Oakland violinist/vocalist Briana Di Mara makes music for the world the way it should be, a joyous welcoming realm that she actually conjured into existence briefly in the midst of Berkeley. On a cool afternoon late last December she was performing on the stage by the Downtown BART station with Ali Paris on vocals and qanun, the 76-string Middle Eastern zither. Steeped in traditional Arabic modes, their swirling tunes transformed the urban scene into a Sesame Street idyll.
“All of the sudden it became this multi-cultural party with everybody dancing, taking turns to come out in the middle of the circle,” says Di Mara, who celebrates the release of her debut album Haven at the Back Room Sunday evening. “A homeless guy comes into the middle and dances, and then one of the security guys who was working, and then a little boy, about six years old. They’re just feeling the music so much, it doesn’t matter who they are.”
Di Mara’s music has that effect on people. An expression of her far-flung musical passions, her tunes feel both enticingly familiar and idiosyncratically personal, marked by sinuous melodies that take unexpected twists. It’s a sound that’s emerged from Di Mara’s experience as a vital part of various overlapping traditional music scenes. Her love of Irish, Balkan, Turkish and Middle Eastern music flows together on Haven, an album featuring her original compositions and arrangements and a cast of more than a dozen players.
“The tunes are a reflection of this really thriving Bay Area traditional music scene,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I should focus on one tradition, but that’s really hard for me. I love too many different things. That weakness turns into who I am, playing a bunch of different styles, molding them into one different thing.”
At the Back Room she’s joined by a stellar cast of musicians, including string wizard Gari Hegedus on oud, mandocello and Turkish saz, percussionist Joshua Mellinger, bassist Sascha Jacobsen, and guest artist Ali Paris on qanun and vocals. Her daughter’s a cappella quintet REM plays an opening set. Di Mara also plays a house concert in Fairfax on Saturday with Hegedus and Mellinger.
Di Mara started studying violin via the Suzuki method growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia, where all music education centered on European classical music. She discovered traditional Irish music while attending Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, “and fell in love fiddle music,” she says.
She experienced a series of epiphanies while attending Lark In the Morning music camp in Mendocino, which introduced her to Greek, Balkan, Persian, and Middle Eastern music. Her growing obsession with the traditional styles brought her to the Bay Area around 2002, and she quickly fell in with Stellamara, a pioneering ensemble drawing on folk and classical music from the Near East, Eastern Europe, North Africa and Iran. Many of the players on Haven are also part of the Stellamara constellation, including Hegedus, percussionists Evan Fraser and Sean Tergis, bassist Miles Jay, and accordionist Dan Cantrell.
She started writing her own material as a member of the folky instrumental band Babes in the Woods with Sean Tergis, accordionist Dana Strong, cellist Myra Joy, and flutist Kristan Willits. “We were doing a lot of traditional music but also putting gn our own compositions,” Di Mara says. “That’s when I really started working on that.”
The birth of her daughter 14 years ago deepened and reoriented her musical output. She found the quiet times she spent taking care of an infant opened up space for her to hear new melodies. “Becoming a mom, there’s all this extra time while you’re out for a walk with the baby,” she says. “Your by yourself a lot more. That was a time when music would come into my head. Out on a walk, I’d be singing to myself, composing songs. That’s what happens to me now.”
Recording the album reflects both confidence in her musical community and stability in her personal and professional life. She runs the Camp Fiddle N Fun every summer, and a Fiddle Club throughout the year for young string players, with performances raising funds for a designated cause (in recent months an animal shelter).
Still very much a work in progress, Di Mara sees Haven less as a definitive musical statement than a snapshot of a nurturing community. “I’m reluctant to be a solo musician,” she says. “It’s a unique community that I’m a part of. It’s grown and evolved throughout the years. It fluctuates. But we share these common experiences, studying with incredible teachers who come from other countries. I’m so inspired by the community here. We play together, have parties. It’s very open and loving.”