Photography, interview & review by Jonathan Orenstein.
Set up in a small corner of a south Austin popular Greek hangout, Opa!, VARYA adjusts her mic stand, amplifier, and tunes her lyric-adorned acoustic guitar. Her husband and a complete stranger fuss with a string of fairy lights at her feet in an attempt to bring some light to her face. The photographer suggested that more light will enhance the photos and eliminate the dark shadows under her brow. “I can’t deal with this right now, I’m really nervous,” VARYA cries to her uninvited stage crew as she waves them off. I walk back to the bar with her husband discussing lighting issues that these small venues create but I would capture her with my camera none-the-less. The house is full this night, a table of Russian-speaking men clap vigorously as she thanks the crowd for coming out. A table with a dozen or so couples sits nearby, her invited posse, and they erupt into applause.
VARYA steels herself, organizing her thoughts, going over her play her set silently. She’s been performing for over a decade in small venues like this, each show gives her butterflies. VARYA describes herself as strong, sensitive, and loud – these traits give her the strength to perform. Her husband and sister modify her self-identifying personality with outgoing, impulsive, and stubborn. Regardless of which are the correct modifiers, there is something about VARYA with which everyone in her presence can connect.
She tunes her dark-wood guitar and the overhead lights shimmer across poetic phrases scrawled around the guitar’s face. Her soft melodic voice turns heads as an almost Gaelic sound echoes throughout the space. The songs are dark, emotional, and raw, but her emotive expressions draw you in, connecting with her as if she was a longtime friend. Over the next hour, VARYA connects with the audience much like a storyteller engrosses a crowd during a book reading. Page after page of lyrics share thoughts about struggle of love, fear, and togetherness. The small table of men sing along with her to sad tunes of loves lost, like close-knit friends (Russian: drougs) in a local pub.
VARYA focuses her music on telling stories rather than appease to a pop listening crowd. Growing up in Moldova, a small Balkan region country nestled between Romania and Ukraine, VARYA was immersed in local storytelling and music. Her mother and she sang children’s songs together, and her father, known for his poetic verse, wrote her a song that they performed together during some of his concerts. Her native country has a very long and beautiful musical history, where most of the population speaks the Romanian romance language. Moldova existed long before the U.S.S.R. and has very much reclaimed its culture since the breakup of the Soviet republic. There is a deep tradition of Bard music in her country, considered much less of a music genre but rather a lifestyle. VARYA calls it “poetry delivered through the medium of music.”
Poet-songwriters known as romance bards, mostly students of the physical sciences and history, brought this far reaching global musical attitude to the Soviet bloc countries in the early 1950s. The bard style was common in the Baltic region long before it grew in popularity under Soviet rule. The common man and woman would compose romantic lyrics that enshrined the beauty of life, gathering like souls together in harmony and joy. At first this was an underground movement that helped Soviet citizens cope with governmental oppression under Stalin and following the easing of controls under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, Bard music became the naturalists’ music. Bards performed their own songs, and as they were not classically trained musicians, linguists, or lyricists, their poetry was played to simple chord progressions. These songs were sung for pleasure and not for monetary gain. This brought bard music to the young people who enjoyed camping, kayaking, and outdoor adventures. Songs may be political in nature at times, but mainly romantic and family-based themes were the norm. Russian bard music is akin to American folk music, although not commercialized.
VARYA’s family and neighbors wrote original songs, played instruments and performed at small concerts and festivals. “Nobody was particularly good, at least not in a commercial way, but it’s incredibly intimate and honest and raw.”
Published by Jonathan Orenstein
My focus is on highlighting the great programs that support the community, local musicians, and those in need. I am an Austin-based photographer with experience shooting at the Long Center, various music venues, as well as high school theater performances. My clients include the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, Greater Austin High School Musical Theater Awards, and Rock to Recovery. I welcome the opportunity to work for you. View more posts