Krakow: Jews, Food, Absinthe, More Food, Madness

Notes from the Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow Poland.


Hard to get it all written down, what with jet lag and constant work and such.

Good news starts before the trip however. After making some discreet inquiries and quite a bit of convincing (black belt buttering up in fact) the fine folks at Jupiter Band Instruments allowed me to take one of their brand new, professional Sousaphones on my travels this summer. I am beyond words in gratitude, as my beloved 1890's Cerveny BBb Helicon has finally been repaired for the last time. One more clumsily baggage handler and she'll never toot nor blat again, and I just couldn't live with that prospect. In her place I have an amazing Jupiter Deluxe model 590S, silver plated, 4 valve sousaphone with hard case. Couldn't be a better start for a tour.

So I leave the Austin Airport at 11am on a Tuesday and I arrive in John Paul II Airport Krakow at 1pm the following Wednesday. This is what happens when you live in Texas where there are no direct flights to just about anywhere. I'm somewhat used to it by now, but a whole day in a plane or waiting to board one can grind one down. I took a guitar with me to kill the layover time and it was worth the extra baggage.

When I do land, I'm greeted by a very friendly driver who assures me that I am to be taken to my favorite hotel on the whole Earth (Hotel Eden, central Kazimerz) and that I should just take it easy and rest. Well, I "rested" plenty in a cramped airplane seat and seeing as I came all the way, I suggested that they take me straight to Jill Gellerman's Hassidic Dance Class. They have been languishing without a bassist for several days and playing for Jill's class was the highlight of my Klez Kamp experience last year. The band is an ad hoc assemblage of musicians pulled from the many ensembles performing at the festival that week. I am greeted by old pals Frank London, Sanne Molricke, Christian Dawid, Dan Blacksburg and by a few new friends Martin Van Deven (Beyond the Pale) and Dan Kahn. Rather than make the already strapped and harried festival staff locate me a bass to play, I have brought along a borrowed Ashbory bass. It looks and plays like a toy, but by golly, through an amp it makes a damn fine bass sound. As the airlines continue their part on the War on Art, we bassists will have to become more comfortable with alternatives like this in the future.

But I digress, onto the food.

So later, I find Cookie Segelstein and PJ Horowitz out the the street foraging for dinner, we snag Frank as well who suggests a place not far where they dress up the waitresses in ridiculous costumes and pump Chopin into the dinning room at full volume. Down the block and up a piece on Ulica Midowa we find Polokowski's. It's as big as a postage stamp and packed to the gills, but everything looks good and smells even better. In deference to my buds back in Texas LinkPolonia, I go for the Cabbage Rolls and Garlic soup. Not as good as the kind I get at Brian Marshall's place in Tomball TX, but damn fine all the same. We will return here again and again.

Of special note was a Pirogi shack 2 blocks the opposite direction which offered many variations of the classic Polish staple, called I think "Pirogi." I laughed when drummer Scott Kettner ordered the "Mexican" pirogi, but stopped chuckling when he offered me one and found it to be wonderful. I stuck to the traditional meat, cheese and fruit varieties. Once again, this restaurant was tiny, smaller than the smallest taco counter back home, but packed to capacity and damn cheap.

As this is a Jewish Cultural event, we make a point of finding as much trafe as possible. Here's what's left of my very first Pork Shank, split between Frank and myself:

It was amazing.

So most of my time was spent rehearsing for the grand finale concert, a concept Frank outlined with his last CD Carnival Conspiracy. On the record Frank collaborated with Scott's Maracatu drum ensemble, but the budget for this trip only allowed for Scott. To make up the rest Frank located a Brazillian Samba School from Warsaw called "monkey rythmn" in Polish. Now understand, Samba and Maracatu are both from Brazil, but they are as different if you will as Ashkenazic is from Sephardic. All Jews maybe, but not the same. To our great fortune, we find the Polish drummers have done their home work and learned the rhythms of Frank's CD. Every day, we go down to the banks of the river and played through the material, creating arrangements on the fly. When I'm not there, I'm either playing for the Hassidic Dance class or the big dance party on Thursday night. Otherwise, it's seeing the other concerts or jamming until 6am every night at the Alchemia Club.

Then there was the Absiynt House.Actually, the less said about this, the better. We were in a foreign country and all. Let's just say I spent a lot of time here.

Needless to say after a few days of the above, it all kind of runs together. So here's some random scenes:

Folks in Krakow seem to like to dude up their wheels. Dig this on the hood of a FIAT. I was entranced actually.

I guess if you're going to import a mess of Jews into your town for a week, it's only prudent to have a few Cossacks around as well, just to keep everything in balance. You know, just in case. I mean, I'm not overstaying my welcome when presented with a dude like this.

From his instrument and the markings on his kit, I'd reckon he's a Ukrainian and that's a bandura. But I could be mistaken. He had a lovely gruff voice, somewhere around the Howlin' Wolf range, but he seemed beat down and weary of plucking out ballads in the street for the tourists. He got a hand full of Zlotys from me though, hoping he'd pass my hotel room during the next pogrom....

Here's young trombonist Dan Blacksburg contributing both to the local economy and to his own adult onset type 2 Diabetes with some kind of sugar whipped onto a stick. I passed opting to use my caloric intake instead for the many, many Zubrowska's I would be having later.

The next few scenes are from my camera, taken onstage while we playing the a modern arrangement of a hassidic niggun dedicated to Rebbe Nachman, now set to the tune to the infamous "Numa-Numa" song. Which we played to a stunned audience of over 25,000, over and over again, finally marching out into the crowd. Polish TV was there to capture it all, so see if I ain't lying....

To my left, you'll see Beyond the Pale's mandolinist Eric Stein, the Polish Brazilian drummers and Steve Weintraub dancing.

Ahead of me, cantor Ben Zion Miller, a rapper who's name I cannot recall (but he was wonderful, a member of SoCalled's crew,) Micheal Alpert and Jeff Warschauer and a really big crowd...

And then there's me, with my shinny new horn and a TV camera man I nearly killed twice. You can see Rob Schwimmer over my shoulder playing, I shit you not, a theremin. Absolutely essential to the Numa-Numa song.

Here's a great shot of the Klezmer Brass All Stars set from the Festival website:

And then 8 hours later, it was off to the Montreal Jazz Festival.....