Saturday, April 28, 2007

I'm in the Ukraine. The Frigging Ukraine. .

Blog posting will be very light in the next two weeks, since I will be in the Ukraine and not often near any internet access. I got called on short notice to participate in Josh Dolgin's (AKA DJ Socalled) Ukrainian Klezmer Music Heritage tour, a journey aboard a luxury liner on the Dneiper River from Kive to Odessa via the Crimea, with concerts and cultural events along the way. Two weeks of deep Ukrainian and Jewish culture. With Fumie along to make sure I behave. On a luxury river liner! Jeeebeezus! I've never been on a cruise before. I've never been to the former Soviet union before. Nor have I ever been to the Ukraine, but I guess if you have to travel through the eastern Ukraine during a political crisis, a luxury liner is the way to do it. Some of my best buddies are on board - Michael Alpert, Josh Dolgin, Eric Stein, David Krakauer... I expect to start laughing on April 29th, and end sometme around May 12. I'll tell you all about it later... it's been almost 90 years since anybody with my DNA has been back to the Ukraine...

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Childless Children's Railway

Back in the Communist days, one of Budapest's main attractions for kids was the Children's Railway, which wound its way through the Buda Hills, eventually stopping at the Csillaberc Young Communist Outdoor Camp near Janos hegy.Well, it's still there, still a destination for families out for a Sunday ramble in the woods, such as Buda has them. Thousands of families come out to the Buda hills each weekend for walk, or at least for beer and a few kolbasz while the kids run around. I remember riding this the first time in 1966, and being rather intimidated by all the Communist Young Pioneer kids in red scarves and the brass bands that would meet the train at each station. Those days are long gone. Originally, the train was operated by children, under adult supervision, but they seem to have been more or less replaced by larger and older versions of children. Maybe it attracts more 12 year old conductors in the summer. Maybe not.One thing that caught my eye was the old mosaics showing happy young Communists which can be seen on the wall at the Gyermekvasut end station. While still sporting their red scarves, the red stars have been carefully erased from the mosaics.It is becoming very rare to find any visula trace of Hungary's communist past anymore. Most statues and monuments have been banished from the city of Budapest to the Statue Park/Prison outside Budapest, so this was a surprise. One way to get up to the top of Janos Hegy is to take the chairlift that runs from Normafa staion in Buda (take the 158 bus from Moszkva ter to the end station.) The chairlift is a surreal trip at roof-level altitude through one of the richer parts of Buda. It must be strange to live under the chairlift - strangers passing you window every day, flying over your garden, peeking into your living room. Eventually it plopps you on Janos Hegy, a ten minute hike from the mountaintop lookout tower. It's also a fifteen minute hike from there to the Janos Hegy stop on the Children's railway.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Hutsuls and Jewish Music.

