12/23/09

Klez Kamp turns 25 this week.

Living Traditions, the parent organization of the annual "Klez Kamp" Yiddish Cultural retreat, is celebrating it's quarter century mark with this weeks' events in the Catskill Mountains. I myself first made the pilgrimidge to what I joking refer to as the Yiddish Brigadoon in 1996 and have been on staff for 13 susequent years (including the ill-fated Klez Kamp West in Petaluma CA.) My participation with this bunch of folks, both staff and students, has gone a long way to shape my opinions and attitudes about music and and culture, the very sorts of conversations I addressed in my recent interviews with the Steam Powered Preservation Society, parts one and two, for instance. In 2007 I wrote an article, "The KlezKamp Mitzvah: reviving reconnecting with a vanishing culture," on the event and it's influence for Sing OUT! Magazine, which is archived here.


I was asked to write a small rememberence to be included in the Klez Kamp "Zhurnal," the information booklet handed out to the participants. As per usual, I delivered my piece a few days too late to be included in the printing, so I share it with you here now:

Man, it was cold, colder than I could ever remember with snow everywhere. Sure it got cold on the Oklahoma plains where I was born and raised, but I had been living in Texas for a long while now and tonight I stood shivering in my cowboy boots there in the foyer of the Paramount. Just as unfamiliar to my experience was the great bus-load of little old folks and precocious little kids streaming into the old resort, all a ruckus with big hugs and joyful reunions, chattering away in this strange Germanic tongue. Up to that point, the only Yiddish I had heard was my Godfather Morris Katz calling his milk cows into the barn for the night back in Stillwater. Frankly, I had never around this many Jews before, not even at High Holy Days. My head was swimming.

“Oh good, you made it!” said the guy who invited me as he bounded towards me in the lobby. I had never met Henry Sapoznik in person but we had corresponded for years and for just as long he had been cajoling me to come up to “Kamp.” Though technically a stranger (heck I didn’t know a soul there really,) he hugged me like an old friend. “You’re just in time! The dancing is starting. We need a bassist.” He led me down into the Tanzhall and bade me onstage. I took of my coat, inquired about a key from the amiable clarinetist, and proceeded to clam my way through a thrilling set of dance tunes with Merlin Shepherd and Loren Brody.

Back home in Texas I play for dancing quite a bit, it’s one of the reasons I live there in fact. But here for the first time in my life I was actually playing Yiddish music, MY people’s music, for room full of Jewish dancers dancing Yiddish dances. Not a concert, with lifeless music set in amber, distant and removed. Tonight, here at this place music had sprouted legs, was drinking a bit too much and was tearing up the dancefloor. I don’t know if I can properly express how huge a thing that is, how music literally comes alive when it’s simply just a part of a greater function, in a living context. 13 trips back to the Catskills over Xmas week later, I am still in awe of that first of what was to be many, many “Klez Kamp Moments.” If only for this one gift, dayenu.

Truth is I’ve got quite a lot of stories I could tell you; of the musical relationships that formed here, of the people I now call my family, how these experiences have in many ways made me who and what I am not only as a musician, but as a person and as a Jew. Of the deeply moving naches of watching the same little pischers who were running around wild when I first came here mature in the adults that we now look to continue our work. I could tell you about the time I was down with no one to turn to and how this community, the Yiddish Culture family that Klez Kamp gave birth to 25 years ago and nurtures to this day, lifted me up with love and support.

I don’t know if I can properly express how huge a thing that is. - Mark Rubin, Austin TX, 2009

(You can read many more dispatches from the front of Yiddish Culture at the Klez Kamp Blog as well.)

Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa and see you kids in '10.

12/7/09

Now available: a handy Mark Rubin FAQ's

In all the years of my public life as a performer, a radio and television host, music supervisor for motion pictures and television or even as a journalist for print and web, not once had anyone asked me to share my basic philosophies about music and culture. Sure, I get a good jab in once and a while, like my quotes in Barry Mazor's "Meeting Jimmie Rodgers" or in the odd print article like Josh Alan's profile of me for the Dallas Observer. But ultimately, there's some kind of editor or agenda at play that somehow muddles the point I hoped to make. (Most notably the "Rubin v. Jimmy Sturr" non-controversy of several years ago.)

What a gift it is then to be allowed a platform, outside of this little blog here, to let folks in on some of the concepts that I have been working with, struggling with and trying to make sense of for the entirety of my professional life. They are the ideas that have defined me and, by extension, all the things I create.

Writer Sarah Hagerman of the Steam Powered Preservation Society web site sat down with me last month, asked some really great questions and let the cassette recorder roll. (Yes, a glorious Radio Shack cassette machine!) In essence, she has provided me with a handy FAQ for me and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

If you are even mildly curious about what motivates my work, then read this two part interview and know quite a bit about me. Probably more than you'd like, I reckon.

Part One: A wide ranging talk including growing up Jewish in small town Oklahoma, the real purpose of music in culture and how the legacy of the Bad Livers was so misunderstood.

