De Standaard, Brussels March 1999
It is maybe rather amazing that Australian musicians occupy themselves with European music. The group Mara! does this nonetheless with verve. In GEEL they started a small tour which took them to seven cultural centres.
Mara! has two enormous trumps which they proved in Culture Centre De Werft.
First there is the beautiful and powerful force of singer Mara Kiek. Supple, but also strong of tone, often with an penetrating sharp timbre, modulated to the songstyle which is so typical of the Central European traditional music.
The other trump is the composition of this "folkgroup": two saxophonists notably colour the arrangements and add regularly strong improvisations.
The group extensively used the music from their second last CD Ruino Vino at the concert.
Their latest album, called Sezoni they recorded together with a 25 voice choir. It will be available in Europe in summer under the RealWorld label.
The mixing of folk and jazz might on paper look rather unusual, but these Australians in the execution of it, turn it into something as a matter of course. I don't know of any other example where both genres go together so well. Admittedly Mara! already maintains this formula unchanged for ten years, but it remains a daring approach which musically works very cleverly.
The musicians get their material out of the whole of Europe. We heard at the concert Sephardic , Bulgarian, Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, Greek and Hungarian songs and dances.
Australia, a smelting pot of numerous European immigrants was their starting point for exploring so many diverse national traditions. "Authenticity" in all areas they can't guarantee of course, and that is the reason why that jazz approach works so well.
The different styles are being treated as the basis material with which these jazzmusicians do their own thing. The vocals try to be as authentic as possible, the saxophonists try just the opposite.
For sure, the fast pieces in their dizzying improvisations make us very excited.
Put these people in the large tent of Dranouter and they'll stun everybody. (Literally translated it says: "and they play everything and everybody flat against the ground").
On the podium bouzouki player/guitarist Llew Kiek shows himself to be the central figure of the group. Together with bass player Steve Elphick he offered a strong backbone against which song and saxophonists could brilliantly shine.
In Geel the saxophonists Andrew Robson and Paul Cutlan lifted the Greek Aidinikos and a Turkish piece up to impressive heights. Their slow pieces also were attractive.
The Slotoffensief "the final deciding battle" from the beautiful Greek pleading prayer at the sea (Thalassa) to their trusted classic, The Big Dance was just brilliant. Mara! plays energetically and purposefully, in original arrangements in which all elements faultlessly fall into their place. Their fusion of folk and jazz coupled with the virtuoso musical spectacle that they offer, is a wonderful experience.