Vera Bila & Kale | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Most of the Gypsy folk music that's made its way to our shores in the past few years has been celebrated for its raucous vitality and virtuosity--and from Boban Markovich's wild Serbian brass band to the woolly Romanian string ensemble Taraf de Haidouks, the Rom do know how to get loose. But Czech Gypsy Vera Bila takes a different approach, selecting tightly arranged jazz- and Latin-flavored settings for her sanguine, throaty vocals; her sound is somewhere between the Gypsy Kings and the Manhattan Transfer (without the scatting). Bila, who grew up in the small Czech town of Rokycany, got her start singing with her violinist father's cimbalom band; when she started her own group, Kale (Bila is Czech for "white" and Kale is Romany for "black"), she opened herself up to a range of nonnative influences: flamenco, jazz, Western pop, Latin rhythms. She and her band struggled in obscurity for nearly a decade, but in 1994 the Czech pop singer Zuzana Navarova championed them, which resulted in some high-profile gigs and a record deal with BMG. Based on the two albums I've heard, the multiculti concoction Bila calls "Roma pop" aims for a rather low common denominator. It's slick, rigid, and too eager to court mainstream acceptance--which has been more forthcoming in the rest of Europe than in her homeland--with flavors of the moment: drum machines, English-language choruses, smooth-jazz synth textures. But Bila's rich, almost masculine voice cuts through even the gloppiest production, and I'm betting the stripped-down five-piece she's touring with will offer a far better context for her talents. Thursday, May 8, 7 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630.

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