Part Two: The power of nomenclature, language and how it effects music and culture, why Bluegrass Nashville is a closed shop (for Jews at least,) my travels across Europe with Rroma musicians and the story of Fat Man & Little Boy.

11/6/09

The Other Europeans - an Inquiry and my responses

What follows is a questionnaire I filled out for the Other Europeans Project. I was unaware that my responses would end up published, even posted publicly on a 7 foot by 3-foot poster stock much less! But, I meant what I said. Maybe you'd be interested too, so here it is. It’s in German, so the English translation follows.
Questions are by photographer Frank Burhadrt:
The Other Europeans - Inquiry

Identity
Where were you born?
Stillwater Oklahoma
What does „homeland“ mean to you?
It’s where I’m understood. Where the food tastes best and the rhythm of the language is familiar.
- In what ways do you think of yourself – musically and beyond – as an „other“ or different kind of European?
I am an exile. A galutnik (in Yiddish,) living happily and feeling welcomed in someone elses home. I am a Rootless Cosmopolitan, to quote Stalin’s pejorative, invited to many parties, but not a member of the club.
- Until now, have you had any really surprising experience in The Other Europeans project, or has everything gone more or less as you expected?
I tried to enter with no expectations personally. But I have been genuinely surprised at the level of synchronicity and unspoken communication that exists between these groups of musicians.
- When you consider the nations and ethnic groups of Europe politically, socially and culturally, do you see more things that divide them or more that unite or connect them? And: in your opinion, is Germany more „European“ today than 15 or 20 years ago?
As an artist I feel that it’s our inherent job description to help people identify not only with each other as members of a common family, but also our attachment with the ineffable. Like any great truth however, these “National characters,” the identities which help to bind groups of people together for a common good can conversely be manipulated by petty and vindictive persons for agendas of great evil and inhumanity. One of the saddest elements of human nature is that we seem to be able to work together most effectively when we are gathering against some other Tribe: Bosnia, Darfur, Sri Lanka, the news tells the same old story nearly ever day. As an artist I feel very strongly that we are to step into that breach of history before it becomes toxic and harmful. There is a reason why the arts are either suppressed (or go unfunded) in oppressive societies; these divisive leaders know too well the power a single musician can wield as a force for the promotion of goodness and courage to create change.
Germany, among the Nations of Europe, I feel can speak authoritatively to this point having taken the path of destruction and then reconciliation, not only for the communities of Europe that it ravaged in war and conquest, but also with it’s own people in reunification with the East. I can’t really speak to how European Germany is now compared to 15-20 years ago, as I first arrived here in 1991 when the country was attempting to reconnect with half of it’s population after 50’s years of an awkward separation.

Vision

- Do you believe that in Europe in 2025, the supposed cultural „differences“ and „otherness“ will be naturally seen as an enrichment, reflection, addition to, self-recognition of one’s „own“ identity, even outside of concert halls?
Well that’s the plan isn’t it? If that isn’t the goal of this endeavor, then why are we even bothering?

Difference

- At the beginning of The Other Europeans project the goal was to discover the difference between Yiddish and Roma musical styles and eventually to combine them. What results or insights have you achieved by now, just before starting the last project phase in Summer 2009, following your travels through Central Europe, and after intensive shared rehearsals and performances? From your current point of view, is the question about „differences between Yiddish and Roma musical style“ still the right question to be asking?
Sure it is, but only in the way you note different ingredients that different people use to make the same meal. I’m not certain I’ve been able yet to process all the insights that I have been exposed to. Working through these thoughts and concepts are the fuel for creativity and expression and for me that is best accessed in the moment.
- At the beginning of The Other Europeans project, Alan Bern considered that Jewish musical identity might not be as clear as that of the Lautari Band musicians (we were then using the term „Roma-musicians“ in general for the group).
I agree with Mr. Bern’s assessment. I feel that we Jewish musicians and particular we American born players are fairly well far removed from a cohesive and readily identifiable culture. Half of my struggle in this project has been to clarify what exactly is the Jewish musical identity in fact.
- A): Do you identify with any ethnic community - its daily traditions, customs and culture - so strongly that you can directly draw from it energy and inspiration for your musical work, your sense of identity, your virtuosity and stage presence?
I do indeed. I am a Texan and we present ourselves and interact in a very particular way. I am a product of my surroundings every bit as I am a product of my heritage. At our best, Texans are outsized in contribution and quality. We speak truth to power and do our best to remember we were not descended of fearful men. And, very importantly we dance with women, in public places. OK, it’s a nationality then and not so much an ethnicity. On a serious note my musician friends like to say about my approach to music and culture, “It really is true, that Texan trumps Jew…” (It rhymes in English.)
Consequence
- For you, is The Other Europeans project more of a (possibly unique) theoretical musical experience or will it have a direct, concrete and audible affect on how you actually play in the future?
Well, all I can say for sure is that my musician colleagues here at home consistently remark that there is a profound change in my performance and musical attitudes since I began my participation in the project.

