Volume 1: Brass Bands from Podolia, Klezmer and other Jewish Music
collected by Isaak Loberan
Extraplatte EX-PHA 001
This release consists of recent field recordings of Jewish music and song in various forms collected largely in the field in Moldova and Ukraine by R Gusak and Isaac Loberan between 1991 and 2002. Broadly, the material falls into three categories: brass band music, unaccompanied Yiddish song, and some remaining fragments of a once flourishing klezmer tradition of violin playing. In format it consists of a mixed cultural bag which, overall, never seems to quite gel satisfactorially.
By far the most interesting items (and happily comprising better than half of the total tracks) are those featuring the brass bands, who perform an exhilarating cultural hybrid which at times is simply stunning in its intensity. Interviews conducted with aged musicians reveal that the musical training of many native, gentile, band players was often undertaken by Jewish klezmorim, who inevitably brought with them their repertories of dance music. As Loberan states (on page 17), 'The musicians have inherited repertoires of their fathers, who had played together with klezmorim at weddings before world war II.' He is rightly sceptical regarding the widely-assumed parallel development of klezmer in situ and in the American diaspora (page 9), correctly identifying the massive influence of the burgeoning jazz scene on the latter developing form. He details the modern-day survival of Jewish wedding music not among the small pockets of surviving Jews (decimated or exiled by successive repressive oligarchies) but among the gentile population of the two regions noted above, and by the peripatetic Roma.
Although, regrettably, few personnel details are given for the composition of the brass bands beyond the name and, usefully, the ages of the leaders, the photographs of five featured ensembles reveal multi-generational line-ups, and not all feature old men. One would liked to have learned to what extent transmission to those middle aged musicians most frequently depicted had altered the character and melodies of the older forms. Conversely, specific instrumentation is documented in meticulous detail; though it's interesting that no specific tune titles appear to have survived, each item being identified generically by the dance form it accompanies. Which throws up yet another question. This was originally functional dance music. To what extent does it still fulfil this role, or it is now solely passively received entertainment?
One would like to have learned also of any changes in the overall musical texture brought about by the obviously relatively late addition of the button accordion (bayan) present in three of the five line-ups. 'The bayan backs up the trumpet's melody with harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment, occasionally itself leading the melody', Loberan states (page 17), though on track 1, and elsewhere, it is mainly vamping. I lament the presence generally of this instrument, which (to my ears) adds little of any positive value. Still, it is certainly not within a reviewer's remit to criticize sanctioned indigenous cultural development. On the rhythmic front, a large deep drum frequently functions in the role of the bowed bass often heard in earlier klezmer bands. In one header note the compiler states, 'The baratonist plays the baritone with his right hand and the big drum with his left, simultaneously.' (page 23) - a photograph would have been instructive on this point of dexterity.
Of greatest interest by far are the tracks on which the trumpet most often takes the melodic lead, and whenever this occurs it raises hairs on the back of the neck. Virtually any such track could be recommended, but Old Sher, played by the band from Kodima (Posnia) is exceptional. The trumpet renders an exhilarating series of speedy cascading arpeggios, and the whole track is unsatisfactory only by being too short by far (and certainly of no use for dancing). The identification of the band leaders, already noted, fortunately gives us the names of some of these spectacular trumpeters. On this occasion it is Vasiliy Baranovsky, who may be heard again on track 15. Tracks 9 to 11, by a band from Pisarevka (Podolia), are fronted by Vasiliy Baylo; while 20 to 22, an ensemble from Pescanka (Podolia), showcase the playing of Nikolai Kolisnitshenko. I doff my hat to all three, who certainly deserve more widespread recognition and praise.
But the release is not all brass band music, although I would have been happier if it had been. There are three solo violin pieces from Abraham Libman which are less than enthralling. His is a middle class tradition (his father a clock maker, himself a retired judge), but he is so out of practice that even he might have preferred these examples not be presented to a wider public. Of the remaining items little enthusiasm may be generated. The unaccompanied Grine feider, by the octogenarian Ida Moiseevna Geffer, is rendered in a fairly histrionic style, and one can imagine the singer wringing her hands during performance. Even this contains vestiges of the older vocal tradition, however, but of questionable value to those interested in that genre are two final items which I could have well done without. Abi gezunt is performed by a formal female singer with piano accompaniment. This is concert hall music, and it comes as no surprise to learn that the words are credited to Molly Picon. And, finally, it is almost impossible to understand why S'iz finster in gas, 'a contemporary song in Yiddish ... in the spirit of a folk song' has been included. Folk song? It wouldn't be out of place in a theatrical production of Cabaret. As the CD rushes towards its conclusion, the compiler has for some unknown reason felt it necessary to include a couple of tracks by a taraf from Edinet (northern Moldova), which have an altogether different musical texture. Sher (track 24) features sax, violin, button accordion and synthesiser, the latter replicating a bowed bass line. At times the saxophonist verges on that 'weeping' tone so beloved of clarinet player Dave Tarras and other older Jewish musicians recording in New York during the nineteen teens and 'twenties. This is, by and large, a perfectly acceptable inclusion, but Foxtrot, by the same group, is a different beast altogether, with synthesiser now acting as piano and operating on its digital percussion setting. It's difficult to understand why this example is here, other than to show that the old tradition can and does move further and further away from its roots as the generations pass. Thank you, but we know (and I personally lament) that, and don't need to be reminded. It's a pity that the CD has to end on such a down note.
A curate's egg of a release, then. At its centre are the hard driving dance tunes played by the brass bands which make for great listening (and dancing too, if you feel so moved) and deserve a much wider exposure than they get here. On the periphery stand music and song which reflect modernised and modernising developments of lesser ethnomusicological interest and importance. This is apparently the first volume in a planned series. Perhaps it is the intention that future releases will focus more specifically on the various cultural facets heard here. My advice, though, would be: more of the wonderful brass bands and fewer (or none) of the rest.
Keith Chandler - 8.8.07