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.


Lighthouse said...

amazing blog
well done dumneazu
very fascinating about
hungarian and other cultures
got lost in it for a long time today avoiding things I 'should' be doing... photos to dream yourself away in too
peter in dublin

Unknown said...

The revival of Klezmer music in the San Francisco Bay Area was featured on KQED SPARK TV! Check out an online version at:

docbudma said...

Far out. You done it again. Glad to see you delving north of the Tiza. You'll be glad to hear that I'm eyeing anewer van. So next stop Hutsulschina. DocPom

Tania said...

Find out more interesting facts about Ukraine in
Ukraine guide!

Bashert said...

Thank you for all the info. Wish I understood more of it. Have all the Muzsika recordings and am looking for more from Siget region. Czardus is good too. Any suggestions?

sbobet said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
emil lime said...

Am Yisroel Chai!

Anonymous said...

I am so sorry to bother you on a post that is thirteen years old. But please understand, there are very, very few people alive who can help me with this.

This page is the only mention I could find anywhere online of Krymchak presence in Australia. Do you know, is there still a Krymchak community here? My great-grandfather was Krymchak, and from where we stand it seems like he was the only one in the southern hemisphere. (He lived a lonesome, tragic life.) But it was clear that surely that couldn't be true. If there are others, I am desperate to meet them. I don't care how grumpy or crazy they are; in fact the more difficult, the better.

Any help you can give me is deeply appreciated. Also I will not be offended if you don't respond, this post being as ancient as it is. But thank you in advance if you do read it, and for any assistance you may be able to offer.


dumneazu said...

Dear Unknown... I don't have a connection to the old source for that particular email list, which would have dated from over fifteen years ago. There are academic scholars of Jewish tradition in Australia who probably would have a better link to diaspora Krymchak communities and would probably be willing to help. Sorry for coming up empty.

Anonymous said...


Haha sorry, I had to do that. Seriously though, thank you so much for responding. It was a relief just to get a reply, as your last blog post was in February 2020, which at this particular point in history seems years ago. You clearly hold an enormous amount of knowledge and I am very glad you've escaped the plague.

Just this post alone actually helped elucidate part of my family's culture that I didn't know was even cultural. You see, to be blunt, we love threatening to kill people in this family. We threaten to kill people all the time. Politicians, celebrities, bad drivers, each other, it doesn't matter. It's a fundamental part of our humour. In real life it causes us less problems than you'd expect, because we are in fact very gentle and non-violent individuals; the fact that we're obviously never going to carry through on our threats is part of the joke. Online via text, with all tone and expression removed, we are more often interpreted as seriously homicidal, with associated consequences. I am very sorry you had to be witness to such behaviour.

As you will know, we lived alongside the Karaim for a very long time, and so they are well accustomed to our crap. They seem to be a far more reserved, courteous and somber people; and so I thank you for the wonderful mental image of those poor Karaite linguists just wincing delicately as yet another random drunken Krymchak outburst lands in their inbox. Our random drunken outbursts have probably been enlivening Karaite life for centuries.

My frustrating quest will continue. Thank you again, so much, for taking the time to answer me. Stay safe and G-d bless you! <3

(I have no idea why Blogger decided to give me a name this time. Unknown no more)

Anonymous said...

In addendum to my previous comments, I have learnt that random death threats are not a Krymchak thing, they are a post-traumatic thing that transcends culture and nationality. Of course we are all traumatised, including my family and the guy who menaced your Karaite language group. In their natural habitat, Krymchaks are a peaceful and kindly people who would never wish harm upon anybody.

Please forgive me for dredging up this ancient post yet again. I promise it is the last time I'll do so. I have just been suffering an agony of conscience, because the Krymchaks have enough to deal with without their great-grandchildren being cruel to them on the internet.

(I stand by what I said about drunken outbursts.)

Shabbat shalom and happy new year! I will never bother you again.