Interview: Sarah Larsson of The Nightingale Trio

On February 18th, The Nightingale Trio returns to Minnesota for their first performance after a year of travel and study of the rich women's folk traditions of Eastern Europe. The group's devotion to Balkan women’s vocal traditions is evident in their tight harmonies, dizzying rhythms, and raw power. We talked with member Sarah Larsson about re-energizing the Balkan folk music tradition, the collective fight for social justice, and the group's many sources of inspiration. Read the full interview below and get tickets for the show here.

The Nightingale Trio met singing in larger vocal ensembles; how do you think these kind of ensembles influence and learn from the larger global folk music scene?

There’s a pretty amazing web of people here in the U.S. who are celebrating, creating, listening, and dancing to music from global folk traditions. For Eastern European music specifically, interest in the U.S. stems largely from the generation of people who were in college in the ‘60s and ‘70s, mainly in the Northeast, in Chicago, and in California. A lot of these people were involved in a scene lovingly called “IFD”: International Folk Dancing. That community, in turn, spawned a handful of awesome performing groups, including the Yale Slavic Chorus, the Pennywhistlers, Minnesota’s own Ethnic Dance Theater, and others. These choirs have been the first access point for many musicians and non-musicians alike to encounter Eastern European and Balkan folk music.

Not all folk traditions carry well into the sphere of choral music (read: tacky arrangements of American folksongs and African-American spirituals sung by children’s choirs), but Eastern European tradition stands out. There is amazing vocal harmony in many of these traditions – such as the polyphony in Ukrainian and Russian singing, or Croatian coastal Klapa music. In addition, the world is lucky to have a wealth of amazing choral music that has come out of Bulgaria in the last 50 years, thanks to state-sponsored touring choirs and excellent composers like Petar Lyondev and Filip Koutev really taking traditional harmonic forms and going wild overlaying edgy contemporary musical ideas onto them. Many folks in the U.S. first heard Bulgarian music back in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s on the Bulgarian Radio & Television Choir’s album “Les Mystere de Voix Bulgares.”  It’s a classic.

I think that the choirs singing this music today do some of the best outreach and re-energizing of the tradition, specifically because there is something particularly special about opening the door for newcomers to not only listen to but actively participate in singing this music. Choirs can do that.

That said, there is also the vast world of excellent smaller vocal groups, party bands, virtuoso instrumental ensembles, and brass bands who are also all integrally part of this community. Here in Minnesota, there’s the Ukrainian Village Band, Traki, Orkestar Bez Ime, Lev & Olga Frayman, Belozer’e, the Ciprian Porumbescu Romanian Choir, Mila Vocal Ensemble, and others. Not to mention all the cultural hubs and organizations, like the St. Cyrus and Methodius Bulgarian school, the Ukrainian American Cultural Center, Heritage Organization of Romanian Americans, and so many more, which are home to children’s choirs and host festivals each year that bring forward these traditions out into the neighborhood, and give us all a chance to party and sing along..


The classic Bulgarian Radio & Television Choir album “Les Mystere de Voix Bulgares” was many Americans' first exposure to Bulgarian music

How have you adapted your ensemble experience to performing as a trio?

It’s been a delightful journey, and definitely a galvanizing challenge. I know that all three of us have experienced dramatic, and very positive, growth as vocalists due to the demands of a trio versus a larger ensemble. As a trio, we’re each completely responsible for learning a part, sustaining it, and owning our responsibility for knowing what we’re doing. We need to sing boldly and whole-heartedly. There’s no tuning out for a moment; you can’t “sneak breaths” or “stagger breathe” as all our choir friends know you can in a larger ensemble. But this means that we’ve each grown immensely as vocalists and as performers: we’ve all become stronger singers in general, both technically and expressively, and we’ve become more bold and confident in the ways we put our voice into creating each song.