Over on Ari Davidow’s Klezmer Shack site there has been an airing of a controversy about the relationship between Hutsul (Ruthenian) music and Klezmer music, which played out on the Jewish music mailing list a few weeks ago. It’s time to weigh in.First off, let me say that I don’t subscribe to email lists anymore. I used to get certain folk music oriented lists, and the occaisional flame-outs drove me insane. Actually, the worst list I ever subscribed to was the Karaite Jewish/Krymchak mailing list, which consisted of several scholars and Karaites discussing Karaite matters while one grouchy Krymchak in Australia would go suddenly go beserk and send threatening personal emails to everyone on the list. Australia. It’s where they send all the Krymchak nutters these days. Then there was the Balkan music list that went postal because the Boyash Gypsy language lyrics in a Kali Yag song were perceived as anti-feminist. Suddenly you had a bunch of Folk Dance Club members pretending to be Boyash linguists. Ugh. So no, I don’t even subscribe to the Jewish Music mailing list anymore. On Ari’s page we read of a very diligent Jewish music researcher and great scholar of cimbalom making - I know and respect him well – who questioned the popularity of Hutsul musical style and repertoire among many of today’s traditionalist Klezmer bands, such as Veretsky Pass, and soon, my own band (the Hutsul Técső Band actually joins us on our new, unreleased CD.) Yes, pop singer Ruslana has co-opted Hutsul imagery for her act, and yes the Ukrainian media adore Hutsuls as some kind of pure distilled Ukrainian. The Hutsul fad is also strong in Poland, which has a long literary tradition of looking at Hutsuls as some source of “pure, uncontaminated” Slavic root culture.These days, with Polish traditional music being revived by young groups, the Hutsul style of playing has started top replace Goral Highlander music as a mode for expressing Polish hillbillyness. Ukrainian identity is a pretty complex bag of worms. Yes, the Ukraine was the site of countless pogroms. But the mass of pogroms which swept the Ukrainian regions in the second half of the 19th century were sponsored by the Russian Tsar Alexander III and carried out under Russian Orthodox Church blessing. The Hutsul/Ruthenians were, a that time, not a part of the Russian empire, and as Austro-Hungarian subjects, were Greek Catholics, which is to say, practicing Eastern Orthodox church rituals under allegiance to the Pope. The Western Ukraine wasn’t a part of the Soviet Union until after 1945, sparing the Ruthenians the brunt of Stalin’s crusade against Ukrainian identity, which included starving them to death. The end result was submerging much of their local cultural and musical tradition into a dull Soviet aesthetic of “Folklor.” Much of the political tensions troubling the Ukraine today has its roots on this “Ukrainian vs. Russian” dichotomy. So, should we apply to the modern Ukrainian identity the negative attributes of a century ago? Sure, some nationalists pine for the days of Chmelnicky and Petlura. Perhaps this is why Hutsul identity is so enticing to Ukrainian pop culture - it offers Ukrainian-ness without the Petlura massacres. It juxtaposes Ruthenian partisans fighting a guerilla war into the 1950s as opposed to the Ukrainian Wermacht divisions fighting for the Nazis. Notice: there is a severe historical difference between the Western Ukraine and the Eastern Ukraine, especially as regards violence aginst Jews. Should the inhabitants of the modern Ukraine be held responsible for history? What is Ukrainian history? And what will Ukrainian history become? Perhaps it is time to drop our century-old stereotypes.Look, my Grandfather was living in Kiev when he was drafted as an artilleryman for a Cossack regiment during the first World War. He hated the Cossacks with a passion – one of his brothers had led the armed Jewish defense group during the 1906 Kishenev Pogrom – but he never referred to them as “Ukrainians.” To him, they were Russians. And lord goddamighty, did my Zeyde hate Russians (although he spoke fluent Russian. Pictured below.) OK… let us begin. The The Western Ukraine was always a very multicultural zone. The definition of a Ruthenian as Hutsul refers to them as southern Ruthenes, mainly those who lived in the old Hapsburg crown lands of Maramures, which once extended well up into the present Weatern Ukraine. Maramures was unique in that the Hapsburg Crown treasury governed it directly, and as such its inhabitants were defined as freemen, not serfs, which was a way of attracting settlers to this economic shithole region which offered really mountainous crap agricultural land. This attracted Jews as well – in the 1930s about twenty percent of Maramures inhabitants were Jewish, who lived a relatively isolated existence based around the Hasidic hoyfn of Satmar, Siget, Spinka, Vizsnitz, and Munkacs. (Below is the Spinka -today, Sapanta, Romania - Yeshiva in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Incidentally, this week I got tapped to participate in Josh Dolgin's Dneiper Klezmer cruise, making me the first of my family to returen to the Ukraine since the 1910s... in two weeks I'll be swilling Ukrainian horilka and fiddling in Kiev!) )In the villages, the Jews were actually peasants, working the land, but with the added dimension of being the bearers of “outside”culture. Even today, the northern Carpathians are a relatively remote area, beyond the range of cell phones and TV emissions, and people still express themselves in localized forms of music, dance, and culture. The Jews in this region often played in formations that included non-Jews. In Fact, in my years of research, I haven’t found any oral reference to a Jewish band playing without some extra backup help for a non-Jewish musician at some time. None. I’m referring to the period 1925-1945 here. The band Muzsikas, who produced a recording of Maramures Jewish Music (mostly learned from Gheorghe “Cioata” Covaci” of Vadu Izei, Romania) used a photograph for their CD cover which was taken in 1910 in Bogdan, KarpathoUkraine, near present day Rakhiv. It clearly shows a small kapelye consisting of mixed Jewish and Hustul musicians. Up in these mountains, the percentage of Roma (Gypsy) musicians shrinks – as a people who depend on market economies, Musician Roma (bashaldare/lautarii) obviously don’t usually like living in isolated mountain zones (where serfdom was unknown) because there is a lack of rich noble familes to hire them. Jews filled that gap. Need to ask about Hutsul music and Jewish music? Ask Dr. Pom Collins. Pom is a passionate recorder who really has delved deep into Hustul music... Pom is an American GP, a doctor who acts as a one man Alan-Lomax-cum-Mediciens-sans-Frontiers in the backwaters of the Hutsul regions. He travels around in a nasty hippy van stocked with American medicines and serves many backwater Hutsul communities of Zakarpatia as their only connection to antibiotics and asthma breathers. He hangs out in communities so isolated that he tends to look askance at Hutsul bands with mixed repetoires. The Técső Band, however, come from Tjaciv, a small town on the Tisza river (Tisa in Romaian or Ukrainian, Tech in Yiddish.) The present inhabitants include Hutsuls, Romanians, Hungarians, and one Jewish guy who runs a bar. After the Holocaust there were still sizable communities of Jews in the area, connected to the Jewish community of Munkachevo (Munkacs in Hungarian).The Father of the present Técső band, Manyo Csernavec, was the preferred musician for the local Jews of Tjaciv. The reason the Técső band is presently well known is that they play a multiethnic repertoire, including Jewish music, and they have some CDs available, which is a heck of a lot more than most Hutsul bands. I have sat down with these guys and asked about their Jewish repertoire. In concert they play about two sets of Jewish music, but hang with Joska the accordion playing band leader and a bottle of vodka and the tunes start pouring out. A lot of the tunes I recognize as Jewish melodies are – to Joska – what he calls “Ukrainian tunes from Vinnitsa” Then he starts playing a bunch of classically Jewish slow horas – a form not danced in Zakarpatia - and I thought he was picking them up off a Klezmatics CD… but these he called “Moldavian Tunes” which he learned from his father. None of these are on available CDs, but I and Australian tsimbl player Tim Meyen in have them on minidisc field recordings. As for the tune called “Zsido Minhuli” it is actually a variation on the Russian Yiddish melody “Papirossn.” It is a smuggler’s song from the days when Jews and Gypsies used to smuggle goods across the Tisza river - a business that was a major sideline among all the Jewish and Gypsy musicians I know of in that region. The words say “Baj van! Baj van! Baj van minalunk// Oficire dupa mine / hogy ratancolunk/ es ha a labod tancot jar/ huszonotot kapod mar/jaj jaja jaja…” Which is in a mixture of Hungarian and Romanian: “It’s bad, It’s a problem, Over at our place/ The officers are after me/If I do that dance/ and if they catch my feet dancing/ I’ll get 25 lashes of the whip/ lalala..” Here is Técső playing the 7:40, one of the most popular Jewish tunes in the region) at a party two weeks ago.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Easter: An Extremely Porky Week in Budapest

