Vela Luka has been one of the most popular acts at the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle, Washington, for many years. The ensemble’s self-produced, -released, and -distributed CD gives a good idea of why. Clocking in at a little more than 77 minutes, Vela Luka’s recording is a rich and varied sampler of vocal and instrumental dance music from Croatia. The ensemble boasts 29 singers and dancers spanning four generations. It is based in Anacortes in the Puget Sound area but maintains close ties with family members remaining in Croatia.
In performance, Vela Luka is nothing short of astounding. Accompanied by five to ten musicians on a variety of acoustic instruments, the ensemble typically puts twelve to sixteen performers on the stage at a time, all dancing intricately choreographed folk dances – and singing their tightly harmonized songs as they dance.
While the CD falls short of this jaw-dropping spectacle, it is nevertheless an impressive recording. The 23 tracks range from slow romantic waltzes with only one or two singers, to bouncy instrumental polkas, to a capella harvest songs featuring the voices of the whole ensemble. The tracks average about two-and-a-half minutes, with three longer pieces of four, six and thirteen minutes, the longest of which is a beautiful medley of traditional Easter songs.
One of the most distinctive pieces on this CD is a tune in the Lindo dance style, “Poskočica (Dubrovačko primorje).” This dance features burly, shaven-headed brothers Nicholas and Michael Petrish, who respectively play the lijerica (a three-stringed bowed instrument) and call the dance. The recorded number is a shortened version of the mesmerizing live version, which can last ten minutes or more.
The ensemble songs often are dominated by the women’s voices in a style reminiscent of the Bulgarian women’s choir recordings that swept the world-music scene earlier this decade — minus the Bulgarian music’s dissonant and ethereal major-second harmonies. The Croatian folk music also bears some comparison with that of neighboring Hungary, although it doesn’t rely on the droning down-beat rhythm so common in the recordings of Muzsikas, for example.
If this CD has any fault, it is that it may attempt to cover too much ground, and at 77 minutes can rarely be listened to in one sitting. But that’s a small quibble. The production is excellent, giving plenty of “air” to the vocal numbers, and picking up the nuances of the instruments while keeping them in proper balance within the mix. Any fan of Balkan or Eastern European music will be captivated by this recording. And few who see the group perform can walk away without buying a CD from the table in the lobby.
(Vela Luka, 1996)
[Update: This CD is currently out of print, according to Vela Luka’s website. They suggest you write to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.]