Transcendence

- Are belief, spirituality, religion a source of energy and inspiration in your daily musical life?
In every respect. These beliefs are strong and strongly personal.
- Do you have someplace that is your own, private place of peace, of retreat, of contemplation?
It happens, but only fleetingly and very infrequently. Only when I stripped away my conscious and material form and am allowed access to the ineffable. This occurs most frequently when I am lost, completely involved within a musical moment.

Outlook

- To finish, let’s risk taking a look past The Other Europeans project, its musicians and musical styles. Suppose you could have anything and anybody you wanted for a new musical project – with whom and in which country would you like to stand on stage and what would we (the audience) hear?


For me, I would very much like to visit Moldova and if I was very lucky, maybe I could get a chance to play with the lautari there. Both in Edinets with the rustic brass bands and in Chisinau with Marin and Adam in the more modern Lautari style. I think in some ways, I have been preparing my whole life to do so.
For my own musical projects, this may seem strange given this forum, but I am resolved to approach my own American musical traditions of late, but with a new set of ears that I have gained from this project. I am after all, not European myself.

11/3/09

Identity: the Other Europeans. Jews, Gypsies and beyond...

For the last 2 years I was fortunate enough to be involved in the “Other Europeans,” project based in Weimar Germany with side trips to Vienna and Krakow. You can visit the website set up for the project and it’s attendant seminars and there’s even a site dedicated to the band The Other Europeans itself. Follow the links for back round.

But all you really need to know is that pianist/composer Alan Bern has assembled an amazing collection of some of
(can’t be all of, as I was involved so that sends the curve down a bit) the planet’s greatest “Yiddish” and “Lautari” musicians. Those were the terms that we came up with to describe the musical traditions of the east European Jewish and Rroma communities for our working purposes. Truthfully, the monikers “klezmer” and “gypsy” are a mixture of inaccurate, mal-abused and frankly racist so it was important to name ourselves and control the conversation.

The first year was all about defining within our two separate groups just what was it that made our music either “Yiddish” or “Lautari,” and that was easier said than done. Jewish music had been recorded commercially in Europe since the earliest days of recording technology. But then there’s that “difficult period” as they call it in Germany between 1933-1945, where we lost direct connection to the context in which all this music functioned. Whatever tattered bits that remained was stitched together after wards, Dead Sea Scroll-like had further had to contend with the twin towers of devastation: assimilation into the American fold and the active replication of Hebrew and Israeli culture. Yiddish life fared much worse in that air than anyone could possibly imagine ("That language grates in my ears," Ben Gurion on his mother tongue.) Our Rroma buddies, as devastated as they were too in the fascist roundups, had the meager benefit of a continued context (like, it’s just as bad today for Romani people in Europe as it ever was, for instance,) but were ignored by the recording industry entirely.
Thus we have a decent window on what Jews sounded like a long time ago and we know what Rromanis sound like today, so finding the “core” sounds and repertoire was mighty difficult to say the least. At first we did our separate workshops and put together 2 very fine representative ensembles of each tradition that performed to much acclaim at the KlezMore Festival, the Festival of Jewish Culture and along with 2 concerts 2 weeks of intensive workshops and panels at Yiddish Summer Weimar.
I came home with quite a few of my basic conceits about Jewish music challenged, in a good way I think. I also arrived with a whole new approach to not just Jewish music but music and further, life itself not to be too awful melodramatic about it. There’s just something so positive and edifying to be sitting in a room with some of the no-shit best musicians working on the planet. Being in the musical sphere around Petar Ralchev or Kalman Balogh alone should be life changing if you are paying attention. But then to meet the Moldavian contingent, and to be able to lock in so well both onstage and off WITHOUT ANY COMMON LANGUAGE OTHER THAN PICKIN’? The mind boggles actually.
It pains me greatly, embarrasses me really, that I was unable to find a sponsor to fund my participation in the field work trip to Edinets Moldova, the home of many of the finest Lautaris and one time home of Jewish Clarinet Giant Dave Tarras. Why Edinet, you ask? Well, submitted for your consideration are the two following recordings with roots there. The first, a very well known tune called “Hangu lui Nicu Chitac” by the Edinets based Lautari band Ciocarlia. The second, Dave Tarras recorded in the about the same time (late 1950’s) with the Abe Ellstein Orchestra called “Lo Mir Freilachsein.” Hmmm. What do you think? A connection maybe? (oh, can't post the mp3's. email me offline and I'll send them to you.)
For reasons I still cannot properly reconcile, my own Jewish community here in Austin feels not even the slightest connection to this endeavor. And in fact my attempt to raise interest, and hopefully funding, has been met either complete indifference or even open hostility. “How can we talk even about Eastern Europe right now when there’s so much anti-Israel bias going around…” was a direct quote from one of the folks I solicited for funds. This prevailing attitude in American Jewry belies a further discussion, and we’ll get around to eventually I’m sure. But suffice it to say when even the local Yid’n are not one bit on board with your version of Jewish Life and Culture, then you have a very tough road to hoe indeed.

On a more positive track, this years Other European project, ironically funded by the EU no less, included a Winter rehearsal in Weimar where the two ensembles attempted to meld into some kind of cohesive orchestra and explain musically our research. The sessions, in the middle of a frozen German February, were grueling and difficult. But the end result, highlighted by an amazing concert, was more than I had hoped for.


