An eyeful of music

The voice generally offers some insight into our inner emotional machinations.

The OKO all-female group (photo credit: STEPHAN TALNEAU)
The OKO all-female group
(photo credit: STEPHAN TALNEAU)
They say that the eye is the window to the soul.
By a similar token, the voice generally offers some insight into our inner emotional machinations.
Indeed, two-time Oscar-winning British actress Maggie Smith, whose highly distinctive tones are a noted tool of her trade, once observed: “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.”
Petra Nachtmanova is living and mellifluously audible proof of the sight-and-sound organ connection.
The Viennese-bred singer is one-third of the OKO all-female group which will perform at the Holon Mediatheque, on March 23 (8:30 p.m.), as part of the 22nd edition of the annual Woman Festival (March 22-25).
The festival takes in a broad palette of disciplinary hues, textures and vibes, from theater to panel discussions, traditional Yemenite songs to performance art, and from emotive documentary material to dance.
OKO will augment the cultural and sonic stretch with a varied program of numbers that span disciplines and international borders with consummate ease.
The threesome is something of an offshoot of the larger Tralalka ensemble, which took in all sorts of instruments, together with the three women’s vocals and own instrumental input. In addition to Nachtmanova, who also plays saz – eastern lute – OKO includes British-born vocalist Emma Greenfield, who also plays trumpet and guitar, with Australian-born British-resident singer and violinist Moss Beynon Juckes completing the triad.
If Nachtmanova’s genes, musical interests and linguistic skills are anything to go by, the Mediatheque audience is in for a pretty eclectic experience. She notes she is of Polish-Czech-Austrian descent, and has been living in Berlin since 2008. She says her artistic avenues have led her through “Renaissance and Baroque music in England, Bulgarian polyphonic choirs, Chinese Idol, to Turkish folk music in Istanbul.”
Her concise bio also says she “is fluent in German, Turkish, English, French, Italian, Russian, Polish and Czech, and able to communicate and work in other related languages.”
With such a vast spread of communicatory skills, I wondered whether Nachtmanova’s ability to “work in other related languages” might extend to Hebrew.
“No,” she says with a chuckle, adding that my query wasn’t, in fact, that far off the mark. “My mother studied Hebrew at university, but unfortunately I have no idea about it.”
Nachtmanova has a simple, pragmatic explanation for her multilingual proficiency.
“If you want to fit in everywhere, you should make an effort to speak the local language,” she states.
That is easier said than done, and the singer is clearly erring on the side of modesty. International antecedents and cross-border sojourns notwithstanding, the woman is plainly talented.
After just a couple of minutes of chatting with the singer, one gets an overriding sense of a go-with-theflow ethos, and a sort of laid-back dynamism approach to her life and work.
“Tralalka has been around for about six years now.
It all developed in the craziness of Berlin,” she says, “but it will soon die out, like a dinosaur,” she observes whimsically. “But now we are becoming a trio [OKO] with Emma and Moss. This is how Tralalka lives on, in a way.”
There are alluring YouTube offerings of the three women performing Eastern European-sounding a cappella spots in various locations in Berlin, and they are clearly a professionally and personally tight-knit bunch. But OKO is not just about deftly entwined harmonics.
“We use instruments, too, and we are preparing to use electronics, too,” says Nachtmanova. “We’ll see how far we get with that. I don’t think there will be any electronics in Tel Aviv, but we are definitely more than an a cappella trio. We were an a cappella trio within the band [Tralalka] for two years, but now that band has dropped out we have become our own band.
“We are open to anything. Emma plays recorder and guitar and drums, and Moss plays the violin and guitar and I don’t know what else, and I play the Turkish lute [a.k.a. saz] and the oboe. We definitely mix it all up, and we have fun singing different things, and we also use effects, pedals and boxes and things. We definitely want to be, let’s say, modern.”
Twenty-something Nachtmanova’s endearing laissez- faire approach to life has also led her up all kinds of musical garden paths, keeps her fresh and engaged and primed to constantly break new ground.
Typically, her interest in Turkish music was sparked by being in a particular place at a particular time. “I came to Berlin and this is what I found,” she states matter-of-factly.
Growing up in Vienna, Nachtmanova says she did not get into the commercial sounds to which her peers were grooving at the time. “At the time I didn’t realize how weird it was to go to the opera at the age of 15 or 16. We used to go to the opera and stand up to watch. We had no money. We’d queue up for hours and then we’d stand to watch Wagner, together with my friends.”
But there were other vibes that left their imprint during Nachtmanova’s formative years. “I was listening to a lot of classical music and East European folk; we had a Polish communist folk ensemble and stuff like that. There was some pop and rock, too – definitely Nineties music – and a few years ago I went to a club in Vienna and they played techno schlager music. I never listened to that stuff, but I realized I knew all the lyrics, so I must have been [previously] exposed to that as well.”
She gravitated to the UK and studied history at Nottingham University, specializing in counterrevolutionary movements, but also became drawn to some of the musical endeavor around her.
“I sang in a choir, a very English choir, and we sang stuff like [Baroque composer Henry] Purcell. I actually wanted to become a Baroque singer, but I ended up with the Turks,” she laughs.
In fact, she says shifting from that to her current line of musical attack was not too taxing. “You’d be surprised at how many parallels there are [between Baroque and Turkish music]. Before it all turned into the classical period and the classical tuning and when everything became nice and neat – before that happened you could connect European classical music much better to other music around the world.”
Before her path crossed that of Greenfield and Juckes, Nachtmanova paid her vocal dues by performing in Bulgarian and Georgian choirs. She says she and her cohorts are trying to take those traditions to the next stage. “We are interested, now, in Black Sea polyphonics, and we are definitely coming from that choral direction. But now we are trying to make our own harmonies and see how we can transform that and not use all the typical arrangements of the big choirs.”
All three singers are happy to go any which vocal and genre way, and have explored sounds emanating from the Arab world, North African contexts and more. Surprisingly, it turns out that there is at least one area of musical enterprise that Nachtmanova finds one leap too far – gospel music. “The others laugh at me because I just can’t do an American accent,” she admits. “It just doesn’t work.”
The band’s name, among other things, alludes to the singers’ spread of creative and cultural interests, and has a healthily inclusive ring to it, too. “‘Oko,’ in all Slavic languages, means ‘eye,’” explains Nachtmanova.
“We also discovered that in most languages the word for eye has three letters. That works because there are three of us in the group, but also when you watch someone with your eye, that is a sign of respect for them. If I see you, I acknowledge you.”
Looks like Nachtmanova and her pals will be seeing eye to eye with their Holon audience next week.
For tickets and more information about the Woman Festival: (03) 501-4950 and