Willo Sertain is the founder and accordionist of Macaulay Balkan, the latest addition to Portland’s Balkan music scene, which had been, according to one active member, in need of new blood. Having seen Macaulay Balkan’s first three shows, part of the monthly Balkan Night at Atlantis Lounge/Mississippi Pizza, I can attest not only that they’re coming into their own as a band but that they’re making a difference. I chatted with Willo about her fascination with Balkan music.
American Robotnik: Where does your passion for Balkan music come from?
Willo Sertain: I grew up in the Appalachians. My mother taught me to love old places because, she’d say, every building has a story. The same goes for music.
Since I was a girl I’ve liked listening to a lot of styles and genres from all over the world. I used to be obsessed with African music, then Indian ragas, anything that sounded real.
Exposure to cultures other than your own makes you realize there’s more out there than the pop you see on TV. I think I was searching for anything that would bring out a sense of what it is to be alive, to feel my blood boil.
American Robotnik: How did Macaulay Balkan get its start?
Willo Sertain: After I moved from North Carolina to the West Coast in the early aughts, for nine years I played with the Portland-based touring band Underscore Orkestra. I learned to play a lot of Eastern European music with them.
Somewhere along the way I heard some Bulgarian and Gypsy and Serbian brass music on a compilation CD, and I remember wondering what I was hearing. It was so different, so inspiring. I listened to the disc obsessively, and I became not only passionate about the music, I wished I could play like that.
Kafana Klub and Krebsic Orkestar introduced me to live Balkan music. (Both Maria Noel and Alex Krebs are an inspiration to me.) But that’s just one night a month and I wanted more, so I started the band. It’s my love project. I get to feel purely through sound.
Lucas Warford (homemade bass instruments), Grace Young (viola), Danielle Evans (percussions), a rotating horn player, and I have been practicing since last February, and you saw our first show in April.
American Robotnik: What’s in store for Macaulay Balkan?
Willo Sertain: Compared to my main band, Three for Silver, which tours a lot, Macaulay Balkan isn’t an ambitious project. I just want us to play the music, contribute to the local Balkan music community, and share a culture that’s not part of the mainstream with other people.
Unlike with Three for Silver, we don’t write original songs. Macaulay Balkan plays our interpretation of songs from the Balkans. We want to honor the original songwriters.
At the same time, the more I learn the more I see how much more there is to learn. We aren’t purists and we don’t always play correctly. We learn from recordings. We just want to play the music the way we feel it, to get the feeling across.
I also want to work on the music, hone in on it, because it’s an expression of what’s going on in my head.
I feel we’re in this together. That feeling is contained in the music. It’s about connecting with people. On Balkan Dance Nights, people from different social groups come together, relating to and over music. I want the band to be a part of that kind of world culture, which celebrates and shares our differences.
There is some nostalgia, too, the kind I experienced looking at old buildings with my mom.
Photo courtesy of Willo Sertain/Three for Silver.