We gathered again in Vienna in July to further rehearse and then share our research if you will with concerts at the same three festivals we played last year. If it was even possible, these concerts were way beyond what I think any of us could have anticipated, and the performance in the Reform Synagogue in Kazimerz (Krakow, Poland) was one for the books; possibly a personal best thus far. Luckily for all of us, the concert was broadcast on television and is archived in streaming format here.
What are we to gather from all this?
I’m still processing it I must admit. Searching clumsily for analogies at a seminar, I proffered that the Yiddish and Lautari music’s were at one time drinking from a very similar well, with our communities close in both cultural and physical proximity. Marin Bunea reminds us that these music’s exist devoid of a required nationality or religion. In Edinets, he relates, the finest regarded Lautari was in fact a Jew and vice versa. But much in the same way that Bluegrass* music took off as a hyper-charged, polished and citified version of it’s more unsophisticated Old Time Country roots, Lautari music exists today in the same sort of context: concertized, virtuosic and harmonically advanced. Poor little Yiddish music remains stunted, attached more to the simcha and dance traditions and much like Old Time played today, devoid of it’s life giving context played by musical recidivists as if it’s a Jewish "Civil War re-creationist music." Or worse still, used only as a name checked home base of style and repertoire, used to create some kind of clumsy admixture using Yiddish melodies as a Tabula Rasa for whatever the artist (usually someone unable to enter the music business any other way strangely enough) wishes to project. Insert one of literally HUNDRED’s of acts in either slot. It’s OK. We have plenty of time…
That all said, I think that now is as fine a time to note that I’m pretty much done with attempting to make people agree with my take on Jewish music anymore. It's tiring and evidently ineffective. I’ll take a gig when they come, but my personal identification as a “klezmer” (oh how I do despise that term!) musician has thus concluded. I walked away from a popular and commercially successful music group almost a decade ago, in no small part to better devote myself to the reconstitution of Yiddish and other traditional music’s. But as anyone who has been working in this field could tell you, it’s not a parnossa. I reckon I made more scratch playing my own music for 90 minutes last week than Michael Winograd banked all last year. And he’s friggin’ great. And he’s only one of about three dozen amazing cats I know who have done the hard work and play the good music, with wit and skill. But what they didn’t learn, as they were way too busy learning music and culture correctly, was how to hustle a a good paying gig and write a grant that appeals to the current version of mainstream Jewish thought.
But that’s the environment we find ourselves in today, and I feel that I’m personally unable to in my opinion degrade this music, any music actually, to the level that is currently required to operate effectively. Frankly, I feel the same way about Bluegrass, the music of my upbringing as well; I just can’t reconcile what it has become today with what I know to be my own experience.
Ultimately, I think we get the culture that we deserve. I have no children, so ultimately I have no dog in this hunt. And I plan on having a much more care free life now that the "why don't you to think like I do" portion of my career has now thankfully concluded.

*I wish to go on record that Zev Feldman called my analogy “brilliant,” but only after he amended it.

10/17/09

From the Archives: review of the George Jones re-issue "The Grand Tour"


George Jones – The Grand Tour

Not Fade Away - Reissue Review from Issue #70 July-August 2007

George Jones

The Grand Tour (American Beat)

By 1974, George Jones had already had quite the volatile career — riding high on a long string of top-10 hits, being reduced to living in his car outside of Jasper, Texas, and hitting every conceivable point between. The ’70s opened with mostly misses for Jones, including releases with his new and equally famous wife Tammy Wynette, a few moderate charters, and a gospel LP few remember.
His media-scrutinized marriage was fast unraveling, and Jones had resumed drinking, this time mixing alcohol with an ever-growing list of illicit substances. It’s amazing, then, to note that just as he was about to fall from the pinnacle of success, he made what would arguably be the finest record of his career.
The Grand Tour opens with the title track. That lonely solo voice, just above a sad whisper and accompanied only by a tentative few notes on a piano, is so naked and raw in comparison to how a country song is supposed to start, it’s almost shocking. The whole band shuffles in soon behind, in a cool and familiar way. But it’s those scant opening seconds, and the few times when the arrangement breaks down to that solitary voice again, that even the casual listener is drawn in close by the emotion Jones pours out in just a few words.
With paper-thin courage, he casually paints a starkly remembered still-life of a man on the very precipice of his own ability to deal with the daily reminders of his aching heart. By the final couplet, his voice soars over the sweet strings and backup singers to a final crescendo of hopeless loss and complete regret. In the sort of irony one only finds in real country music, this title track, chock-full of heartbreak and love gone cold, was co-written by the very man (George Ritchie) to whom Jones would soon lose his wife.
There were other great numbers on the session besides the big downer at the front. Producer Billy Sherrill gets credit for using strings and backing vocalists (the Jordanaires) all to best effect. Johnny Paycheck’s “Once You’ve Had The Best” charted at #3, and “Pass Me By (If You’re Only Passing Through)” and “Borrowed Angel” are minor classics that hold up quite well.
“Private Life”, the closing track, may be a throwaway, but lyrics about a celebrity-starved public clamoring for bad news about their heroes are just as topical now as they were then. Indeed, looking back through the filter of history, it could be easy to read too much into the lyrical content of this album. Jones and Wynette divorced soon after, and by all accounts Jones then descended into a spiral of substance abuse and failing to show up at his own concerts. It was a self-exiled dark hole, the place Jones could well have been describing in the title track.