It’s also amazing to experience singing in the trio context. We are able to create so much nuance and variation within each piece, because we are more nimble. If we are really listening in to each other, we can improvise and innovate in the small details—a breath or a hold here, a new emphasis here. There’s no one of us in charge; we each commit to playing a key role in co-directing each song we sing. As a result, there are more surprises and unexpected moments of beauty. It’s more intimate; we’re communicating directly with each other every every moment of every every song. You take that extra responsibility and feel empowered by it, each of us emboldened to take risks and direct the rise and fall of the phrases.

What inspires you about the Eastern European women’s folk tradition?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My questions began years ago when I was first attending concerts and dance parties in Euro-American country folk music styles – contra dances and old time concerts and barn parties. I was asking, “Why are all these city kids so crazy about banjos and square dancing?” Then it also became a question for myself – Why am I so fired up about wearing an embroidered shirt and singing songs in languages I don’t speak? A lot of it, I think, has to do with a thirst for connection. In those folky spaces, we hold hands with strangers and dance circle dances. A lot of people in those scenes are pretty nerdy, and set a precedent for us all to be able to open up and be fully ourselves. We share a collective repertoire of some cultural norms within the music, and then we’re able to all connect in the space by carrying them out together. But why this music in particular? There’s something inherently beautiful in it; I do believe in that, that there is some inherent sense of beauty that we experience, and that there is value in beauty, even if it doesn’t have literal, translateable meaning with implications on our daily life. I think we eat beauty, like jam and honey and plum brandy.

It also has to do with imagination. When I sing this music, I’m listening in to the stories embedded in the words, and I’m stretching my mind out to picture the real-life experiences and context in which those stories took place. Because I am also a bit nostalgic for slower-paced kinds of living and societies that are more connected to the dirt and plants and the food we eat, as well as having a roots cultural connection to some of these places, I romanticize a bit about locating myself in those spaces. I’ve been known to say casually, “Back in the village…” –even though I don’t really know what that historical place looks like or felt like. I make a lot of meaning out of the songs by overlaying some of what I know about that context onto the way I’d like to live.

Then add to the picture: I’ve been actively engaged in our collective work for social justice, particularly as it pertains to racial equity and decreasing the power of white supremacy in the United States. There have been strong calls from my friends and loved ones who are people of color for us of European descent to stop appropriating Indigenous, Black, and Brown culture and stop profiting from those artists’ work. So I’m asking myself, how can we call in our White relatives and offer ourselves something that fills us up as an alternative to pillaging other cultures and communities? Part of the answer, I think, is digging more into our roots in Europe, and making room for ourselves to find some meaning and connection in those sounds, those rhythms. Especially because there are real stories embedded in these songs, as I said above, there’s real possibility for our White communities to derive and create meaning out of this music in a way that can feed us in ways I think we need.


"In those folky spaces, we hold hands with strangers and dance circle dances. A lot of people in those scenes are pretty nerdy, and set a precedent for us all to be able to open up and be fully ourselves."

Can you explain the importance of keeping Balkan music traditions alive in Minneapolis? 

I’ve been fascinated and confounded by Minneapolis’ relationship with immigration and cultural traditions for a long time. In college, I wrote a paper about the horrible ways that African Muslim communities get portrayed in the television news media, in contrast with the rosy way European Christian immigrants have been portrayed by the same media historically. People of European descent in Minnesota have capitalized on our own immigration stories for a long time by celebrating the hard work and devotion of those pioneering European farmers, while simultaneously denying the humanity of non-white immigrants coming through the same lineage in a different time. We (meaning my community, us White European immigrant heritage folks) are all about our Nordic Christmas markets and St. Patrick’s Day parades, but many of us make a big fuss about a Halal grocery moving in on our Main Street. On top of that, we keep scrambling to find ways to live healthier lives and protect the earth but we keep simultaneously erasing the history of knowledge that Native communities carry and have preserved in the face of constant attack from our kith and kin. I think that making folk music rooted in a European folk tradition creates a platform for us to all talk together about what it means to claim this heritage, and how we can—and should—be using our immigrant memories to be better neighbors. I do see hope on the horizon, and I’m excited for the ways that I as an artist have already been able to have conversations with folks about how we want our communities to behave in regards to art, roots, and tradition, as we move into the future. That’s my experience singing this music; I know that other Nightingales Nila, who is a woman of Indian heritage, and Rachel, who lived part of her childhood outside the U.S., both have their own personal experiences that are different from mine.

