Yael & Vlady: Heart and Soul of Big Boss Bubeleh

By Ted Burke, June 2018

Café Europa is a bar and restaurant tucked away between a car wash and a VFW hall on Pacific Beach’s Turquoise Street, a seldom discussed passage that forms the official border between La Jolla and the funkier beach communities to the south. Its relative geographical obscurity is fitting, in that the Café has tried to distinguish itself from the usual PB drinkery. Café Europa is dark in tone, deep reds and a variety of earth tones and off-kilter lighting cast the room in an atmosphere evoking black and white movie, Bogart smoking cigarettes over bourbon and piano jazz in the background, chatter in many languages, and accents floating through the air along with the seductive tones of exotic music.

Nothing quite so cinematic, in fact, but that’s what the proprietors are aiming for, and, in that respect, providing something different to San Diego’s many choices of nightlife they’ve admirably succeeded. And as atmosphere is crucial to the venue, the music as well should be unique, possessing the allure of styles oddly familiar, but distinctly different. There is no trance music, no digital disco, no simpering glum rock or agitated rap. Big Boss Bubeleh is the entertainment on this Friday night in early May.

The music stands apart from the typical razzle-dazzle pop that dominates the nightly categories of available live music. Affectionately captured on their new album A Droite!, Big Boss Bubeleh’s music is seductive and exotic, drawing the rich and sultry traditions of East European and Russian folk music, klezmer, old-time jazz, and Bessie Smith era blues. Their album has original songs of alluring, yet skewed charm. Their sound suggests another era, and yet the music is made contemporary, performed with élan and a sense of movement. It swings, it rocks, it grooves, and ably, effortlessly becomes a tasteful blend. In their best live moments, the distinctions between styles delightfully dissolve.

Big Boss Bubeleh hails locally from Encinitas and centers around the husband and wife team of Yael Gmach and Vladimir Yarovinski. She was born a French Jew in Paris, France, and he was raised a Russian Jew in the Ukraine. As with many wonderful stories of future soulmates who meet, marry, and become creative through confounding circumstances, the families of both Yael and Vlad migrated to the United States, both households eventually landing in California. They met, at last, some years ago at an event Vlady was playing music with friends. In attendance was Yael, who was sufficiently inspired by the music the ensemble played.

Recalls Vlady: I was playing at an event called the Encinitas Art Works, out on 101, playing with a couple of people. What we did was play music that was based on Middle Eastern and Jewish/Arabic styles, with blues influencing the whole sound. At one point the guitar player needed to take a break, so he left his guitar on the chair he was sitting in and Yael came up, picked up the guitar and began to sing and play. When she sang, we just played along. It was very sweet, very nice, and we began to play together after that. We played at the East Street Café in Encinitas. At first, I was just playing guitar on her songs, but then we started writing together, which was important. I showed her some things on guitar, some new progressions from the blues and jazz, so she’d be able to write songs in the blues form.

I was trying to confuse her a little. We came with this one song, which seemed impossible to play; there was a lot going on in the song, and she was forced to listen to the changes that were coming up, and she did it! She does it, she’s great! She was playing four chord progressions, like in Israeli and French music, and my idea was to twist it a little bit and show her elements from jazz and blues and extend more colorfully between songs. What you do is extend a simple song by inserting a 12-bar blues progression in the middle of the song, so now instead of having three or four chords, the song now has eight.

With time, Yael and Vlady married and increased their musical collaborations, resulting in the eventual formation of Big Boss Bubeleh, with them as the creative center. To be sure, the band highlights a fine ensemble of musicians who bring their experience and personality to the uniqueness that is this band’s stock and trade. Not surprisingly, musicians this dedicated to their art are able to draw on a wealth of talent from among their friends that add flavor and texture to the intoxicating swell of sound. In live performance, Big Boss Bubeleh calls on the serenely expressive vocal talents of Daryn Belinsky and Erica Adams. On any night one happens to see them, something wonderful and unexpected might unfold, some little miracle of circumstance. Two months ago, performing at Café Europa, a touring, uniformed group of Mariachi musicians were in the venue with their instruments, and joined in with guitars and trumpets in the extended jam Big Boss Bubeleh was already cooking on. The temperature in the room increased a tad, and couples rose from their tables to dance. Later, in late April, again at Café Europa, a trumpet player asked if he could sit in. The evening had an unexpected ten minutes of superb blues, warm, deep, and mellow as light rain. The improvisational aspect of the music draws from many sources, and it’s an element that works with glorious results when musicians are into the music, in the moment.

