental variety of this music to life on stage. The current lineup includes Stevan Momčilović (didgeridoo, rattles), Andrej Bunjac (djembe, other percussion), Ana Katić (violin, backing vocals), Julius Velker (drums, sound engineer).
2. Where did Siniša connect with the Stošić sisters?
ša returned to Serbia in 2016. He was friends with Ivana since 2010 and upon his return they started to live together as roommates. Being a frame-drum and rattle craftsman, Siniša incorporated handmade instruments into his music compositions and included Ivana in the singing/song writing process. Sometime in 2017, Ivana’s pole art troop decided to develop a performance describing a Vlach ritual from Eastern Serbia “Dubočke Kraljice”. The idea was to compose and use original music reminiscent of the Vlach rituals but with a strong rhythm suitable for dance. That was when Ivana’s sister Aleksandra joined them bringing her methodical approach to the table. In four months, the three of them worked to compose 60 minutes of music for the performance. The completion of this project marked the beginning of their creative teamwork and future collaboration. After the festival, they started composing new songs, eventually recruiting new members and kicking off a successful series of live shows in the years that followed.
3. When I first heard Luna Nouà, I was reminded a bit of Heilung from Germany although a bit less freaky, a bit more mystical, and even more accessible (to me at least). I think it’s deep and rich music that definitely paints a picture. If there were an art exhibit inspired by Vartra, what are some art pieces you would like to see in the exhibit?
That is quite a compliment. Heilung is amazing! As to the art exhibit, that is an interesting and tough question. We would definitely like to see photos depicting old traditions like for example the work of Evo Danchev (we really admire his work) or works of Damselfrau. Definitely photos depicting traditional festivals (example the carnival of Vevcani in North Macedonia, Busójárás in Hungary). If the more classical art work or concrete art pieces are in question, maybe Albrecht Durer’s The four horsemen, Viktor Vasnetsov’s Sirin and Alkonost. A few more could be Nymphs Dancing to Pan’s Fluteby Joseph Tomanek, Dancing Fairies by Johan August Malmström, and all such magical, pagan and simply natural (as in mountain landscapes) paintings would fit very well.
4. The cover work for the album is quite stunning. Who did the artwork and what was the inspiration behind that visual and the album itself?
Thank you. Our art performer Anđela Vujić designed the album cover. It features the beautiful Luna moth, that represents intuition. The first album has a lot of influences from the cultural heritage of the Vlach ethnic minority in Eastern Serbia. The song Flori is inspired by the Vlachian ritual singing on the morning of the holiday Cveti. The holiday Cveti traditionally celebrates the beginning of the spring. The song Primovara (Spring) depicts the dawn of the holiday Cveti before the ritual performance is about to take place. The lyrics of the song Luna Nuoă are part of the Vlach oral lore as well, as one of the incantations for health, sung to the new moon. Other songs include fragments of Vlach oral lore (Roša and Jo Čero), or of Serbian incantations (Mrza, Razija). Žal (Mojot Dom) is inspired by transcendental experiences and written by Ivana Stošić (Macedonian language).
5. Checking my blog stats, I don’t have many people who are from your neck of the woods. How would you describe Serbia to someone who isn’t familiar with the country?
It is a beautiful country. If you love hiking or just being in nature you should definitely check out some of our many mountains. There are many well preserved medieval monasteries and fortresses open for tourists. Due to the centuries long Ottoman Empire occupation of the Balkans, our cultural heritage is a mix of Slavic and Oriental, which you can hear in the music, see in traditional dresses and architecture, taste in the food. You can also visit the prehistoric sites on our territory reaching all the way back to the Neolith era (Vinca’s relics and settlements, Lepenski Vir). The 20th century left Serbia with a lot of traces from the socialism era (Yugoslavia) – just by walking through the streets of any city in Serbia you cannot miss these. Serbian people are generally recognized as friendly hosts, so welcome!
6. I read that the lyrics are inspired by Vlachian incantations and performed in (Wallachian) language, Serbian, and Macedonian. Most people won’t be familiar with these languages, though music often taps into something more primal that connects us. Ideally, what would you want your music to evoke in listeners around the world?
We believe that the perception is quite individual. What we would like to evoke are cathartic experiences as per individual needs and without the given context (meaning of the lyrics for example). One of newer to date yet unpublished songs, Jerovine, is sung in a crafted language for this very reason. On the other hand, we decided to base our songs on the incantations (spells) from this region, because they are an important relic of our culture and history and unfortunately close to be forgotten. This is our way of giving them a chance to survive.