In addition, I know that having stages and audiences for folk music means a ton to folks who are here in Minnesota and are either themselves immigrants from Eastern European countries, or are recent descendants of those immigrants. There’s a large and incredibly loving community of people who create and celebrate spaces for Eastern European cultural heritage here in Minnesota, including Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian, Serbian, Bosnian, Czech, Slovak, Rusyn, and Ashkenazi Jewish communities. It’s a sprawling community made up of both folks who themselves have immigrated from those countries who carry it quite directly in their blood, and folks who are devotees of the tradition and have made it their own.

As far as keeping traditions alive goes, we’re all part of the ecosystem. A famous Minnesotan, professor Mirjana Laušević (who passed away in 2007), wrote a book about it, based on her amazement, as a native of Sarajevo, at seeing non-Balkan folks so passionately performing and dancing to Balkan music. One of my favorite days of the year is the Ukrainian Heritage Festival, which usually falls on the weekend of my birthday in September, at the Ukrainian American Cultural Center in Northeast. And one of my favorite performances ever was in the community hall of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, a little tiny, beautiful, beautiful Serbian Orthodox church in Eastside St. Paul. It’s not just about keeping things alive, though; that implies keeping things in museum-grade glass boxes, clinging on to glimpses of the way things used to be. It’s really about co-creating a future that both contains and is fired by a vital, breathing, living tradition that evolves with us and both answers to and informs our communities as we grow.


Minnesota professor Mirjana Laušević wrote "Balkan Fascination" based on her amazement at seeing non-Balkan folks so passionately performing and dancing to Balkan music.

You’ve had experience studying with master singers from the Eastern European countries you draw inspiration from. How did these teachers influence your trajectory as musicians?

These singers are everything to us. I just need to shout out to a few:

Diana Yefanova (Minnesota!) / Russian

Elena Kallevig (Minnesota!) / Russian

David Harris (Minnesota!) / Sephardic music

Judith Eisner (Minnesota!) / Yiddish/Ashkenazi Jewish music

Natalie Nowytski (Minnesota!) / Ukrainian slash absolutely everything

Stefan Iwaskewycz (Minnesota!) / Ukrainian

Mary Sherhart / Bosnian

Vahidin Omanovic / Bosnian

Vahidin’s mother in law, Zahida / Bosnian

Polly Tapia Ferber / percussion with a little of everything

Sanja Rankovic / Serbian

Bojana Radovanovic / Serbian

Petrana “Pepa” Koutcheva / Bulgarian

Tsvetanka Varimezova / Bulgarian

Eva Salina / Bulgarian, Ukrainian

Zedashe ensemble / Georgian

Carl Linich / Georgian

Corinne Sykes / A little bit of everything

Flory Jagoda (we haven’t worked with her directly, but she’s a huge inspiration) / Bosnian Sephardic Jewish music

Ugh, I’m terrified that I’ll forget someone. I’m sure I have. But it gives you a picture of the amazing web of people who are spending their own heart and energy to pass on these amazing sounds and stories that we’re so happy to be able to participate in.