The food associated with Easter is often themed along some aspect of Jesus Christ's famous symbolic attachments, such as pascal lamb, loaves and fishes, and chocolate bunnies. OK, maybe not bunnies. But as many of us know, Mr. Christ was - like myself and so many others - a Jew, a Yid, a Member of the Tribe, a screaming Yahoodie, so much so, in fact, that there were a great many of the tribe who took the Carpenter of Nazareth to be the Top o' The Yids Himself. The Messiah. The King of da Jews. With yikhes like that, the one thing you wouldn't expect Jesus to be eating is.... pork. Chocolate bunnies, maybe, but not chazzerei...It makes one wonder where the Hungarian custom of treating Easter as a kick -out-all-the-stops ham-feed comes from, but there is no use in debating it. If it says "oink" and it can be salted, smoked, and steamed, it is eaten on Easter in the Carpathian basin. Easter weekend is a veritable glutton fest of ham in all its porky forms. Families gather to down huge groaning platters of boiled or baked hams accompanied by hard boiled eggs (at least that is a symbol of spring largesse....) For the two or three weeks preceding easter, special stands are set up at markets to sell all kinds of smoked and cured pig bits.
This flood of easter ham brings the price of cured pork down to the level of a pack of chewing gum. It's like the country just can't get enough ham - there are ham stands in every aisle of the supermarkets, ham carts at the corner, add-on ham tents at the corner butcher shop. Pork everywhere you look. Mountains of hocks, rivers of lard. Every year there are angry editorials in the Hungarian press about the dangers inherent in eating cheap hams imported from Slovakia, or about illicit Ukrainian smoked pork hocks being smuggled over the borders. But the truth is Hungarians love pork, and eat a lot of it, and during the year ham is generally not as cheap so at Easter, so the nation goes ham-wild. Although Easter mean ham, spring, on the other hand, means simply getting out of doors, and that means more pork to gobble down. We had to do a photo shoot at the Railway Historical Museum way out in the back end of Angyalföld... and what is a glorious Sunday out without a bit of grilled Hungarian sausage...Or a tray of smoked pork chops fried in lard, pork stew, and some bacon seasoned potatoes... quite honestly, how on earth you could follow this up with dessert is beyond me, but there it is... staring you in the face....Some of the best looking strudel I've seen in a while. The white fillings are cheese, the black fillings are poppy seed. There is enough poppy seed inside these babies to keep you failing your drug testing pee-tests well into the next century. It's sad, but in the US it is legal to deny work to a prospective employee who fails a drug test because opiates show up in the seeds of legally available poppy seed bagels. And Switzerland forbids importation or even mere possesion of poppy seeds. Now as any culinary scientist knows, the active ingredient in opium is absent from the seeds, but the tests are designed to detect the traces of any part of the poppy plant. Outrageous and absurd as it may seem, all that was simply a buildup to posting these photos of a couple of majestic old time commie locomotives. Enjoy your strudel. And ham.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Cimbaloms Attempt to Take Over My Life, part II.