7. What are some of the most peculiar places where you have fans?
Thanks to our social media – Twitter, Facebook, Bandcamp, Youtube and Siniša’s online drum shop on Etsy we have found fans all around the world spanning multiple continents. Besides the Balkans, we came in touch with fans from both North and South America, Russia, North African countries etc. In the current day and age, it is difficult to reach audiences without a serious marketing budget but we are happy that no one reached by our music was left indifferent by it and that the base of people enjoying our works grows steadily every day.
8. A director of a video game or movie contacts the band’s representatives…they need a score for a movie. What type of movie or game does the band envision their work adding to the overall experience to create something truly special?
Given the variety and emotional intensity of Vartra’s music it could be a fit for many things. Obviously it fits perfectly with the dark medieval fantasy genre. Our music has a strong rhythmic and vocal components and it fits well with narrative scenes of mystery, tension and even with medieval combat choreography. Some of our fans likened our music to that from “Heroes of Might and Magic” or “The Witcher” and there is never a shortage of historical and dark fantasy on the market. Titles like “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” or “Horizon: Zero Dawn” could be further enriched by the atmosphere of some of Vartra’s tracks. Other genres where we could contribute would include psycho thriller, utopian/post-apocalyptic fiction, historical and epic drama, anthropological and spiritual topics. Some examples might be movies with similar topics/atmosphere such as Mid Sommar (Ari Aster) and The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers) for example. Essentially Vartra would be a great match with any work of visual art that could benefit from raw intense emotion transmitted through drumming and ethnic vocals.
9. You describe your shows as a cathartic experience, almost a healing ceremony. Dark but in a way where the darkness is drawn away from the spectator. Can you tell us more about that and what the intention behind the music is like?
Repetitive drumming, chanting and dancing were the core elements in rituals since the beginning of civilization when it came to ceremonial/healing practices. Although one might perceive our music as “dark” listening it for the first time, we use the same approach by incorporating the primal, organic sound with the mantric drumming and through the repetitive, atmospheric sound and simplicity of harmony - we believe we part with the darkness. Similar to shamanic healing, where the shaman leads an individual to face and recognize their traumas and guides them to overcome and heal, each individual spectator can experience this process for themselves by surrendering themselves to the sound and atmosphere around.
10. How many instruments are there in the album? I ask because beyond some more common instruments, the band performs on handmade drums and rattles crafted by Siniša. Also, how long does it take to make those instruments and where did he learn how to do this?
A lot. Percussions make the majority of our sound. They range from handmade frame drums and rattles, sticks, darbuka, djembe, rainstick to bells, cymbals etc. As for the melodic instruments, we use flute, didgeridoo, violin, keyboard, saz, electric guitar and the most perfect instrument of them all – the human voice. Siniša learned how to make frame drums in 2006 while he was in North America, following the traditional drum making from First Nation Tribes such as the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh etc. The whole drum making process takes a couple days to complete. After coming back to his motherland, Siniša developed and perfected his own style in frame drum making that is recognized by many as stunning craftsmanship infused with great energy.
11. Imagine that there is a spiritual retreat that wants the band to perform live, but beyond that, they want to throw the band a feast. What would be the food and drink for the festival?
As with our entire mantra, Vartra cherishes everything coming from local traditions of the regions we visit. We are not picky eaters, but we love to eat a lot and if we get to have a personalized feast – put together anything that would be picked by the locals as something “you must try”. J
Food is an important part of any country’s cultural heritage and any food or beverage that’s traditional and local is welcome for the tasting. We are still talking about the beautiful feast at the Javorwood festival in Bosnia and Herzegowina, with the traditional food and beverage served outdoors in the mountains.
12. And all that is left is to roll the red carpet. Where can people connect with Vartra, the music, and what are the best ways to support the band beyond just streaming the album?
We’re out there, everywhere. Check our Spotify, Bandcamp and Youtube for music, our Official website, Instagram and Facebook for announcements, pictures etc. Also, check out our Etsy stores, there you can buy Siniša’s shaman drums and rattles and Ivana’s tribal fashion pieces. The best way to support us is by spreading the word!
Vartra Etsy Stores:
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And there you have it, though I already loved the music, it's been an absolute treat to connect with Vartra and get to know a bit more about them, their mantra, and to find out about local traditions and artists. In addition, they are people after my heart with a shared love for exploring local food and drink. Stay tuned to Go Indie Now where I'll be reviewing their album Luna Noua and keep an eye out for upcoming releases. This is a band to keep your eye on as well as delighting your ears with some mystical melodies. Thanks again for connecting creatively, and til next we meet through words...
Peace, love, and maki rolls