We really depend on these folks both as our teachers—directly instructing and advising us on vocal production, teaching us new repertoire, and keeping us rooted in the tradition—and for their role as carriers of their amazing knowledge of tradition and repertoire. These individuals are all carrying around hundreds if not thousands of songs in their heads, and are really the source for everything that we and other musicians in the community do. Then there are also folks whom we haven’t worked with directly, but who are spearheading work to preserve and archive historic recordings, whose work we utilize constantly. Some of those folks are Ethel Raim, Michael Alpert, Bob Cohen, Sanja Rankovic, and others. We’re also indebted to great arrangers and performers whose work we imitate and learn from constantly – the Eva Quartet, Tsvetan Georgiev, Rhodopea Kaba Trio, Petar Lyondev, the Bulgarian National Choir, Kitka, Tutarchela, Zedashe, Sokalsky Sestri, and more!


Minnesota musicians Judith Eisner and Natalie Nowytski are among many talented performers that influence The Nightingale Trio

You’ve been touring and singing together since 2013. How has your sound changed since you started the project?

The Nightingale Trio emerged out of such brilliant serendipity, I’m still amazed. The three of us had sung together as members of the Yale Slavic Chorus, and we reunited a year after graduating mostly because Rachel sent Nila and me and email saying, “I miss you guys! Can we sing together?” We picked Rachel’s homebase of Dallas as the spot we’d all travel to, and we decided to set up some low-key gigs to pay our airfare. Truly, we had an email exchange in which we were like, “I guess we should come up with a name…?”

So we began by only singing our favorites from the Yale Slavic Chorus repertoire – songs that we’d known already for years, and a handful that we’d heard on old recordings and always itched to sing ourselves. Beyond that, we didn’t have any sense of a singular identity as a group, or any goals for our own sound or approach. But everything came so naturally, our voices fit together so well, that we quickly noticed how these old songs felt very different and new.

I feel like our sound is characterized much more by a kind of lightness and airiness than our original music as members of the Yale Slavic Chorus; it is influenced much more by our own natural singing voices, rather than a product of us trying to imitate particular folk styles. Since we started to find that sound, we’ve become much more nuanced, I think, and more keyed in to the variation between each line of a song, and the rise and fall of each chord. We have a trope that I think we do particularly well that I’d best describe as a mini-swell – there’s certain notes where we grow dynamically inside of them before moving on to the next note in the phrase.

We’ve now moved into a new era where we aren’t just creating our own take on existing songs, but we are commissioning and composing completely new arrangements. This is extremely exciting. I was personally funded this year with a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board (shout out to Minnesota Legacy funding! Call your Senators and thank them!) to work with awesome choral composers and create 5 new arrangements. I’m excited by the iterative process of knowing our strengths and what we find to be the most fun to sing, and then turning around and actually creating pieces by utilizing and playing off those strengths. This concert, we’re singing two new compositions by awesome women composers Olga Amelkina-Vera and Ayanna Woods, which we commissioned with funds from the Howard & Ruth Brin Jewish Arts Endowment, which is another awesome Minnesota-based resource. It’s great to take another step into feeling like we really have our own voice.


The Nightingale Trio began by singing favorites from their days as members of the Yale Slavic Chorus

What’s inspiring you lately?

Right now, we’re mostly feeling fired up about being able to sing together again. It’s been almost 18 months since our album release in September 2016, and I think we’re all itching for this reunion. It’s a delight every time we get together. I think all of us have some standout moments in our lives that we think about as moments of amazing beauty or inspiration; I’ve had a strong showing of those moments in singing with the Nightingale Trio, seeing the responses in people’s faces, hearing our voices hit a perfect chord for a single divine moment, feeling my own eyes filling up with tears as the story of the song and the sounds shared between us align – it’s something that my heart craves for and it’s been far too long since we’ve been able to make this magic together. That, and we’re all so enamored with the community here in Minnesota.  Rachel and Nila (who live elsewhere) keep saying, “Minnesota loves us!!”  And it’s true – we have the most consistent, committed, joyful network of fans here, who keep coming out to shows, sending us notes when we’re away, and welcoming us back with open arms. We’re excited to get to come back to this home base.