Sunday, December 03, 2006

Pete Rushevsky's Post-modern Tsymbalism.

There can be too much of a good thing, you know. Witness Pete Rushevsky's collection of tsimbls - small cimbaloms of east Europe, located in his rather tiny flat on Manhatten's upper west side. Magyar cimbaloms, Ukrainian and Belorussian tsymbalys, Romanian tambal mic, if it's stringed and you hammer it, and it fits in a Volkswagen, Pete has somehow acquired it and learned to play it. Had Pete chosen to become a doctor, he would probably have discovered a cure for cancer by now, but noooo... he had to learn to play cimbalom. Mankind's loss, klezmer musics' gain. A typical New York story. Pete was a mild mannered banjo player and hospital administrator before discovering the the tsimbl. Subsequently he developed into one of the most thorough researchers of early traditional Jewish music, focusing on the role of the Jewish hammered dulcimer, known as tsimbl, and its many permutations in east Europe. Now he is Executive Director of New York's Center for Traditional Music and Dance, formerly the Balkan Arts Center, which was highly influential in feeding my appetite for eastern European traditional music when I was a teenager. Pete's CD with fiddler Elie Rosenblatt "Tsimbl un Fidl: Klezmer Music for Hammered Dulcimer & Violin" is my absolute favorite CD of traditional small ensemble old style Klezmer music, bar none. That CD beats everybody else's for sheer listenability.
Pete's place is essentially a shrine to the Romanian-American Jewish tsimbalist Joseph Moskowitz. From Pete's page on Moskowitz: "Famous for his cymbalom playing, he was born in Romania in 1879. He learned the play cymbalom from his father. He came to Boston, in the US, in 1908 to play a gig. After touring for five years, he opened up a restaurant on New York's Lower East Side. In 1943 he moved to Washington, DC, where he played at Michel's French Restaurant, on Vermont Ave., near Dupont Circle. He died on June 27, 1954, at George Washington University Hospital of a heart ailment." (Order the Moskowitz reissue CD... )Above, from Pete's collection, is an old cimbalom, possibly a Jewish tsimbl from Galicia, of the type used until very recently around Rzeszów, Poland.A greek santouri tuned in the Hungarian manner. This instrument used to be Pete's main axe.Above, a contemporary Belorussian style tsymbaly made by Jozef Jankowski in New York State. Jankowski is the last maker who produces tsimbls in the traditional manner in the west Galician tuning.Seen above is the runt of the litter, a Romanian tsambal mic produced by the Hora instrument factory in Reghin, Mures county, Romania. This is the same tsambal that I have in my living room in Budapest. Like many of the instruments coming out of the Hora factory, they are absolute crap when they come out of the shop. You basically have to rebuild them, but considering the price you couldn't buy the wood and tuning pegs for that low a price outside of Romania, and it already comes assembled. It isn't as bad their cobza, which is usually a cheap bit of crap beyond hope of rescue (although, typically, sometimes one escapes the Hora factory in playable condition.). You have to restring this tsambal mic with playable strings, replace the bass strings entirely, make extra bridge inserts to adjust for tuning. Just like the Romanian Dacia car, it works after you completely rebuild it. And then you get a cheap, tinny sounding little wanking instrument that is suitable for learning the basics, since it would cost you another 1000 Euros to get a similar instrument with slightly better quality. On the other hand, you can wrap it in a blanket, toss it on a plane as check-in luggage, and even the most retarded airlines can't do much damage to it if you have to tour with it. Needless to say, I love mine. [Note: Pete's tsambal was rebuilt by R. L. Reid, aka Ruvi Tsimbler... whose notes in the comments reminded me that I should mention that after all the work he did on Pete's tsambal, the end result is a fine and fully playable instrument, as opposed to the stringed can of soup that comes out of the Hora Factory]
Pete lives near a great Mexican restaurant, Taqueria y Fonda La Mexicana, at 103 on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan that specializes in food from the state of Puebla. Mexicans are the fastest rowing ethnic group in the New York area, and unlike the attitudes voiced against Mexican immigrants in the western part of the US, in New York everybody seems to want more Mexicans. But then, New York doesn't vote Republican anymore. The Mexicanos work hard, they are friendly, they usually know English, and their cuisine - the real stuff from Puebla, for example - was relatively unknown in New York until recently. Many work as kitchen staff in New York's finest restaurants - you won't get to eat fine French cuisine in NY if there are no Poblanos in the kitchen. On their own time, it's home style food... this is an acre or so of pork in green mole sauce, black beans, rice and tortillas for ten bucks. (Red mole sauce chicken in the rear...) Damnnnn...


Anonymous said...

ah yes, it's about time someone wrote a blog entry on Pete - that man is our very own shiny woefully-modest treasure....

R L Reid said...

Bob - Bob - did you play that former Hora?

Because if it was as bad as you say, I need to hang my head in shame - or else Pete needs to tune it. I am hoping you simply judged the book by its cover, or the tsimbaly by its carcase.

Your comments about the originals are 100% on target. But there is nothing original about that instrument aside from the carcase.

I've tried "setup" - and shown why Минск, and not Bucharest, built tanks for Москва. It's the metalurgy - yuck!

After the first few I ordered undrilled bodies from Hora instead of complete instruments, to save having to remove the strings and pins etc. And I only wanted those until my new woodshop was ready so I could build my own.

