Saturday, September 25, 2010

Técsői Banda in New York City

After a half year of organizing, negotiating, and waiting for visas, the Técsői Banda has finally made it to New York city. I've written about - and played with - this Ukrainian Hutsul Gypsy band before in these pages, and tonight they are playing on 2nd Avenue in the Village at the Ukrainian National home Restaurant for a dance sponsored by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. Tomorrow they play at the Black Sea Gypsy festival in Central park at summer stage. The first few days they were here we put them up at my sister's house in New Jersey. We didnt have room for a huge party, but we did manage to grill up some cevapcici and with the help opf Michael Alpert, Sruli and Lisa, and Pete Rushevsky we were able to play outside and disturb the sleeping chipmunks a bit. It has been fun to watch the guys observe us Americans and our strange and outlandish ways.I'm in a rush... this post is more of a space holder. The guys are leaving on Monday... and I will have more time to write then.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Montreal: Geoff Berner, Josh Dolgin, and Smoked Meat Chez Schwartz's.

In Toronto Geoff Berner said “Arise and follow me to Montreal.” For a recording session, at least. Geoff - last seen in these pages verbally harrassing neo-Nazis in Budapest - has spent much of his career verbally and musically harrassing the forces of hypocrisy and greed as one of Canada's most prolific politico-Yiddological singer songwriters with several great CDs to his credit. I first met Geoff years ago when he convinced me to take him on a trip to Romania to look for Gypsy and Jewish musicians in Maramures and Moldavia. I was wary about it - I didn't know who the heck this dude was and what the heck he wanted... and when I get wary, I mean slit-eyed, nasty-ass cynical about what a person's agenda is... and I basically told him to frack off and be on his merry way. But he persisted, and eventually we traveled together with his band in tow, and I was converted. We actually had a great time together. No simple folkie pilgrim, Geoff came with open eyes and a musicians' Big Ears and soaked in the history of the past and the stark reality of the present in Maramures, and eventually turned his experiences into some amazing new music.
For Geoff's new CD he got together with Josh Dolgin as producer to put together a crack band of klezmer musicians including Mike Winograd on clarinet, Benjy Fox-Rosen on bass and vocals, and Montreal native Brigitte Dajczer on violin to build up the sound he's worked out.On hand were Geoff's go-to musicians: my old Maramures traveling buddies from BC, Diona Davies(fiddle) and Wayne Adams (drums and percussion.) Me? I was brought in to add the quality called “skronk”... either playing the Romanian vioara cu goarna or just plain screaming into the mike in Romanian.Studio work is a combination of intense focus and concentration interspersed with long periods of wasted time and what we musicians call “the hang.” This was one of the best hangs I have ever had the pleasure to spend with musicians...This was a non-stop jam with epic tales of musicians' road stories, joke telling, and opinions about Chinese take out food.We started our Montreal experience with Geoff's gig at the Casa del Popolo on Bl. Saint Laurent to a rowdy crowd of Berner loyalists fueled by eminently affordable beer and shots. Geoff is known in Canada as "The Whiskey Rabbi" and he playes an audience like a fined tuned violin, shot glass in hand, reeling with a balance of drunkards swagger and the timing of a top notch stand up comic. And while his songs are funny, they are a dark kind of funny that makes you want to run loose in the streets yelling "No Pasaran!" and upsetting garbage cans until you can find another bar that is still open. Folks... Montreal proves that you don't have to spend a lot of money to have a nightlife. As Brigitte told me “Toronto works so that Montreal can play.” Amen.I'll post more about the food we encountered... such as the famed Montreal bagel. No, it is not like a New York Bagel. It is its own animal, slightly sweet, small, and perfect for breakfast - especially if the breakfast is at the Club Social cafe, in the Mile's End nabe next to the St. Viateur bagel shop... which Winograd declared - rightly so - to be the best coffeehouse in the entire Universe. .And yes, it is very, very good. As bagels go. But the Holy of Holies, the grail of Montreal munchies, the steamed, rye wrapped prize atop the highest Himalayan peak of Jewish meat products was finally within my grasp... Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you... the smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz's Delicatessen, or as they call it, Chez Schwartz, Charcuterie Hebraique.C'est magnifique! C'est almost better than Katz's pastrami, si c'est possible. Take one Canadian Jewish singer songwriter (yes, he idolizes Leonard Cohen who also like to frequent Chez Schwartz' for the occasional smoked meat sandwich) and add a steamed, fat laden, delicious helping of Jewish culture that has morphed into a solid piece of Montreal - and Canadian - identity... stick it between two slices of rye bread, slather with mustard, serve with pickle...And that deserves an entire post in itself... when I get some rest. After a ten hour drive from Montreal... no more tonight!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Toronto, Ontario: Smoked Meat and Ashkenaz Festival

