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Stars Pick Five! This Week: Samantha Bounkeua of Half-Broke Town

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Classical violinist-gone-rogue Samantha Bounkeua arrived in Tucson in 2012 by accident and was immediately adopted into the arts community. Before that, this Albuquerque, New Mexico native spent a high-school summer (2004) studying in France with a host family who couldn't speak English, and later performed in historic amphitheaters with prominent Italian divas in Viterbo, Italy. In 2010 she graduated from Ohio's prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music and then, in London, worked with the severely mentally ill and played nights in a fusion-folk Celtic band.

So, yeah, playing music is life for Bounkeua. She started on violin at age four, learning to read music before she could the alphabet. Her mother instilled a love of classical music and that carried over into education.

"My professor, the internationally esteemed Dr. Gregory Fulkerson, was literally like God to his students and I was bound to him in a strange codependent and quasi-destructive serfdom-like relationship, practicing 8-10 hours a day in order to simply keep my head above water," she says.

Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), "The greatest humanistic ... task of the oppressed: To liberate themselves." And Bounkeua has done just that. "The transition between playing classical and non-classical music has been a terrifying leap to make. Like standing at the edge of a cliff with someone saying, 'Forget everything you know. The rules do not apply here.' Then jumping and it feels like you're flying.

"When I go long stretches without it," she adds, "I feel restless and anxious. I play for the unspoken and intimate exchanges, for those moments when an improvised phrase ties everything together in a way that feels inevitable."

Bounkeua has appeared on several recordings: Air by acclaimed harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, The Oberlin Conservatory Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, The Beautiful Melody with Jimmy Carr & the Awkward Moments. She lent her prodigious talents to projects by Chris Black, Sergio Mendoza, Antler Room, Black Medicine, U:nited States, Two Door Hatchback and others. Her latest band, Half-Broke Town, plan to release their debut album this year. "I tell people it's kind of like if Nina Simone met Jimi Hendrix and hired a violinist."

Here Bounkeua gives her Top 5 songs to listen to when homesick. "To me, these were the songs that held that fragile homesick space," she says.

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1. Johannes Brahms—"Sonntag Op. 47 No. 3": In college I was obsessed with vocal arias and lieder. As an exercise, my teacher would make us learn these melodies by ear in an effort to emulate the human voice. This song, "Sunday," is about going a whole week without seeing a lover. Brahms uses "text painting," a compositional technique in which the underlying harmonies (in this case the piano accompaniment) reflects the literal meaning of the song. My favorite recording of this song is by Anne Sofie Von Otter.

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2. Holcombe Waller—"Hardliners": His voice is so intimate, not quite resonate but not quite nasal, the vulnerability of it slowly and subtly increasing with range and dynamics throughout the duration of the song. The melody is simple, with the smallest ornamented turns that catch the tiniest break and harmonics in the voice, which, for me, makes the whole song.

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3. White Stripes—"The Air Near My Fingers": If there's anyone that can get stuck in my head for days it's Jack White. The structure of his songs combined with charming melodies, a skilled voice and a ridiculous attention to detail makes him a master of emotion.

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4. Johann Sebastian Bach—"Andante, Violin Sonata in A minor, BWV 1003": Because I wouldn't be a true violinist if I didn't include one of Bach's solo sonatas. This movement is deceptively difficult to play with an ostinato (an underlying rhythmic figure) that accompanies the melody throughout. It is one of my favorite movements of all his sonatas, the nostalgia of the "heartbeat" laying the foundation for the tension and resolution in the melody. I've performed this a million times and every time I discover something new.

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5. Ane Brun—"True Colors": Ane Brun is a Norwegian songwriter I discovered during my time in London, U.K. Her tone is perhaps the most blatantly and unashamedly vulnerable of anyone I've ever heard. The slow, delicate unfolding of a very simple piano accompaniment mixes major and minor chords. For me, nostalgia and homesickness are about exactly that— a mix of the sad and happy.

The Agenda Sessions is the first in a series of art activism shows that Bounkeua will be curating featuring spoken word, visual artists, guest speakers and musical sets by Half-Broke Town, Pipelights and Earth Won. Sunday, Jan. 15 at The Flycatcher, 340 E. 6th Street. $5 suggested donation to benefit Iskashitaa Refugee Network, Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse and Greenpeace. 8 p.m. 21+


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