Notes From a "Jewish" Europe

You may have noticed that I have been mighty quiet on this blog thing here.

It’s not like there hasn’t been a lot to tell you about. For instance a vicious car wreck nearly a month ago that I have been advised by counsel not to discuss. Then there’s the upcoming Bad Livers show, the first in nearly 8 years, which surprises me as much as the next guy. Then there’s a one-off date in Aspen CO with Andy Statman coming up the day before which I’m really looking forward to. Next month finds me involved in major events in London and Toronto, so the ball is getting moved down the field as we say back home.

But the real reason I haven’t written anything is simply because I have not had the time. For the first time in a very great while, I am actually being utilized to my capacity with nary a free moment to reflect. And boy, does it feel good.

Many months ago, Alan Bern, who among a great many other things is the artistic director of Klezmer Summer Weimar (that’s Germany, not the town of the same name just down the road from Columbus TX, BTW) asked me to participate in a two year project funded by the European Union and several European Jewish music festivals (Festival of Jewish Culture Krakow and Klezmore Vienna along with Weimar) dedicated to the sticky topic of the similarities and differences between the “klezmer” and “lautari” communities of musicians that once lived, worked and very often partied together for many generations prior to WW2. To be clear we’re talking about Jews and Rroma (ne “gypsies’,) both hot topics with confusing histories in Europe, both east and West. I came into the project with my own cloudy conceptions of just what it is that makes Jewish music “Jewish,” and as it turns out, the same questions get asked among the Rroma as well.

The conceit is to form two groups, one Jewish (“klezmer” well call it,) and the other Rroma (“lautari” for our purposes here.) Each group is made up of musicians from wildly divergent back rounds and locations sharing only their professional proficiency in the culture they work in. Thus, the “Jewish” band features a Sephardic Jew from London, a couple goys, one named Christian, a Jewish confirmed atheist, an apikoros-in-training Texan, and a Lubbovich Chasid from Ukraine. The Rroms have Hungarians, Moldavians, the greatest living accordionist from Bulgaria and a gadjo Romanian living in France to contend with. The klezmers were given a mammoth amount of recordings and transcriptions, mostly of the earliest recordings of Abe Schwartz, Harry Kandel and the Bobriker Kapelye, attempting to divine just what is it in these recordings that a) makes these performances Jewish and b) why has nobody in the entire span of the “klezmer revival” been able to come close to that sound. As anybody who has followed my writings on this topic will tell you, I have some pretty clear ideas on the subject (see “There is no Klezmer Music” for instance.) But I guess simply because of that stance and my willingness to dive into these questions with an open mind (and get to hang out with some of the finest living Lautari to boot,) I was the right guy for the job.

(For the record, the "Jews" were Alan Bern (project leader,) Stas Royko, Paul Brody, Matt Dariau, Christian Dawid, Dan Blacksberg, Guy Schalom and yours truly. The Rroma were Kalman Balogh, Czaba Novak, Peter Ralchev, Marian Bunea, Adam Stinga and Adrian Receanu.)

Here's video snippets from the first day's rehearsal of each group:

We gathered in Krakow for 4 days of intensive separate rehearsals, culminating with a performance at the Festival and a joint appearance at the big Shalom on Szeroka party that concludes the event. From there, we traveled by bus to Vienna to do the same there, only with one day to rehearse. Then it was off to Weimar for two weeks of symposium, performances and workshops (the later of which we are right in the middle of.) These weeks of close quarters and twelve-hour bus trips have done much to bring the two groups into a single outfit joined with a common purpose. Language has been a bit of a stumbling block, with French, Russian and Hungarian translations running nearly constantly at all times.

And then for the week of intensive workshops we’re all teaching the Germans in English. (Can you imagine Germans coming to America and pulling that off the other way around?) For your edification Alan noted that there was only one continuous complaint during the four symposium days. He told me many people had a common complaint, “we’re certain Mark is an very interesting person. But what is he saying? No one can understand a word he says.” Evidently Texan English is an unknown dialect here in the Eastern part of Germany…. To that point, I am going to have to become bilingual, by hook or by crook, if I am going to continue these dialogs. I’m with Obama on this point: it’s a crying shame we Americans are so language deprived.

Did I mention we were followed the entire time by a film crew documenting the whole thing, all the time? That's a whole other blog posting....

