by Britta Visser Stumpp
Juana Ghani is a Utah-based 10-piece acoustic Gypsy rock band known for fabulously infectious music that is “a savage, unrestricted mix of tradition, overlaid with rocking dynamism, suffused with unstoppable gypsy lust and dark desire, with an added touch of punk attitude.” (Tim Carroll, FolkWords) Their shows are filled with anarchy, hazy dreams, and dark fantasies, songs that are full of “semi-nightmarish fantasies of violence, revenge, desire and struggle” (Savannah Turk, City Weekly), and music that is “full of love, death, sex, grief, passion and vodka.”(Oliver Arditi, LiveUnsigned) Often accompanied by belly dancers, aerialists, fire dancers, and cirque performers, Juana Ghani puts on a raucous and charismatic show, drawing influences from such Gypsy/World punk troubadours as Gogol Bordello, Firewater and Viza – all with a poetic balladry likened to that of Tom Waits and Nick Cave.
I had the opportunity to interview lead singer Leisl Bonnell, and the founder, band leader and creative force behind the band, Brian Bonnell. Here is my candid interview with Juana Ghani:
Britta: Tell us about how Juana Ghani came into being.
Leisl: When Juana Ghani began, it was Brian and myself. I was recovering from foot surgery and Brian had just finished putting together our home studio and was rediscovering his love for writing music. We wanted to create something new, something neither of us had ever done. He would spend hours in the studio writing music while I convalesced on the sofa with little bits and pieces of poetry floating around inside my head (thank you, post-surgical meds). We put the music and the words together and these songs were born. In 2009, we started posting the songs online. Immediately, we were attracting attention from internet and satellite radio stations and podcasts – mostly in Europe – that started playing our music on their shows. Once that happened, we started getting messages from people wanting to know when and where we were playing so they could see us live. That was when Brian and I looked at each other and decided it was time to put a “real” band together.
At the time, I was doing guest vocals for an experimental, electronica band with heavy Middle Eastern grooves. Tony (mandolin) was a part of that band. I invited him over to hear the music and ask if he’d be interested in playing with us. He was! He found Nick (accordion) on Craigslist and invited him over. He stayed. Chris (congas, hand drums) joined us next. Then, Bryan (hand drums, percussion) came along. One by one, our incredible familia was brought together. We now have 10 of the most amazing musicians I have ever had the privilege of playing with. We played our first public show on December 10, 2010.
Leisl: Oh, that’s easy. The group dynamic fleshes out the songs. Each person’s individual musical voice adds another layer to the story, another character to the tale, a deepening of the world we create with our music, and a new dimension to the experience. It’s what makes the party a party.
B: Leisl, can you tell us a bit about your life and how your journeys inform the music?
Leisl: I grew up moving a lot. A LOT. I was born in Sicily, and spent my entire youth moving every couple of years to a whole new place. It enabled me to experience many different cultures and to meet to so many interesting people. Sometimes it was lonely, but it was definitely always exciting. How many people get a chance to start over from scratch that often? I consider myself incredibly lucky in this. I can’t really say my experiences inform the music – Brian writes the music – but I do believe they have the lyrics. The stories in these songs are mostly true and mirror experiences I have lived. Granted, the truths are quite buried in the story-telling of the songs, but the realness is there. For instance, our song “Kasojeni Bay” begins with the line, “In her mind another time, shuffling down street, cotton bonnet on her head, wood clogs upon her feet.” This is a real lady that I saw walking down the street one afternoon as I drove to the grocery store. She was the most uniquely wonderful thing I had seen since moving to Riverton. She inspired the song and the story we built around her. The last verse in the same song begins, “They shot absinthe on Sunday ‘cause the vodka was all gone.” This part is also completely factual and self-explanatory. Then there’s the entire song “The Incredible Sadness of Sonia.” It is a multi-layered tale of multiple truths; on the surface, it is about depression and suicide; the middle layer tells of my own experiences with ostracization and depression; the deepest level of tells how true wisdom (the simple “knowing” and intuition we are all born with) is dying at the hands of learned knowledge (book learning, media, etc). Most of our songs are this way.
B: Why Roma (Gypsy) music? What was the initial appeal?
Leisl: Oddly enough, we didn’t start out with the intention of writing Gypsy music. This music found us. We just write what we feel and present it in the way it wants to be played. It was our audiences that pointed out to us that we were playing Gypsy music. *laughs* I guess it’s sort of like having strangers point out to me that I’m short.
B: Can you tell us more about Brian’s biopic tale, Kasojeni Bay?
Leisl: I think Brian is best to answer that…
Brian: Kasojeni Bay started out as a challenge from a good friend of mine named Hillary Arias-LaFrance. She had challenged me to write a description of how we met, but none of it could be real. I thought this sounded fun, so I started writing about this scene in a smoky dive bar where a Tom Waits character approached me and sent me on a journey.
