The art of the cimbalom
Traditional Crossroads CD 4314
Felmay fy 8063
What is traditional music? That’s a question that is possibly more relevant now - with the increasing promotion of ‘world music’ as a form of pop - than it was when Cecil Sharp was worrying about it. Two recent CDs of Eastern European music made me think about that question a little more deeply than usual.
And Eastern Europe has always has a particularly interesting twist on ‘tradition’, since traditional music in the eastern bloc was often used as propaganda, either ‘peasant/proletarian’ or nationalistic (notably in Ceaucescu’s Romania). Indeed narodny is an interesting word since it aligns nationalism and ‘the people’. Perhaps the most disturbing example of such kitsch patriotism (particularly for those of us used to thinking of folk music as music sans frontieres and naturally on the left) was the promotion of ‘turbofolk’ in Milosevic’s Serbia.
State control meant that the Eastern European folk music system became modelled on the nineteenth-century classical music system, with conservatoires, grading, competitions, and huge orchestrated ensembles taking over from small bands. Arrangements became more artful. At the same time, some minority strands were erased or neglected (particularly Hungarian music in Romania). To what extent, then, is music such as that of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares ‘authentic’ traditional muisc?
Alexander Fedoriouk learned to play traditional music in his own area of the Carpathians, but also has a conservatoire training - straddling both worlds. He also added to his repertory from listening to cimbalom gurus Toni Iordache (Romanian) and Kalman Balogh (Hungarian) on recordings. In a way, I’d guess, this epitomises the influences on 21st century traditional musicians - even for those brought up within a strong traditional culture - other musical cultures and ways of thinking about music, whether classical or more popular, intrude. There is no ‘pure’ tradition any more.
What Fedoriouk has created, with musicians from various countries, is a mixture of tunes from various traditions, suggestive of the creation of a Carpathian-Balkan homeland that may never have existed in reality. (Or did it? After all both klezmer and Roma music were semi-detached from their ‘geographic’ heritage…) Romanian and Ukrainian prevail; there is also a tune known in both Slovakia and Ukraine, and a Hungarian set with typical thumping bass.
One of the best elements of the CD is the way Fedoriouk relaxes with his instrument. I’ve never liked Toni Iordache’s playing particularly; the twinkling hammers school of cimbalom playing. Virtuoso stuff, but pretty soon you’re asking "Is that it?" Fedoriouk excels in slower pieces and gets an impressive variety of effect from his instrument.
The arrangements are intriguing. Yes, the way he uses instrumentation does sound pretty ‘artful’ compared to most genuine traditional ensembles; on the other hand, the effect doesn’t strike me as ‘arty’ in the wrong sense - he is driven by an emotional agenda rather than a virtuoso one. It does have to be said, though, that some of the original rawness of the music has been leached away.
With Original Kocani Orkestar we find a ‘truly traditional’ ensemble. Naat Veliov plays in the ‘family business’ with his father, the previous bandleader, on tuba and other family members on various instruments. The headline word ‘Original’ though, shows that these are no strangers to the pressures of a modern pop music world - the old Kocani Orkestar band split up some years ago with the other half going on to record under the old name.
I found Gypsy Folies a little underwhelming, though. There is some fantastic fast playing, but often the rhythmic impulse seems to be lost in the mass of notes. Some of the most successful tracks - at least, the most to my taste - are when the orchestra take it a little more slowly and foreground the reed instruments, which give a particular precision and pungency to the music. That’s when melody comes to the fore, as well.
And of course there’s always some excitement when one of the players takes off into a solo riff. Not that it’s a bad CD, but it doesn’t quite, for me, have the conviction that this music needs to carry.
Andrea Kirkby - 1.7.03