From the Rubin Archives: Interveiw with Martin Kalisky, Moldovan Muzikant

From the BDAA Newsletter, "the Official Journal of the Balalaika and Domra Association of America," September 1997.

Shared here today is an interview with Jewish Moldovan musician Martin Kalisky. Interesting conversation which evidently included mandolinist Mike Marshall and touches on Andy Statman's beginnings in East European music. When I was first interested in the mandolin in "klezmer" music, several folks in the "International Folk Dance" community recommended I find Mr. Kalisky, but alas he passed before I could meet him. His influence lives today however in the hands of anyone playing Yiddish music on the mandolin.


Hank Bradley's Counterfeiting, Stealing, and Cultural Plundering: a Manual for Applied Ethnomusicologists, with 12 Tunes for Fiddle

Note: The live music business is at its slowest during these hot summer weeks here in New Orleans. If you're a tourist you're in luck because you have the whole town to yourself. But for those of us in the live music industry, well, lets say this is a "quiet" time. Good time however to look back at the old MarkRubin.com website & revisit a few topics. This week I found this review of Hank Bradley's book from over 15 years ago and it holds up well over all time. I understand Mr. Bradley even has a gig in Seattle this week (7/17/14) that if you can attend, you shouldn't miss.

Counterfeiting, Stealing, and Cultural Plundering:
A Manual for Applied Ethnomusicologists, with 12 Tunes for Fiddle by Hank Bradley 
Mill Gulch Music Press, Seattle WA 1989

Hank Bradley, AKA The Poison Coyote Kid, is a multi-instrumentalist/cultural critic of ferocious talent and intellect living and playing in the Seattle area. At a jam session I attended many years ago he played hours of guitar backing up Romanian and Greek fiddlers in oft impenetrable time signatures and then turned to me, whipped out a fiddle and ripped through Bob Wills' most arcane and modal version of "Done Gone," just my kind of player.  A wise music fan would be on the lookout for his singular LP release, "The Return of the Poison Coyote Kid," which features the greatest song ever penned about a Hot Dog stand ("The Mayor Is A Good Old Boy.")

Mr. Bradley hinted to me that little book got him in a bit of "trouble" when it was first published as many folks still avoid eye contact or give him a wide berth at festivals and other gatherings of "folkniks." As he explained it to me, he intended it simply to be a handbook of good manners designed for those folks who ran off into the hinterlands looking for old people they could hassle about music.  His reflections on cultural differences between the applied ethnomusicologist (Yankee in this case) and the tradition bearer (a Southerner, closer to my experience) especially caught my attention, using "Villages" to stand in for cultures:
"Consider a Brooklyn bluegrasser at a 1970 Virginia Fiddlers Convention. A northern villager knows you're supposed to take public transportation, resist US war involvement, minimize meat and junk food consumption, excoriate polluters, and meet women and all socially conscious people as fellow and equals. 

Oh yes, Bad Livers are in part responsible for this, I'll cop to it.
Whereas southerners know that construction pays best and everybody's OK in their place, and that you're supposed to drive with courage, respect your cousin in uniform, hunt well, shoot straight, suspect the cosmopolitans, hold your alcohol, be gallant to the ladies when appropriate, and be a connoisseur of good prime rib. 

If these villagers stick to musical topics, all will go well enough socially, but if not it is easy to see how a heartfelt opinion on either side might lead to hurt feelings and hostility on the other."
As a Southern Jewish Bluegrass musician, I often found myself in the presence of folks at a picking session who would normally be burning a cross on my front lawn, (not a joke, BTW) so I could really relate. And these many years later, very sad to report,  Bradley's warnings still seems to hold true. Just last year (2013,) a Texas fiddler I brought up to instruct at a very well known fiddle camp in the economically well off, socially "liberal" North West US had more than a few attendees going out of their way to make him feel very uncomfortable for holding the very sorts of opinions that in fact made him an authentic, living voice of his community. Lead to some mighty "hurt feelings" all around, I can assure you. 

For some in the "traditional folk" community today it appears, there is still a glaring disconnect between the creative output of a living culture and what it is that actually makes the life that creates that culture's very output. "Just teach me the tune, I don't need to hear about what the tune is for..." is a phrase I've heard more than once as an instructor at a music camp. It's expressed in a way that I think isn't intentionally malicious, but sure could be seen that way. And worst still, its needlessly pointless, as it contributes to drawing people apart rather than focusing on the one thing music does best: bring us all together. **

White Top Mountaineers, maybe TOO authentic?
It many ways this mirrors my experience of performing Yiddish Music in Europe and points East: Happy dancing Jews on stage, great! Not so happy Jews coming back to take back their dead relatives apartment? No so great. 

Not that long ago it was literally impossible for me to interest my local folk club in Austin TX in a rare performance by actual traditional bearer fiddlers from White Top Mountain in sponsoring even a little house concert, but they got real worked up about a foreign immigrant who plays their own version of American music. What's the take away from that? Must traditions be filtered and refined by outsiders before they are fit to be enjoined with? It's hard not to see racial and class prejudice behind such glaring disconnects, as the tradition bearers themselves never seem to mind who comes to learn from them. It's a troubling question on many levels.

But Mr. Bradley is wisely unburdened by others baggage as well. Hank is famous (infamous?) for presenting his original fiddle tunes as "learned from some old master he found in the hills somewhere," duping a hoople in the process and teaching them a fine lesson all at the same time. The last chapter of this thin tome includes 12 of these tunes with titles like "Dance of the Music Critics" and "Chase the Squid," and they are well worth your time in learning. Chock full of interesting insights on the process of the "folk revival," and a overall great read.