It's been a cimbalom-filled week here in Budapest. For reasons I don't want to go into here... it looks like I will have to play my small cimbalom in concert in about two weeks. Let us be frank here: I do not play cimbalom. I'm a fiddler. I do not realy even want to play cimbalom. I own one because it makes touring easier when we go someplace where my cimbalom player, Feri, can't bring his eleven-ton monster cimbalom on the plane.It is one of the most difficult and devilishly tricky instruments I have ever laid hands on, and I do not want to play it in concert, but it looks like I will have to in order to save another musicians's ass. World Music... grrrr... I... want... to... kill... world... music.... So, it meant a trip down to the shop of Nagy A., the world's best cimbalom maker, who just restrung my instrument, which is a small Romanian tsambal mic... (not shown in this picture...) In the foreground is a small full size Hungarian cimbalom nearing completion.A, who is from a musician Gypsy family, is probably the world's best living cimbalom maker, and his workshop has become the main source of custom made cimbaloms in the Jewish tsimbl style for musicians in the international Klezmer scene. Here is his apprentice working on a new Jewish tsimbl for Reb Stein. Notice the steel rod running down the body - this is reinforcement so that tension from the strings of the instrument won't collapse the cimbalom in on itself. A custom made tsimbl is not a cheap instrument, and there isn't any factory churning out a student line of cimbaloms for players to try their hand on, so it takes a lot of comittment to choose to play one of these instruments. Of course, being both melodic and percussive, a cimbalom does wonderful things in a band, especially in Klezmer music. Klezmer suffers from the fact that the style - or at least the audience for the style - seems to tolerate mediocre, half-assed modernized arrangements. Luckily, there are exceptions, particularly in the New York area where musicians like Pete Rushevsky, Michael Winograd, and Jacob Shulmen-Ment have revived the old time Jewish music aesthetic. Here's a bit of video from last January's NYC Klezmer Tants Hoys... with Dr. Zev Feldman leading a workshop in Moldavian Klezmer style for freylakhs dancing.
Also this week, the Hutsul band from Tjaciv (Técső in Hungarian) was in town this week, with a new replacement cimbalom player (tsymbaly in Ukrainian/Ruthenian.) He's the music director of their local school., and his style is a bit more polished and modern than Misha Csernovec', but he's darn good nonetheless. The video is a bit shakey at the beginning, but that is because Ivan the fiddler was hitting me up for a cigarette while I was filming...
And here is Ivan Popovich from Técső at his best playing a my favorite Romanian tune from Maramures. This is a master fiddler - a primas - at his best, loud and right in your face.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Fish and Chips

London may well be one of the world's most expensive cities - nasty for visitors and residents alike. While in New York you can always find a great cheap meal if you have the patience, London is a lot less forgiving if you want to have lunch without taking out a bank loan. Fortunately, the English working classes have to eat, and for the last 150 years lunch has meant either a meat pie, or Fish and Chips. I asked Budapest's specialist on all things Cockney, Mark the Very Large Guy, what he could suggest for a chippie in downtown London. Fish and Chips joints aren't all that high-end, and with rental prices going crazy, you don't find many in the high rent districts of downtown London. Mark mentioned The Fryers' Delight at 19 Theobald Place near Holburn, just a fifteen minute walk from my hotel. This is the real thing, where the cab drivers and London cops (er... bobbies?) come for lunch. The fish is fried in rendered beef fat, and while there are lots of options (rock, for example, is a coastal shark like dogfish... plaice is essentially flounder) I opted for the classic cod and chips. I prefer haddock fillet, but Large Mark had said that the Fryers Delight hit the target for cod and chips, sooo...The Fryers' Delight was packed so I had my fish wrapped up and went around the corner to a small park for lunch. Delicious, perfectly fried cod fillet in a cripsy batter, with the traditionally soggy, beef-fat fried potato chips doused in malt vinegar. As with any good fish and chips lunch, the fish was a huge piece, almost too much to finish... but gooood. Oh so good.
The other cheap lunch option was "pies"... meat pies, a peculiar British culinary tradition that doesn't seem to have traveled anywhere except the upper peninsula of Michigan, where Cornish Pasties are considered a proud mark of North Woods identity. Now, it is easy to classify British food as "stodge", but face it, when you live on a chilly, rainy North Sea archepelago, sometimes you just want to eat some stodge. That's where the meat pies come in. Still, when you are running to catch a train at Euston Station, it's nice to grab a handy, filling steak and stilton cheese meat pie at the nearby Cornish Pasty stand.