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.)