As I was writing this, the story continued to grow as aspects of my life and understanding of things began to populate the story. At times, it was a struggle to type fast enough to keep up with the story that began to pour out of me. My love of Gypsy culture, food, and music soon entered the story and it became a story about love and passion. Passion for what really matters in life, belief in being genuine and following your dreams unfettered by outside opinion and control. At the same time, Juana Ghani was finishing the recording of our first CD titled “Shall We Live Forever” and I noticed that the direction that the story was taking mirrored a lot of the same lyric arcs from our music. So the book began to tell a back story to our music, intertwining these mini stories into a larger composite, and became a companion to the music CD. So if you are familiar with the lyrics, you get a little more with the book. The book captured the Juana Ghani mind set with stories of Gypsy legends and lifestyle. It is a story about following the mysterious path that life seems to lay out for a person and paying attention to the little clues along this path. It is also a love story with a twist about souls that are always connected inside of life and death and you never really know if this is a tale happening in this life or if it is a story that happens on the other side of life. Implying that there is just as much drama and passion beyond death as there is inside of life.
B: How do you feel audiences here in Utah have received Juana Ghani?
Leisl: Utah audiences are the best! They have been incredibly receptive to what we do and many have become very good friends. We consider them all a part of our extended family.
B: You often involve dancers and circus performers in your show. How has that changed the way you perform as a band? Do you feel it has made deeper connections with the Utah artistic community?
Leisl: We have had belly dancers with us from the very beginning. The dancers and other performance artists – belly, cirque, aerial, hoop, fire, burlesque, magicians, puppets – add a whole level of their own to our shows. Their talent and energy just blows my mind! Having them perform while we play raises the level of fun and overall energy every single time. We have always, from day one, wanted to incorporate as many performing artists in what we create as possible. It’s all about loving and supporting each other and co-creation and fun! We’ve even had an amazing painter join us to create her art while we play. It’s incredible to see her interpret the energy of the night on a canvas as we play. As soon as we can find a way to include a chef, too, we will! Even cooking is a creative art.
B: That’s awesome! Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming show, The Gipsy Connection?
Leisl: This show is going to be off the hook insane fun! It will be entire night of Balkan Expressionism. There will be an art exhibit of paintings by the incredible world renowned artist Paul Hitter, a movie, dancers, and so much music! Our good friends Folk Hogan are joining us, so you know it’s going to be a party.
B: Can you tell us more about Paul Hitter and how you met?
Leisl: Yes, Paul Hitter is joining us from Bucharest, Romania. I told you it’s going to be off the hook!
He was raised in Romania during the time that country was transitioning from Communism. He left Romania as a young adult and moved to Germany where he received his formal art training at Akademie der Bildenden Kunste in Munich. While completing his studies there, he showcased his art with many world famous musicians and bands, including Gogol Bordello, Taraf de Haidouks, Rona Hartner and Fanfare Vagabondu. Exhibiting his art together with live music brought him instant recognition. He is an authentic underground art rebel and still prefers to exhibit his art at live concerts rather than in traditional galleries.
I have been a fan of his work for years and follow him on Facebook. When we first started the planning and plotting for our second CD, “She Lost Her Head,” I mentioned to Brian how cool it would be to have Paul design our CD cover. It was late one night when I decided, “What the hell? I’ll send him a message and just see what happens.” So, I did. And he responded! You should have heard my fangirl squeal. We struck up a conversation. I finally got brave enough to ask him if he’d do something like design our CD cover and what he would charge. We came to an agreement and that was that – a virtual handshake across the net-o-sphere. As he was working on the art for our CD, he moved back to Romania, and we became real friends getting to know each other via the internet. We didn’t actually meet in person until this past May when Brian and I met him and his manager, Eugene Al Pann, in Las Vegas for two incredible nights of Gogol Bordello. Seeing him for the first time was like seeing a brother, the feeling of kinship was that immediate. Needless to say, we are so excited to have Paul and Eugene visit us here in Utah and spend several days with us, getting to know each other that much more.
B: What is Juana Ghani’s overall mission?
Leisl: We want to create incredible music, foster a familial knowing and partnership amongst all artists, and have fun. If you happen to learn something about real Gypsies – more accurately, the Roma people – through it all, then so much the better. All people matter.
B: What’s next for you all?
Leisl: We have some incredibly fun shows coming up this year, including returns to Sundance, Springfest, Excellence in the Community, and the Kimball Arts Festival. And, of course, new music is always happening. Perhaps a third album? Even the sky is no limit when you’re having fun doing what you do.
B: Any closing thoughts, quotes, words of wisdom?
Leisl: Closing thoughts: I have so much laundry to do! (This is always what’s in my head: laundry. It just never ends.)
Quote: My favorite is this, from the book “The Eagle and the Raven” by Pauline Gedge –
“… but now men who could work preferred to beg, and the artists forgot that their calling was noble and became imitators instead of creators, charging exorbitant sums for the rubbish they churned out with one eye closed.”
Words of wisdom: Trust that all is at it should be. Love, even when you’re scared and/or pissed. Always embrace adventure and opportunity. And to quote Kristen Chenoweth (maybe I should move this to quotes?), “Sing from your hoo-hah.”
For more information about Juana Ghani, please visit: http://www.juanaghani.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/juanaghani.official. For more information about Paul Hitter, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/paul.hitter.3