Sunday, December 05, 2010
Chanukah: Why no Jewish Mandolin Orchestras?
Chanukah is on this year in Budapest, with much spinning of dreydles, lighting of candles, and a pretty extensive culture festival in Budapest’s 7th and 6th districts (the historical Jewish Ghetto) sponsored by the city council and the alternative Jewish culture club Siraly. No, my band isn’t playing – foreign based bands are on the menu this year. But that raises a good question: where is all the good Chanukah music? Answer: there isn’t much. Compared to other Jewish holidays, Chanukah lacks any catchy musical traditions (heck, we get to play percussion at Purim!) The few songs we use at this time of year are either recent compositions or songs we borrow from other Jewish musical traditions (everybody sings “La Nonya” Flory Jagoda’s Bosnian Ladino Chanukah song “Ocho Candelikas.” Which is cool in the USA where you have bands like Hip Hop Judeos, but here in Hungary it means it is just another song that nobody understands the lyrics to.)If there was any special Chanukah music tradition, my guess is that it should have mandolins in it. Chanukah is probably the most publicly visible Jewish celebration, the one known to non Jewish communities the best, probably because it falls close to Christmas and has developed into a kind of “Jewish Christmas.” That is kind of natural – as Jews assimilated and found acceptance in the secular worlds of the 20th century, Chanukah became the holiday focused on children. The custom of giving “Chanukah gelt” morphed into a tradition of giving children gifts (and the pseudo theological challenges faced by eight year olds debating with their parents whether the Talmud demands a new gift for each of the eight nights of Chanukah.) The fact is that Chanukah is a relatively low level holiday on the Jewish calendar. The Big Fun One is Purim, which usually pops up around March – Purim is the one with parties, costume plays, fun music, and tasty food. And mandolin orchestras!A post at Tablet Magazine about Avner Yonai's discovery of the Ger Mandolin Orchestra and his attempts to revive their sound and repetoire inspired me to poke around the archives. While I have almost 100 90 minute casettes of recorded Jewish music almost none of it is mandolin, yet mandolin orchestras were ubiquitous in Jewish communities. Like a lot of the music we play in Di Nayes, this was music that was outside of the realm of commercial recordings. And, although the idea is wonderful, the experience of a large mandoln orchestra is, as any jaunt through the possibilites offered at youtube will show... somewhat underwhelming. A dozen eager string tremolos is only as good as the weakest mandolin player, and there are always a few of those wherever mandolins come out. Most people identify Ashkenazic Jewish music with Klezmer bands. Mandolin orchestras, however, were a part of Jewish musical life throughout the twentieth century in both east Europe and the diasporas.Mandolins were often the instrument of choice in Jewish schools and among Jewish fraternal organizations. Cheap, easy to play, and not given to virtuosity, the Socialists and Unionists who founded the Yiddish school systems considered the humble mandolin to be the perfect “Instrument of the People.” Whenever I play mandolin with my band on stage in cities where the audience includes and significant number of Jews, there are usually a couple of seventy year olds who approach me after the show to say that they or their parents were members of a Jewish mandolin orchestra. There is a lot of nostalgia for the mandolin. A lot of Jewish families had a mandolin lying around – they were the kind of instrument you could play indoors in a Brooklyn tenement without disturbing the neighbors.In Hungary there really is no tradition of mandolin playing. Audiences at our gigs often ask me if I am playing a banjo. (No, I am playing a 1934 Gibson A40, dammit! That was the first year they put F-holes on the A models.) Mandolins are used by Roma bands but usually these are just substituting for the more common tamburica. The tamburica has a string tradition in Serbia and Croatia, and is still quite alive in the southeast of Hungary around Pecs and Mohacs, mostly among Gypsy musicians playing for Gypsy, Sokac, and Bunyevac minorities – you don’t see the tamburica bands outside of local ethnic festivals anymore.Romania has a bit more mandolin mostly along the Black Sea coastal towns for urban music – I have heard it played by a Tatar hotel band in Constanta, and Electrecord records put out an LP of Dobrudja Tatar Grigore Kazim playing classic lautar pieces on mandolin around 1970. The Czech Republic has a strong mando culture – a result of the Czech adoption of American country music as the musical culture of their own “Tramping Hobo” culture in which guys dress up in camo and carry big knives backpacks and go tramping around the fields and roads of Bohemia, stopping at “Hobo Bars” where everybody sings Czech language “tramp songs” that sound suspiciously like reworked Jimmy Rogers ballads. That led to a full blown Czech Bluegrass music scene, and eventually the Czechs produced virtuoso mandolin wizards like Radim Zenkl, who now makes his living on the somewhat more lucrative American mandolin scene.For Jewish mandolin in the US, we have Andy Statman. Andy is a force of nature – without him there would have been no Klezmer revival. I knew Andy through the old time and Appalachian music jam sessions at the Eagle Tavern on 14th street in New York during the 1970s, where every Thursday the overwhelmingly Jewish folk music scene would gather for Jam sessions – fiddles, banjos, and mandolins. Statman was the first musician of the younger generation to work with the great Klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras, who was retired at the time and living in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Statman absorbed not only the klezmer music of Tarras but also a deep respect and faith for the Jewish tradition – he went from being a bushy haired jazz mandolinist to being a pious Orthodox Jewish jazz mandolinist.With ethnomusicologist and cimbalom player Zev Feldman, they recorded one of the first well researched traditional Klezmer LPs “Jewish Klezmer Music” on Shanachie records. Subsequently, Staman went on to record some classic Jewish music with David Grisman (whose indefinable mix of mandolin styles he terms “Dawg music”) producing one of the most ethereal collections of Jewish music for mandolin, 1995’s “Songs of Our Fathers” and the more recent “New Shabbos Waltz” (2006.) My personal favorite is a cassette Statman made in 1991 in Israel with Breslover Rabbi Yaakov Klein and his choir: “Songs of the Breslover Chassidim Today” that is, apparently still available. And all of that is mainly inspired by an interview with Andy Statman at the Mandolin Café web site. Most surprisingly, Andy has traded in his trusty old Gibson oval holed A model mandolin for an F-5 style.Statman opened up a whole field of mandolin music to North American Jewish musicians. Jeff Warschauer started out in Boston as a bluegrass mandolin player who moved into the world of country swing, and eventually took a scholarship to study Yiddish and polished up with the Klezmer Conservatory Band on mandolin and guitar. Although he mostly performs on guitar accompanying his wife, Klezmer violinist and dance teacher Deborah Strauss, he has one of the most distinctive styles in Klezmer mandolin today, not to mention he leads Jewish mandolin orchestras at Klez Camp and occasionally at the New York Arbeiter Ring, making him one of the last of the long chain of mandolin orchestra leaders.Up in Canada, mandolinist Eric Stein leads the Toronto based Beyond the Pale, a klezmer and East European folk band, which just won the Instrumental Group of the Year and the Pushing Boundaries awards from the Canadian Folk Music Association for their third album Postcards. Eric is an old buddy of mine as well as director of the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, and a monster on the cimbalom as well as the mandolin.