9/8/09

What I really should have said...

Seems a lot of folks have been approaching me lately about Eastern European music here in Austin. I can see why too, as I've been playing Jewish Dance music (aka "klezmer') here and abroad since I first moved here in 1989. I don't wish to sound entirely discouraging about it, but a person's intentions completely speak to the end product. And my life in folk music has been shaped by the people who I learned from. Who were, trust me, far less amiable in expressing these concepts that I.

As I return tonight from a weekend of work in NYC with Jewish clarinetist-Bluegrass mandolinist non pareil Andy Statman, the ad hoc Balkan Brass Band Veveritse and others, I'm starting to formulate a handy FAQ on why maybe I'm not the guy you want to talk to.


a) Music is functionary to context.

As much as I enjoy listening to and being inspired by, lets use simply as one example, Romanian Lautari music, the simple fact is that there isn't anyone here in Austin TX who wants to hear it. If there is no wedding, no christening or restaurant gig, then why take the time and energy to crank out a low grade version to play in front of audiences that wouldn't be able to discern the difference between no good and no, good! Submitted for evidence: What I've found in my many years in this community is that the Jews of Texas, a mighty fully assimilated bunch of folks, don't much care for the kind of Jewish music I play. It's attached to Yiddish speaking culture that they either can't remember or in the case of fervent Zionists, reject entirely. Thus, I don't get any calls to play simchas here, even though after over a decade of study the musicians I work with locally are as competent and fine as you'll encounter anywhere. There's just no demand for the service I provide here. I do get work every where else there is a culturally active Jewish community, say like the East Coast (who would have thunk?) and without much irony, parts of Europe where it never existed in the first place.

Many years ago, I became entranced with the Oud and the sounds of the Magreb and points East. I sought out a teacher, which is what you are supposed to do when you wish to really learn something. But he wouldn't show me a thing on the instrument, not how to tune it, nothing, until I explained myself. Why, he inquired, do you want to play the Oud? It is not your music. There is no possible way you will ever understand the music it makes, he explained, as it takes the study of a lifetime to comprehend not only the tonalities but the purpose and context in which the instrument exists. It was not until I had outlined my goals completely, and to his satisfaction, that he started my instruction. (For the record, I told him I was interested in the Oud only where it intersected with Western cultures, in the form of the Greek Oriental Rembetika tradition which has historically informed the Hassidic and other Eastern European Jewish music's of which I had made a decade long study at that point.) I have a feeling most of these young kids playing folk music today have never been challenged in that way. And more's the pity.


b) "Coals to Newcastle"

Here in Texas we have AMAZING living music traditions, with Tejano, Tex-Polish, Tex-Czech and French language music’s all indigenous to the region. Shuffle blues, honky tonk, Texas swing, white folks got some great music here too.


Who, really, moves to Austin TX to play Balkan music? Someone who wants to be as far away from the Balkans, and anyone who could call out a charlatan as possible, that's who. What possible explanation can you conclude?

There's a whole tribe of "New Orleans" jazz musicians who reside and work here in Austin simply because they possess neither the skills or stomach to actually go to New Orleans where, strangely enough, there is a built in demand for New Orleans Jazz. It's far more comfortable to sit 8 hours to the west and not ever have to see if you really could “make it” in the proper context. Bluegrass lives in Tennessee. Be-Bop and Free Jazz in Chicago and New York. Balkan music lives in the Balkans and when you drink this far from the well, the water is mighty foul indeed.

Conversely, Texas music has changed the world, and people leave their homes and lives elsewhere every day to come here and take it in. Personally, it's idiotic not to soak it all up, as it flows from the tap here. If, that is, you have the ears to hear it.

c) A "cultural dilettante" is the worst pejorative in my personal vocabulary.

I won't go into the whole flaming screed, but I strongly suggest you pick up a copy of Hank Bradley's amazing essay "Counterfeiting, stealing, and cultural plundering
A manual for applied ethnomusicologists." He makes my argument, but without the bitter recriminations that I am famous for. Suffice it to say that when someone not of a culture approaches me about playing music of a culture, the only thing I could think of is "what is it about yourself and your own people that you find so distasteful that you feel the need to suck off some one else's'?" Over the years, I've been shown some amazing examples of historical dissonance that has tempered my tone quite a bit. But I think you get my point.

d) Play "with," not "like."