It hasn't been all that long a time since I was sitting on the roof of our flat in Istanbul mourning the loss of my laptop. Since then I have moved on... to New York via Canada. It has been a week of jet lag, long and loud jams, and smoked meat sandwiches with some of the best musicians in the Klezmer scene. I'm exhausted. For access to the computer world that we all know and love, in front of me is a tiny computer. I was given a "net book" - sort of the pygmy monkey of the laptop family - and it is tiny and occasionally annoying. It is like typing on a paperback book sized keyboard with a 10” screen, but for the time being it is what I have to use. I just spent last weekend at the Ashkenaz festival in Toronto.Ashkenaz is held at the Toronto Harbourfront Center, a pleasant stretch of Lake Ontario dedicated to events celebrating Canada's diverse patchwork of cultures that hosts a series of ethnic festivals each summer culminating in this huge Klez-ma-thon of Jewish culture. Canada's Jews are quite diverse in themselves, and it would be misleading to characterize the festival as one of simply Yiddish culture – although it is one of the most Yiddish festivals around on the klezmer circuit – because of the strong presence of Canada's large Sephardic and Mizrachi Jewish communities. Chickpeas and bourekas (the Israeli/Turkish Sephardic bureks that have become one of Canada's main snack pastries) far outnumbered Ashkenazic foods, but I finally got a chance to taste Canada's version of pastrami – smoked meat. And I can say that while different, it is good. Very good.I started at Caplansky's on College avenue in the company of my old friend... let's call him... Walter... AKA Marshall Tito and his family. Marshall Tito had a brisket and smoked meat combo, which may be the only possible improvement imaginable. Later at the festival site, we discovered that Caplansky's was a festival sponsor and had a stand in the food tent, further narrowing any decision I could make as to what to eat. Caplansky's is described at length in David Sax's must-read encyclopaedic examination of the world of the delicatessen Save The Deli, and it is a modern, hip answer to the deli of old. I ordered the $11 (Canadian loonie) smoked meat sandwich with fries and the sandwich arrived surprisingly smaller than those parodic NYC pastrami towers, but all in all, just about the right portion to eat without waste.It isn't pastrami or corned beef at all, but somehow manages to make a third way in between the two noble deli meats and carve out a niche and identity for itself. Less processed than either pastrami or corned beef, more like a cross between pastrami and rare roast beef. And there is Caplansky's pulled brisket sandwich... which is a protein-pcaked ode to the joys of slathered mustard on cheap belly meat.If I had these in New York I would be in utter confusion about which to order – as it is I usually jump between my beloved pastrami and my old friend corned beef, but these would leave me in utter confusion. With luck... not promising anything yet... there is a chance I may go to Montreal next week in which case I will get a chance to sample the legendary Chez Schwartz' smoked meat sandwich. More on that later. If you had to visit only one Jewish cultural festival a year... Ashkenaz would be it.Unlike festivals in Europe, Ashkenaz not only features concerts, but workshops, lectures, events for kids, and more all compactly located on the shore of beautiful Lake Ontario. For the participants, its a chance to get together and meet old friends and hang out and play together. I was there alone, but I also sat in on Alan Bern's Other Europeans panel and played in a variety of bands for dancing.I met old friends like best-selling author Michael Wex, who was flogging his new novel The Frumkiss Family Business, and his wife Marilla,British born stand up comic and all around whirlwind who wore a participant's ID identifying her as “Wife of Wex.” Mark Rubin – about one third lighter and more compact than the last time I saw him – was on hand for blues fiddle jamming. My old buddies from Vancouver via Maramures, Geoff Berner, Wayne and Dione were in on Monday and we had a klezmer musician vodka and smoked meat sandwich party to end our festival. At my age one is not supposed to have this much fun. Thanks to Erik and all the Ashkenaz organizers (Ilana... I'm talkin' bout you!) for a great weekend. And don't worry - after our north American travels I should have some more details about what we did in Istanbul, as soon as the ophotos I lost in the Great Laptop Robbery of 2010 are replaced by even better photos of the same shots. Until then, the midnight "Quiet Dance" wiith Pete Rushevsky and Steven Greenman (Di Tsvey) along with Mike Winograd and Amir and others, led by Steve Weintraub on the shores of Lake Ontario .