Copies can be secured contacting the publisher, 8033 14th Ave NE, Seattle WA 98115. Or simply email him here.

(Possibly the "camp" model contributes to this contextual break, knowing full well these pointed political jabs would be very much out of place where this music is created and nurtured? Another conversation for another time. I run a camp of my own now, so its something I think a lot about.) :-)


Charlie Haden - RIP

I've seen online, without confirmation, that bassist/composer Charlie Haden has passed. Let's assume he hasn't, because that would represent a major loss to the firmament of American music and would make me very sad, but allow me to share my experiences with him assuming it's not true.

When Bad Livers were out there all by our lonesome, charting new courses out in the music world, we had the occasion to run into Mr. Haden more than a few times. He was always gracious, cordial and friendly and took a real interest in my playing, giving me much needed encouragement. When we first met we were both backstage at a street festival in Atlanta. He came from a folk music family and he told us how he appreciated what Danny and I were doing to live within the music, yet propel it forward, making it relevant to contemporary audiences. On one occasion in NYC, he was to be interviewed by the Jazz DJ and we were playing a live set for tail end the Folk DJs show.

At that time Danny and I had stripped the live show down to just banjo and bass, with long stream of conscious jams, weaving together our tunes with material Big Bill Broozy, Monk, Jimmy Martin and Sun Ra. Going out on  limb every time. There he was, behind the glass standing up as to catch the scene. Dark glasses in the middle of the day, with a huge smile plastered on his face. "Man, that was out of sight guys." he told us as we were packing up to make way. "You were cookin'." He was a bit of a gear freak, as many bassists are. "Hey man, I see you got Golden Spirals on your D and G. Good choice. So, hey, uh you got anymore?" LaBella stopped making these nylon wrapped gut strings a few years earlier and no other string on the market then was even close. "Why yes sir, I do." I reached into my case and pulled out a brand new-dead stock G string I had found in ratty box of odd strings in Lawrence KS just the week before. "With my compliments," I said as I laid it on him. I reckoned he could make better use of it than I.

I guess I should also mention that I saw Charlie many many years earlier, but had no idea what I was seeing. I had come to see the minutemen in Santa Monica in 1984. Still not sure what I saw however.

I'll be dialing up "Steal Away" tonight and remember a really class act.


"Free Jazz"

....or whatever that meant to Bad Livers

I've worked with many many wonderful jazz musicians over the years, in many many wonderful situations. But for some reason, none of these cats ever once considered me a "jazz" man nor ever hired me to play improvisational or spontaneously composed musics.* I was always "the bluegrass guy" or the "klezmer guy" or the "polka guy" or worst of all "the Trad guy." Was I incapable or that level of craft? Maybe so. But please understand however that even I realize that I was entirely responsible for that opinion of me and must take full responsibility for. I sure went out of my way to let folks know what opinion I held the "self expressive" free jazz and jam band musics I had encountered. Talked my way into a box I reckon. Hell, I take exception to the very term "jazz," but that's another blog post entirely.

But recently I was reminded of my short lesson with Buell Neidlinger, (this gets its own story soon)  who I met in Pt. Townsend Washington at a Bad Livers show. And from that recollection I was led to remember the dreamlike state and entirely unspoken level of total creative "freedom" that I felt and expressed onstage musically for a great many years with my Bad Livers musical partner Danny Barnes. Only now through the filter of time can I get a good picture on what a gift it was to share music in that way. Damn glad I left myself kvell a bit about it. It's good to give yourself a break, if you can.

I present the attached video for your consideration. For contexts sake, bear this in mind. This was videoed in 2009. Aside from a single 45 minute set at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival the year before, this was the first time we stepped onstage in 9 years. 8 of those with no communication of any kind, at all. When we last worked with each other, Bad Liver shows had evolved into a 2 hour stream of consciousness presentation of musical dexterity and humor, anti-academic alternative histories and narrative delivered unironically entirely informed by the deep traditions of Southern elocution and storytelling and a really great stand up act, honed by a decade of 200+ dates a year on the road in front of mostly confused, sometimes charmed but oft unpleasant audiences. 

For our 2nd set this night in SF. We just walked out, looked each other in the eye and started. It starts with Monk and ends with Narciso Martinez, much like one of our mix tapes in the rental car, usually board tapes from my "Overnight" shift on KUT Radio for a decade.  Nobody ever trusted me more than Barnes. I'd take a bullet for him, even today. For reals.

Years earlier, we tried to capture that live show vibe on tape by setting up a couple mics in my old wooden house in Austin (nestled in the Ridgetop neighborhood, hence the name.) My little pal Lance the Wonder Korgi wrapped himself around the mic stand at my feet and we hit record on a DAT machine. Got a call from my old pal Dan Foster, and Lance speaks up a few times, but other wise it's just exactly what we presented live for at least the prior 3 years. We called it "The Ridgetop Sessions," and it's still available today on CD Baby. (yeah, the Mad Cat Trio CD got re-issued too!) :







* I make the notable exception of composer/percussionist Aaron Alexander, who did in fact put his trust in me and made a member of his "Midrash Mish Mosh" ensemble in 2004. He and his compositions loom large in my psyche and I am forever grateful.