Music is fun. It's amazing and wonderful and healing and a conduit to the ineffable. But music is simply just one small facet of a greater diamond that represents a culture, and thus can also be precious and fragile. I don't begrudge anybody a gig; if you want to call yourself "gypsy-punk-klezmer-balkan-circus" whatever all you like. It's a free country. But I prefer to play Lautari music with actual Lautari musicians in situations where they expect Lautari music to be played. And the simple truth is: you could too. All you have to do, as LBJ famously remarked, "is everything you have to do." Life is WAY TOO SHORT to be screwing around, people. Get out there and do it, not just some lame half-assed version of it that a denatured and decontextualized society will let you get away with.

Playing a watered down, second rate version of a beautiful musical tradition far removed from its context and community with like minded hobbyists isn't going to get you anywhere. Not anywhere you'd really want to be ultimately, I hope.


(See Manifesto for a New Year, dated 2007 for even further context on music and intention.)





8/21/09

A note on success in the market place from Danny Barnes.


In the last year or so I have kept up a daily communication with my old business partner and "Fearless American Weirdo" Danny Barnes. It's been a wild mix of medias: iPod pics, tetxts, emails and YouTube links. We hardly speak in fact except at the odd Bad Livers reunions (next one and last one on the books, Novemeber 20, Old Town School of Folk, Chicago IL, double bill with the Hot Club of Cowtown.)

Here's a typical chestnut of wisdom from him:

"the stanford research institute says that the money you make in any endeavor is determined only 12.5 percent by knowledge and 87.5 percent by your ability to deal with people."

later another quote is "what you will become in five years will be determined by what you read and who you associate with."

Frankly, that explains a lot to me!!

Here's one of the many bands he's been hipping me too as well:





Danny's got a new CD coming out in the fall, and it's a breathtaking master work. No foolin'. Check it out.


7/30/09

Brian Marshall delves into Texas Polish-Jewish Connections

"If it had not been for a Jewish merchant we could have ended up in New Jersey or some other God awful place!!!!!!"

That's the email title I got from Texas Polish Dance Band Fiddler Brian Marshall, and it's meant as a compliment. Evidently he's found that his kin folk, along with most of the second wave of immigration of Texas Polonia were encouraged to move to Texas by one James Meyer Levi, a Polish Jew and Confederate Civil War Veteran.

He continues: "New Waverly, Texas, is located thirteen miles south of Huntsville on State Highway 75 and Interstate Highway 45 in southern Walker County. The Houston and Great Northern Railroad Company founded it, after the residents of what became Old Waverly refused to grant the railroad a right of way through their community. A group of Walker County cotton planters met in a general store at Old Waverly, Texas on September 19, 1866, to discuss their problems in securing workers. Meyer Levi, a merchant who had various holdings in the state, owned the store.

There were twelve planters who gathered at the meeting for the purpose of recruiting laborers from Europe. The members established themselves as ‘The Waverly Emigration Society” and commissioned Meyer Levy to travel to Europe to recruit 150 “foreign laborers” to work on their lands. Each planter requested a certain number of workers with specific skills. The planters agreed to play for the passage of the immigrants to Texas and to play the men $90, $100, and $110 for their work in their work in their first, second, and third years in America. The women would receive $20 less for their labors each year. Meyer Levy agreed to go to his native Poland and recruit workers. Forty-five families totally 143 persons arrived in New York on April 9, 1867. After a short difficulty with travel funding, they then traveled by ocean from New York to Galveston, Texas.

In 1870 the Great Northern Railroad Company laid its’ tracks ten miles west of Old Waverly and set aside a town site know as Waverly Station. The new community attracted many residents of Old Waverly, and the new town’s name was soon changed to New Waverly. Because so many of the original group of Polish immigrants followed to New Waverly it was called the “Cradle of Polish Immigration” in this part of Texas. While most of the first Polish immigrants made their homes in New Waverly, many eventually migrated to the surrounding counties."

Visit Polish Texans website for more information about this fascinating Polish Diaspora community.

6/16/09

There's Way Too Much On YouTube...

..that you may have missed. I find it, and share it with you so you can have a productive life.

Here's a collection of music in it's most natural state, in context and live. Hope you enjoy.

From a Serbian bar, here's Aca Nikolic Cergar:



Serbia again, looks like a backstage rehearsal at the Guca Festival with Demiran Cerimovc Orkestar, that year's winner:

Another Guca favorite, Vranjski Biserli playing a very upbeat Edersedzli on a morning talk show

Here's an inpromyu street jam with some out of towners in Vranska Banja, home to many fine brass band players in Serbia. Come with me now to old Mexico, the State of Sinaola in fact, home of the big brass Bandas. Sit in on this rehearsal of Banda Libertad de Guamichil (and dig the tuba player who kills it!)

Follow me down to the beach with the Buccaneer Band of Mazatlan.

Here's a Son Jarocho band tackling one of my all time favorite numbers, El Cascabel! In my heaven, harps sound like this:

Well, I think this is what happens when two ditsy French chicks pick up a couple of Romanian Lautari and head back to the hotel. I think...

Here's what looks to ba a social gathering of some sort in Romania, street music provided by the Fanfara din Toflea.

Further East, at least I think, here's the scene at a Moldavian Wedding. Screw the band, let's see those dancers. Sirba!!

Ah, the mariachis of Romania. A little table music?

