Maraca synthesizes a world of sounds
Where other bands might run shallow via the path of progressive rock emulations, Maraca’s past experience with the music of medieval Europe, the Middle East, Moravia and Slovakia gives the band a rich foundation for its ongoing changing sound. Combining guitars (both electric and acoustic), oud, violin, samples, drums and Gabriela Vermelho’s sensual voice, Maraca’s sound is admittedly inspired by British prog-rockers such as King Crimson. Yet, since the band’s beginnings in 2000, and over the course of a three-CD career (on the Brno-based Indies label), Maraca has proven that its diverse approach can provide a convincing musical synthesis.
Over coffee at Café Louvre, Maraca guitarist and founder Petr Filák explains his interest in King Crimson this way: “They use unique time signatures, but their basic influence on us is the freedom of their music. Even though [guitar player Robert] Fripp seems to be on the tight side, there is the playfulness of Adrian Belew, and these things balance. You can also see some of this playfulness in how they have changed their sound over the years. And, from a guitar player’s point of view, they have always been leading innovators.”
To further the guitar charge of Maraca’s sound, the band enlisted the help of Amit Chatterjee on its 2006 CD, The Body is Too Slow for Me. The Calcutta-born guitarist stepped into the global spotlight during his 11-year stint with Joe Zawinul’s Syndicate. When Filák says of Chatterjee, “He is using his own sound by mixing the tonality of the West with Indian music, from which he creates his own scales and sound,” he could just as well be describing Maraca’s ongoing journey though the tonality of ancient European music and folklore.
Filák began his music career working in the early-music ensemble Kvinterna during the ’90s. During that time he migrated from classical guitar to the lute, which led to an interest in the origins of the instruments in Arabic music. Picking up the oud, though, was not easy. “On one side, Arabic music is simple, because of the unison ensemble way of everyone playing one melody,” Filák says. “On the other hand, their microtones, which divide the scale far deeper than the music of the West, are a challenge not only to listen to but to play. So I’ve stopped trying to play Arabic music.”
With Chatterjee on board, though, stretching Maraca’s music into Asia is no longer a strain. As Filák laughingly recalls, during the band’s first sessions with Chatterjee he exclaimed, “You don’t need to play Indian or Arabic music when you’re with me, because I’m the Indian!”
Filák is clearly a band leader who does not take the easy road, whether attempting to champion non-Western music or seeking to work the more sophisticated and artful aspects of progressive rock. Discussing the better studio recordings of masters like Frank Zappa and King Crimson, Filák says, “The difference between England, America and places like the Czech Republic is money. We have, like, one week in the studio, when what we need is more like one month. I can hear so many things that could be perfected. But we are lucky that we have Studio V in Zlín, because I like analog.”
Filák points proudly to the AAD stamp on his CD. “I like to make each CD ‘AAD’ — with analog recording and mixing, followed by the digital master, because many people can hear or even feel the difference.”
With Maraca’s members scattered across the country and a bass player who lives in Slovakia, it’s difficult to find gigs in the Czech Republic that will even cover the cost of transportation. Although this limits Maraca’s live performances, the band members keep busy with other projects, including Zimbova, a sister band that specializes in Moravian and Slovak folk songs. Lead singer Vermelho is active in theater, and other band members work in the graphic arts.
Despite the limited exposure, Maraca’s CD sales continue to grow both in and outside the Czech Republic, especially in Slovakia, Germany and France. Oddly, its best foreign market is Japan, even though the band has yet to tour there.
Chatterjee is out on the North American jazz circuit this month, so he will not be with Maraca at the upcoming Akropolis concert. Still, the core five-piece unit, which includes the electronic wizardry of Robert Prokop, will be a treat for those who enjoy what is often called progressive or sometimes art-rock. As concertgoers will hear, using the word “art” to describe Maraca is not a pretense. This band has worked for it, and the results are beautiful.