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.