Pete's, tho, is an original "rip the strings off this pig". However, it started (Hungarian Moravian #1) as the first instrument that was not only totally restrung, but was a different tuning. This was because of Pete's devotion to that wretched Hungarian tuning. (Wretched for playing modal music. But as Moskowitz has partial possession of Pete's neshoma, he has to).

After he took it to Kanada and broke most of the strings, I did Hungarian Moravian #2 on the same body. Phosphor bronze gave richness to the short scale, gauge changes (typical in Hungarian) allowed fairly even tensioning. It also had a decent agraffe - the first one's improvised agraffe was dreadful.

You won't find an agraffe on any Hora. #2 still had a problem that #1 had - I was trying to avoid the staggered end bridges that are used in the upper cimbalom registers. I was sure it was possible to get the ratios right without the stagger, and #2 was very close, but hard to keep there. This tuning, BTW, I also dubbed "Novy Hrozenkov", ,after the town in historical Moravia where the tuning I modified for these was collected at the end of the 19th century. That tuning had a few chromatic holes at the top, so I modified it. By sacrificing the bottom two bass strings, it was possible to add two strings to the top and give the player the same layout as a Schunda Grand, minus its first 11 bass courses and its top two treble courses.

The agraffe on course 21 is the Major Pain In The Ass. Aside from mounting a agraffe without tearing out the soundboard nor damping it, the string needs to be divided 27:63:25:95:25. That one stupid string takes 2/3 of the total construction time.

The next instrument was "Constanţa" - almost the same tuning Hora ships, except that I reprised that strange swap of the C and C# in the treble. That tuning is traced to Hirsova-Constanţa (in historical Basarabi) in 1938 - and is was what was adopted by the Romanian Communist Party as the One True Proletarian Tabalul in the 1950s. Which probably explains why Hora still uses it (except they rationalized the C C#)

That was a sweet instrument and I was sorry to see it go.

Hungarian Moravian #3 was a replacement for the person who had ended up with the first conversion (setup - mostly original strings - oy).

I finally realized I was (as is typical) working too hard to avoid the hard work of the staggered end bridge. I did the staggered end bridge. Boy did THAT simplify the rest of the high end. This was, AFAIC, a wonderful, succesful instrument that I really wished I could keep.

What you saw at Reb Pincha's place was Hungarian-Moravian #4. It is NOT as good as #3 was. There are two main reasons. First, for Isabel's instrument, I started with a virgin body. I drilled the pinblock the way I wanted it.

On Pete's I was nostalgic - because he's been such a mensch about letting me experiment on him - about the original body. So I stripped it down to 3 strings and filled the old holes. The instrument is fine with 3, but it makes Pete nervous. Worse, the pinblocks are enough of a mess that the staggered end bridge isn't quite right.

Also, I was enamored for a period with the idea that this "tension should be even throughout the scale and within 5% of the breaking point" was a bunch of historical hooey, and that uneven tensions were desireable and give a good rustic, naive feel.

This may or may not be good research, but it's NOT what Pete is used to and again, it made him uncomfortable. And if you found it had a poor bass, this is why - NOT because of Hora [thier bass strings I found the only usable metal parts].

Anyway, regardless of the even/uneven tension thing, wound strings are fabulous for short scale instruments.

So I do owe Pete a new instrument - or at least a little restringing.

While I am moving away from using them - the shipping is too expensive, the 22 course limitation is a problem in accomplishing certain tunings (e.g. Belarusian) , the bracing is in the wrong places, I think that even at 11 KG they are heavier than they need to be, and they are too damn shiny - for all thatI feel I have done several sucessful instruments on those bodies, and that the one pictured is such an instrument, although there are aspects that can be questioned.

My goal is to produce good, usable instruments and NOT fine, handcrafted multi thousand dollar instruments, so we can brainwash more people into playing tsimbaly; without the need for them to hike the central European mountains to beg old men to make an instument for some Amerikanski Jew, pay thousands, and wait years. To make a car analogy, I want to make Plymouths, not Packards.

So I would not compare it to the custom instrument that is Pete's main axe. But it is far from the "tonka tonka" piece of crap it was born to be.

Roger "Больше самоубийства вилкой" Reid

dumneazu said...

Roger - the tsambal at Pete's is a fine workhorse instrument, I wasn't slagging it off at all. I like the restringing and the extra work - I am stealing ideas for the future from it. I love what you did to it. Keep doing that to Hora instruments, I'll keep copying your lead. That staggered end bridge is brilliant! (Although three strings per course would make my cimbalom player - Feri Pribojszki, who uses my instrument - go ballistic!) And I was searching for your web page and found that you are in re-design limbo...

R L Reid said...

Aw, now you ruined everything - it was such an honor to have "my" instrument insulted by you.

One reason not to continue with the Hora bodies is the cost of shipping via express. BTW I just found an old article on Hora in the Luthier's Journal reprints - the Engineer Bagnan I've been dealing with has been there since '65.

My impression, especially after talking to Mark Rubin who has visited them, is they have no respect for that "dirty gypsy" instrument so don't give it the same attention as the violins, etc - which are also mass production but do start out playable.

It's indicative of the changing world, though, that thier CHEAPEST line is now imported from China! Have woodworker wages in Reghin really passed the $1 a day mark?

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