Purely musical

Moira Smiley and her group, Voco, like folk music that is basic and honest. In its purest form, the music could be performed without instrumental accompaniment — or electricity, for that matter.

Smiley, along with April Guthrie and Abigail Nesson Bengson, redefine traditional Eastern European and early American folk harmonies, sharing emotion and telling stories. Their repertoire includes some contemporary folk, along with award-winning originals Smiley's been penning since age 12.

"I like the styles of old-time and string-band music, along with old country, early spiritual, folk hymns and some Appalachian ballads," Smiley says. "We perform some more familiar stuff. We cover Lead Belly's 'Goodnight, Irene' and Robert Johnson's 'They're Red Hot.' We also cover contemporary folk artists, such as Kate Wolf and Gillian Welch. Our shows are a combination of anonymous, old, folk songs and music from the last century."

Multi-instrumentalists as well as harmonizers, Voco will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9, at the Unitarian Fellowship, 87 Fourth St., Ashland. Rogue World Ensemble, a 30-member Ashland choir that performs folk from around the world, will join Smiley and Voco for part of their second set.

Tickets cost $18 in advance, $20 at the door and $10 for ages 12 through 17. Kids 11 and younger get in free. Tickets may be purchased at Music Coop in Ashland and www.stclairevents.com or by calling 541-535-3562.

"Touring and performing is not about becoming a diva or a star," Smiley says. "It's more about community and the connection music creates between performers and audiences. Singing is a bonding experience. It can be sensual and ethereal."

Smiley's networked a web of musicians since she was 15, and she's come across many talented women while playing at festivals and leading workshops at schools around the country.

"I do a lot of traveling," she says. "I spent a month in Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia last summer collecting songs and taking lessons from folk singers. I learned all kinds of things, lots of styles and songs. Voco will be sharing some of the songs at the show."

Originally from Middlebury, Vt., Smiley studied vocal performance and piano at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.

"My original songs are better known by chorales," she says. "One of my songs, 'Stand in That River,' is a new, American spiritual. Another, 'Makedonska,' is influenced by Eastern European music. It has no lyrics but tells its story by using voices as instruments."

Older, traditional, European folk differs from Western European and American folk in that its rhythms and harmonies are organized in ways that can surprise new listeners, Smiley says.

"There are different expectations of American folk," she says. "We know what elements we'll hear listening to contemporary music. Because Eastern European music is so rarely heard, it can become new again."

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