Says Vlady: Many like to stretch, to improvise, to let it breathe. You create cues, places other musicians recognize, and you’re able after a while to stretch the songs into a natural. Extending the songs, improvising around the changes was something I picked up playing with reggae musicians. I played with a reggae band from Barbados. It helped me keep a groove going, when it happened.

The musical connection between Yael and Vlady seems extra sensory at times.

Yael tries her best to describe on why their musical bond is as strong as it is: We meet on the Jewish side. My dad survived the Holocaust and at the deepest level of it all is just the joy of living. My father feels a profound joy in being alive. He has the French joi de vivre. I am pretty sure it’s the result that at four years old he saw the horrors and maybe his brain said okay, what else can be as awful as that? So, he feels joy in being alive. Vladimir has the same upbringing: his mother and father survived the Holocaust. So, the music we play is the feature of Jewish people, like black people with the blues, you know? I would adapt Russian chord progressions. I didn’t even know what they were, but I would feel them out on guitar; it was a natural thing. And since I became a musician I noticed that a normal American doesn’t understand those notes or the feelings, they’re not with it. They don’t know the breaks or understand them; Americans don’t know when a song changes back to A minor and gives us the mood of the song a twist.

Vladimir brought to the collaboration a strong poetic sensibility, with an emphasis on the power of the right words. Plain spoken but distinct in personality, the lyrics easily remind you to be grateful for the small miracles and good graces of being alive. In other words, the commonplace becomes profound. He has that ability. As a young man he was considered a fine poet in Russia and went to a special school for having the ability to write the way he did. BBB has the elements of me and Vladimir, who is kind of the old tree, who is obviously beautiful…. He’s an old soul. And it’s just that he’s an old soul, because he’s been focused on music for so many years without deviating into drugs or anything else. Never deviated, never bored with the Beatles, he was always gathering more information about music and musicians. It’s like anthropology and music when you meet Vladimir. You would not be bored for a week. Our relationship is because of music, and that’s because Vladimir is of music. That’s really what he wants to do all day, play music with friends.

At one point, Yael deftly explains her attraction music and her desire to make music and write songs: I realize it’s a language and it’s one I wanted to learn. My influences were growing up in a Jewish family, whether singing, playing. The whole family sang. I was born in Paris; it was a French-Jewish upbringing. By the time we got to the United States, I had listened to everyone in the 1980s, like Duran Duran. They were cute boys.

At some point I picked up the guitar and learned to play James Taylor and Joni Mitchell; it was like holding a magic wand, when you got the feeling inside you wanted to release, and it does the same thing for everyone around you. You can feel it. I see it in people who are getting into the song. I had discovered the feeling of being able to be a songwriter. It was a life change. The first song I wrote by myself was “Song for Easy,” who is my niece.

Suddenly, at the age of 38, I realized there was a new life that was going to be born to little sister and her husband, it was this new life growing in my little sister. I put it out there about what life means to me…. It was amazing–it was like my first child, in a way. I felt like I’d made a contribution somehow. How did I feel about that, after I wrote the song and performed it? It was like trees… I just looked suddenly and I was always planted, but after I wrote the song for my niece, I felt even more planted but also beautiful. I felt as though I made a contribution.

Contribute she did and continues to so with husband Vlady in the wonderful troupe Big Boss Bubeleh, aided by a splendidly diverse and gifted support cast.

Big Boss Bubeleh plays frequently at the Turquoise Café Europa in Pacific Beach and at select venues through out the county. A Droite! is available through CDBaby.