Gypsy music has been defined by some as “music for the people, by the people.” Juana Ghani singer/guitarist Brian Bonell agrees, adding, “The sound and the songs are built into everyone’s DNA. There’s stuff that you hear and you know it, even if you don’t know it. It’s kind of become part of the human consciousness.”
Gypsy bands like Juana Ghani fall somewhere between ska and folk, yet drift toward something more ancient. Originating from the nomadic Romani people in northern India and spreading through southeastern Europe, the gypsy sound features solid bass beats and is exclusively acoustic. It’s often accompanied by dancers or circus performers, challenging the traditional definitions of a “band.”
Juana Ghani, based in Riverton, is less a band than a production, according to co-founders Tony Semerad, accordion player Nick Newberry, and Bonell and his wife, Leisl.
After what he describes as a burnout on pop lyrics, Brian Bonell decided that he “just wanted to break ties with everything that [I] had done before and not be limited by anything.” Once the Bonells teamed up with Semerad, the pieces of Juana Ghani began to fall into place. Semerad found Newberry after posting an ad on Craigslist for another acoustic project that eventually fell through.
“I remember seeing [Nick’s] e-mail and all I could focus on was the accordion,” Semerad chuckles. “We covet instruments rather than personalities. We’re like, ‘A calliope? We’d love that.’ ”
Two years after forming, Juana Ghani has a summer packed full of gigs and finds itself expanded to 11 consistent members.
“What’s interesting to me is that there’s a big appetite for this sound,” Semerad reflects, mentioning the impact the Internet has had on the music industry across the board. “In the ‘old days,’ you had to shoot for a generic genre of music in order to plug into [any] audience, and now, the audience finds you.”
Listeners aren’t the only ones gravitating toward the gypsy genre. Many musicians are seeking out groups like Juana Ghani for the musical freedom they offer.
As a collector of instruments, Newberry was drawn to the liberating nature of the group. “We’re not shackled to any particular sound and it’s really that challenge that appeals to me,” Newberry says. “Having to pick up a new instrument to learn for this band [is a] discovery process of music that makes us a lot different than anything I’ve been involved with.”
“I’m not 19 anymore,” Brian Bonell adds. “I don’t care how much I can drink, or how often I get laid. These are songs about betrayal, songs about suicide, songs about people.”
As a lyricist, Leisl Bonell draws only on true stories to create songs. She mentions “The Incredible Sadness of Sonia,” a haunting melody based somewhat on Virginia Woolf’s suicide, with references to Alice in Wonderland. “But there’s more to the story than just that—that is where the hyperbole comes in. Sonia is a variation of the name Sofia; Sofia is wisdom,” Leisl Bonell says. “The song is more about the death of wisdom as a result of obtaining too much knowledge. … As we fill our minds, we forget what true wisdom really is.”
When asked why they haven’t crafted an album yet, Brian Bonell says, “There’s a difference between what we’ve recorded and what we perform live.”
He’s right. At Bar Deluxe several weeks back, Juana Ghani teamed up with Underground Cabaret and members from Blue Lotus to put on an entrancing show with Middle Eastern and American Indian flourishes. “That’s the direction we want to go,” Brian Bonell says. “You pull into the parking lot and there’s jugglers, fire-dancers, all of these performance artists on your way up to the venue. It’s supposed to be a constant experience that you’re having.”
And it’s an experience worth having. Juana Ghani’s performances are celebrations—celebrations of the people they are, the cultures they love and the coming together of worldly people through worldly music.