Hanging out, drinking vodka in the street and sitting down for a few meals in Weimar with Bob Cohen remains the highlight of the trip for me. He’s one of the last real Human Beings; unafraid and fully empowered in beauty and light, 24/7. He's a bit like that crazy uncle who your father likes well enough to have come visit for a little bit, but is so honest and fearless that everyone seems just a little embarrassed by. (I'm talk about you Fred...) We even got about 20 minutes of old-time picking in. One day I predict Hungary will put up a statue of him, but only after he is safely long dead and not available to call them on their bullshit fakelore. He headed back to Budapest all too soon, but returns with his mighty ensemble, Di naye Kapele, to be the house band for the Dance Week, sadly after I split for the states. (Why is dance separated from music workshops? There’s a long debate in the making…)

The symposium itself was mighty damn interesting, even if the palaver was a mite high falutin’. I met and hung out a bit with Bulgarian Rroma rights activist Ivan Ivanov who is a complete hoot. But my favorite parts came from the juxtaposition of Yale Strom and his work, followed that by Bob Cohen and his. One fine example; Bob screaming out “BULLSHIT” at the top of his lungs at several moments during the screening of Yale’s movie. And folks, that was just the tip of that iceberg. There is so much to say about Mr. Strom and his version of anthropology, but I just can’t bring myself to even take the time to type it out. He’s about the nicest fellow you ever met. And mores the pity. Buy me a beer when you see me I guess and I'll spill all the beans.

By incredibly great contrast, the next night I saw possibly the finest documentary I have seen yet, and even got to meet the director. It’s called “Who’se is this song?” by Adela Peeva, and it’s a humble little film asking simple question and getting a series of complex answers. She’s a Bulgarian married to a Serb with a son living in Romania, so she considers herself Pan-Balkan. She was at a dinner party at Greek restaurant one night when the little folk band struck up a familiar tune form her childhood, (“Uskurara” in fact.) Everyone at the table, all from different nations, claimed the tune to be strictly theirs. Curious about a simple song and peoples attachment to identity and culture, she then travels all through the Balkans playing the tune for people and listening to their reactions. Not to be missed is the scene where this very gutsy lady plays a Bosnian version for a room full of drunken Serbs. It’s an amazing document that I heartily suggest you find (it is on DVD I’m told.) She will be screening the film in my old hometown of Norman Oklahoma in the fall, so you Okies don’t miss it.

It’s been completely gratifying work on all levels, musically, socially and spiritually if I don’t mind saying so. I have come to know nearly all the members of both ensembles quite well, and Mr. Bern is to be commended for pulling together what appear to be the nicest guys I’ve ever met in all my years in the music business, no foolin’.

This is some mighty deep work we are into, but it’s not all seriousness. In fact, this has been a tour of non-stop joke telling. We have come to find that it is yet another character Jews and Rroma musicians share. Nearly everyday, in every situation, someone in this project has told a joke, most of them terrible. The Black Belt Champeen Joke Teller belt goes to violinist Stas Royko, who translates all his jokes from Russian moments before he tells them and really deserves his own website. He has told so many tall tales and funny stories that I literally cannot keep track of them.

First up, Bob Cohen:
3 people are sitting in the dreary rain at a bus stop in Berlin; a Polish laborer, a former school teacher from Dresden (in the former DDR,) and a native born West Berliner. One of them notices what looks like a little bottle sticking up from the ground, and all three reach down to dig it up. When they pop the cork on the ancient glass, a Genie magically appears and announces: ‘for releasing me from my bondage, I will grant you each a wish. What is your command?”

The Pole thinks to himself, life is not what I expected here in Germany. I was much happier back home, so he says “I wish to go home!” POOF, he finds himself in downtown Gdansk, happy as a clam.

The East German thinks ‘this reunification has been a crappy deal for me. Under the Commies, I was a professor; I had a great apartment, and assured wage and security. In this new Europe, I have to hustle for a living and toil as a bricklayer. It’s just awful. He says, “I want the wall back up, I want my old life in the DDR.” POOF, the wall is back up and he finds himself in front of a class of students.

The Berliner watches all this go by. He thinks, “Let me get this straight. The Pole is back in Poland. And the Wall is back up.”

He tells the Genie, “I think I’ll have a cappuccino….”

Now, here’s one from Kalman Balogh:
When a man starts to age, he begins to loose a bit of his virility. For him, he becomes very sad the first time there isn’t a second time.

For his wife however, she becomes even sadder the second time there isn’t a first time….


Introducing Csaba Novak

In my opinion, Hungary's greatest dance band bassist, a regular collaborator with Cimbolm master Kalman Balogh. Csaba and I were to "team teach" the bass clinics at Klezmer Summer Weimar which have to date basically been Csaba doing the following while I stare blankly in awe...

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. The bass? He made it. He builds basses in his "spare time." This particular model was as fine a soundsing and playing bass as I have yet encountered, and remember, I work at a bass shop. I'll be putting in an order soon.