Julia Ulehla

Julia Ulehla

Ulehla careens, sails, and shimmers through the varied interpretations with penetrating strength—her singing is sometimes heavenly and ethereal, sometimes gruff and earthy, as though she were channeling the spirit of a hardscrabble village woman who’s known these songs her whole life.

Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader

Vocalist/composer/devisor/actress/ethnomusicologist Julia Ulehla was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1978. Born to a Czech refugee-émigré father and Cherokee-Welsh mother, Julia spent a peripatetic childhood across the US, Europe, and the South Pacific. She received formal training in opera and other Western Art Music genres at Stanford University and the Eastman School of Music, and performed lyric mezzo repertoire for several years before becoming a resident actress with the laboratory theatre the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards in Pontedera, Italy. With the company, she co-devised four performative opuses which toured extensively across Europe and North America.

In 2011, she relocated to New York City to have a child and began collaborations with composer/saxophonist Darius Jones as an original member of his Elizabeth-Caroline Unit, and with experimental vocalist/composer Samita Sinha. With her husband guitarist Aram Bajakian, she initiated a new line of performance research based on the ancestral song tradition of her father’s lineage, sourcing folk songs collected and transcribed by her great-grandfather, biologist Vladimír Úlehla. Bridging folk belief and science, he theorized that songs were alive and intimately related to their ecological conditions. Drawing upon ancient cosmological strata imbedded in the folk songs and their texts, pre-Christian Slavic folk beliefs, myths, and symbols, the “incandescent” (Musicworks), “captivating Moravian magician” (Downbeat) reanimates the archival materials into sound and body.

A meditation on the role of heritage in the modern world, her project Dálava is often described as shamanic and primordial. The emergent result of this years-long process lies at the nexus of ritual and performance, evoking the liminal intensity of layered temporalities and the conjuring of ancestral presences. With improvisers and experimental musicians Aram Bajakian, Peggy Lee, Dylan van der Schyff, Tyson, Naylor, and Colin Cowan, Dálava has appeared in a variety of contexts from experimental to sacred to post-rock to traditional, including FIMAV, Suoni per il popolo, TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Festival de Arte Sacro, Colours of Ostrava, Bimhuis, Vancouver Folk Festival, and the Strážnice International Folklore Festival, among others. She maintains a collaboration with traditional Moravian musicians HCM Petra Mičky, stitching diaspora-reared heritage back into the Old World. With British storyteller and mythologist Martin Shaw, she and Bajakian recorded a transmedia telling of The Five Fathoms and a live performance of East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

An artist-scholar, she is finishing a PhD in ethnomusicology at the University of British Columbia, where she received the Killam Doctoral Scholarship. Recent publications include an English translation of Chapter VI of her great-grandfather’s book Živá píseň (Living Song, 1949) and a métissage co-authored chapter with Indigenous Elders, Knowledge Keepers, scholars and cultural practitioners Manulani Aluli-Meyer, Mariel Belanger, Jill Carter, Corrine Derickson, Delphine Derickson, Claire Fogal, Vicki Kelly, Carolyn Kenney, Virginie Magnat, Joseph Naytowhow, and Winston Wuttunee, titled “Experiencing Resonance as a Practice of Ritual Engagement” in Research and Reconciliation: Unsettling Ways of Knowing through Indigenous Relationships (2019). From 2017-2019, she worked with the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) to deliver a series of lectures and work sessions around her vocal practice.