Here's as fine an example of a Romanian a village taraf as you will find. This could have been filmed 100 years ago.Cristi Geagu Catâroiu on lead violin.

Welcome to the living room of the Pavlovic Family, where daddy Branko plays the hell out of the brac!!

We all owe a great debt to these folks wwho are giving these little glimpses into their world. Hopefully with technology like this, we can put aside the lie of otherness between peoples and we can finally recognize everyone as brothers in the family of man. That's my dancing prayer.

Today we speak of Gabi Lunca.

It's a well documented fact that I'm totally nuts about Lăutari Music from Romania and points east. As I prepare for another adventure to Europe with the Other Europeans project, I have been diving back into that rich repertoire for yet another listen. Marin Bunea, the legendary Moldovan fiddler on our tour, is like me entirely entirely enraptured in the music of singer Gabi Lunca.

There's a fine biography of her posted here, noting all the amazing musicians (the Gore Brothers, Toni Iordache, ect..) and of her rivalry with the equally amazing, if not more rough and tumble sort of singer, Romica Puceanu. But watching how she looks at her accordionist when she drops the mic down to his bellows when he solos, you don't need to be told that she was married to him!

Enjoy!


This one was a mind blower. Fans of the music of Dave Tarras will note the melody and form is identical to his tune "Gypsy" from the the amazing Columbia LP TANZ!



Here's one of those amazing "lazy 3/8ths" tempos that Romanian musicians are world famous for.

3/29/09

From the Strad magazine:


“I am not such a fanatic as to say that the occasional indifferent performance (of music) leads directly to mental or moral ruin, but I do assert that the frame of mind induced by habitual indifferent performances of music, or of any act whatsoever, and which leads to the uncritical acceptance of the same by a number of slack and devitalized intelligences is verily, a forcing house of mental and moral disease.”

Excerpted editorial, The Strad Magazine, London UK, March 1909.


What could I possibly add?

3/20/09

"Austin's King of Jewish Bluegrass Tuba"

I awoke this morning at the historic Anglican rectory just north of U. Cal Berkeley, to be shuttled to the Elmwood Elementary for a school program with Kosher Gospel singer Joshua Nelson. (Not to be confused with the lame Israeli rock singer of similar name.)

It was a wonderful bunch of kids asked probing and sensitive questions for the musicians.

Then it was a short cab ride into Southwest Berkeley to the workshop of master ukulele builder Mike DaSilva. Mike made a uke (the "Lucky Lady") for my buddy Pops Bayless and it’s quite possibly the finest constructed, sounding and playing string instrument I’ve ever encountered. And I have some mighty fine custom instruments myself. Mike took time out his busy day slicing tone woods to show me around the shop and talk ukes. I’d only ever communicated with him via email and phone and I was gratified to find such a kind and thoughtful gentleman.


Modest and quiet in person, he really does let his instruments do the talking. I’m a big fan of his historical instruments, which he had several in the pipeline and are as fine as you will encounter. But he also showed me an amazing semi-cutaway tenor he was building for James Hill, designed to accommodate his playing style. And we discussed at length his experiments with carbon fiber tops and I even put in a tentative order for a concert model (allowing funding!!)


While there, I got to see his latest line, a low cost, hand made entry-level uke. It’s an all solid Koa box in the Hawaiian style with PegHed tuners and one of his amazing new uke cases, all at $650.00!! An AMAZING value for a hand made instrument I assure you. It plays and sounds to my ear in no way appreciably different from and custom made instrument. Put in an order now.


Then it was a long stroll on an uncharacteristically warm summer day back to the rectory. On the way this caught my eye and I checked out one of the many Indian import shops on University Ave.


So here’s what’s way in the back: and that’s just a few pics. There was every imaginable bell, shaker and tambourine, and hand pump organs and stuff I couldn’t begin to identify.



After a running a short errand I was dropped off at the festival director’s house for a shabbes meal. I had arranged to meet my old pal Djordje and it seemed we were both early, so we sat down on the stoop and caught up. After a short while, a nice lady across the street called out to us a bade us come into her house. As it turned out, she was married to another musician pal of mine, John Schott and they got a call from the director telling her she was running late.


They served us tea and snacks and John’s wife (so sorry to forget her name) is a writer and had a story about he trip to Belgrade, Djordje’s hometown, back in ’89. John accompanied the story with a wonderful minstral style, 6-string banjo made by a local maker and one that I coveted immediately.



Soon enough, the director arrived along with Joshua and some of his singers and other local Yid’n, and after the barruchas we sat down to eat. Chulent, asparagus, and some of the finest BBQ Chicken I ever had. No pictures, too busy eating.

But after a cognac or two, the honored guest took to the keyboards for a few tunes.




Then off to bed. They pick us up to play on KPFA at 8am and then we go to KALW for a live broadcast on West Coast Live. Then it's the big concert tonight! It's important to note that now that it has been in print twice, I am formally "Austin's King of Jewish Bluegrass Tuba."

Sunday morning I magically turn into a Bad Liver and do shows out here Sunday and Monday. Hard to believe sometimes this is my profession.

2/10/09

Jewish Self Loathing, music edition....

To paraphrase William S. Burroughs, much like the man dressed as a woman to board the last life boat leaving the ship Titanic, we now have a new measure for deeply ingrained self loathing.

Can it be that we, the comfortably assimilated Jewry of America, have drifted so far from our roots that we must now tear down anyone who chooses to cling to them?

Submitted for your review and comment is this article from the Jewish Chronicle (UK,) entitled "Turn off the klezmer and turn up the Ramones" by Paul Lester.

(Besides being poorly written, an important affectation of "Rock" writing in England in the new post-Modernist world, it could be the very first time I've ever had an occasion to ever read the rag.)

Dig this chestnut:

There are plenty of musicians who today play very little other than the music of past centuries. Some play it for its eternal qualities. Others, however, are more concerned to convey “authenticity”.

Such musicians peddle klezmer as though it were the truest expression of the Jewish experience. They perhaps even imagine that, if there is a Jewish “voice” in music, klezmer captures it best.

But, for me, the best Jewish music — or rather, the best music by Jews — reflects the moment and is somehow a response to the times in which it was made. And if there is a “Jewish voice”, it is not to be heard in klezmer, maybe because it is being drowned out by all those clarinets, violins and accordions.

Right.

Tell Frank London that to his face. Or Aaron Alexander, or Alex Kontorovich, or... I could go on and on. Here's an authentic Jewish voice for you: Are you high?

Well, lets be honest here, there are some mighty crappy bands that "peddle" pap as culture. Yale Strom's clumsy horror show is a fine example of poor scholarship wedded to poor musicianship and presented in a an overly precious package. And there's a whole genre of low-brow, low-rent"klezmer" acts out there: Maxwell Street, Yiddiche Cup, Best Little Klezmer Band in Texas, ect..I was in one of these dog-and-pony-shows for a time (Austin Klezmorim) so I know of what I speak. I'm sure if all you had heard was that, I reckon the article's thesis would ring true. As Earl Scruggs once famously remarked when asked why Bluegrass music wasn't as popular in the 70's as it was a generation before, "It because of the lousy Bluegrass bands playing today." Emmis.

This reminds me of a similar polarization in criticism in the African American community when discussions of "jazz" and the sort of expressive musics of the avaunt guard. To my mind, this essay, like those critics, reject anything that smacks of "plantation" (or concentration camp) and promotes only those art forms which reflect the values of the dominant culture. And much like our African brothers, we kikes routinely beat the pants off the goyim even playing by their rules (see author of "White Christmas," and "Easter Parade.") Accomplishments to be rightly proud of. But here it sounds like the rant of what Black writers would call a "porch nigger" (or my favorite curse, a "kapo.") Mr. Lester has chosen an "either/or" scenario that doesn't exist in the real world.

I'm guessing too, and this is simply a guess, that Mr. Lester has never been denied admittance into a public pool for being Jewish. Nor has he has a swastika painted on his door, or a cross burnt in his lawn. Nor was he regularly quizzed about his personal association with the death of Jesus in English class. Like many today, he displays an attitude born of a life of complete enfranchisement, comfortable and safe in his identity. Nu?

And I guess I should note that I myself, a Yiddish music musician, the very kind that this writer rails against, has spent a life engrossed entirely reflective of the modern music of the culture around me. I have roadied for the Flaming Lips, provided a PA and a crash pad for Black Flag and Husker Du. My bands have opened for the Butthole Surfers, sold out shows at CBGB's and No Doubt once opened for me. I have played honky tonks across Texas with Dale Watson, Wayne Hancock, the Derailers and Don Walser (Google 'em, yankees.) I recorded a Grammy nominated CD for Tex-Mex accordion legend Santiago Jimenez, and have played festivals with members of the Savoy Family of Eunice LA. I am a first call musician in the Czech and Polish dance bands around greater Houston.

Not bragging folks, just try to explain that those of us who choose to listen to and respect the cultural gifts of our heritage generally live entirely in the here and now. And we love accordions. And clarinets. And we aren't one bit ashamed to say so. Oh, and by the way we rock out better then anyone too.

With "writers" with this sort of agenda supported by the mainstream Jewish press, it seems what I feared for many years really is true: my own community actively rejects me and my work. Why else then is it that to perform Yiddish music, I must travel back to old Europe, sometimes standing on the very spot of my extended family's destruction, to find an appreciative audience? Conversely, I have performed for my local JCC a total of 3 occasions in 15 years. How sad can it be that the children of the murderers find meaning in my culture when the children of the murdered actively despise it. I'll let Mr. Lester (ne' Lowenstein, maybe?) work that out on the couch years from now when the vacuousness of the Goldyne lands shallow consumer culture finally leaves him flat. By then, there may not be anybody left to say a kaddish. ("It doesn't really reflect the true Jewish sentiment of today" one imagines they might be heard to say.)

Once, I was told by a nice little old lady (and one time guest of the nice folks at Bergen-Belsen) once that "who needs Hitler? We have plenty enough Jews eager to end Yiddish life."