Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Vienna: The Klezmer Project at the Viennale Film Festival!

Fumie, Leandro, and Paloma 

Some years ago I was approached by a young couple from Argentina at the Krakow Klezmer festival. Paloma Schachtmann and Leandro Koch were making a documentary about Klezmer music and they wanted to accompany me and Jake Shulman-Ment on one of our summer trips around Maramures to record fiddlers who retained a knowledge of Jewish repetoire. I don't always like traveling with a cohort of folks I do not already know, but they turned out to be fine traveling companions. I didn't hear about the project for a couple of years and then in 2020 they contacted me again. They had recieved funding to finish the film with a group of Austrian film makers and could we go on the road with a full film crew again? Covid intervened, but the next year we went to Tranylvania with them. They turned out to be some of the nicest film folks I ever met. (Note: I rarely say anything nice about film makers once they finish paying me.) The result was "The Klezmer Project" or "Adentro mio estoy Bailando" which premiered at the 2023 Berlin Fim Festival, winning the Best First Feature award. The Austrian premier happened a few weeks ago at the Viennale Film Festival in Vienna, and we were invited to attend. 

The film is like nothing I had expected - not a simple documentary about collecting folk music, but an experimental fim that works on many levels - a romance, a road film, a I.B. Singer Yiddish allegory, and of course, a documentary. The narration in Yiddish tells a tale that transcends the scenes of film financing, backstage at gigs, and weddings in Maramures, Moldavia, and Argentina. The end result is something I am really proud to have been a part of, and when this film finally gets to widespread distribution I hope it gets seen at festivals of Yiddish culture: it is probably the most contemporary Yiddish film of this generation. In any case... the Viennale was a great excuse to visit Vienna. We got to stay in the Hotel Intercontinental downtown next to the Stadtspark. Not shabby at all! 

Plus, the Viennale staff handled everybody with VIP courtesy, no eay task when the VIPs are hundreds of quirky avant-garde types whose stories always begin with "When I was kicked out of film school...". We checked in with the office and were given swag bags with info and gifties and shown a refrigerator full of refreshments to which we could help ourselves while in the hotel. I like swag bags! I like free beer!  Plus: the Viennale hosted a dinner each evening at classic Viennese restaurants of the sort that I would probably never visit on my own dime (I'm more of a felaful and chinese noodle kind of guy on the road.) Of course, if traveling in Vienna, there are certain prosaic pleasures that are not to be missed: such is the Wurtelstand.

Wurstelstands are located all over Vienna and offer the street level diner a quick and cheap Teuronic standard, the wurst. For about three Euros you get a choice of bratwurst, boerwurst, frankfurter, or the odd construct that is a bosna. Everybody says to go for the käsekrainer, a kolbasz laced with cheese that is the darling of the Austrian Wurstiverse but just seems like a Polish kielbasa that is trying too hard. There are also Leberkäse sandwiches, a thick steamed slice of square veal baloney on a kaiser roll that fills you up as you hop on the tram.

Bratwurst and käsekrainer in the park.
I do love sausage, but I still had to go farther afield to Ottakinger Strasse west of the Vienna city center. There, along what is called "The Balkan Mile" is the Brunnergasse market. This neighborhood started out as mainly Serbian and Turkish, but has grown into one of the centers for the recently arrived Syrian refugee community, the one that Hungary's Viktor Orban treated so miserably in 2015. They were welcomed in Austria and from the looks of it, have made a pretty decent home here, given that Vienna is rated the most liveable city in the world and Budapest is... not the most livable city in the world.
Brunnergasse Market
You might think that Budapest and Vienna, given their historical connections and their geographical proximity, would have close relations and cultural exchanges. You might also be wrong.  Vienna and Budapest are like neighbors that never speak to each other except when one puts hits garbage bins in the other's parking space. It is as if the two cities pretended that the other does not exist. At present, Budapest doesn't even have a direct railway connection to Vienna - you have to switch from buses to trains several times. This has to do with the state of the Hungarian railways, which are no longer allowed to make international connections any farther west than Vienna since the Hungarian trains simply can not run on schedule. In the end, this produces a bit of an inferiority complex which the Hungarian government deals with by producing short films for its government controlled media in which Vienna is portrayed as a shabby and dangerous place inhabited by shady Middle Easterners slinking about the streets in burnooses and caftans. Like much of the propoganda coming out of the Hungarian government, it comes off as a bit racist and laughably inaccurate all at the same time. I considered this as we sat down for a snack of fresh Syrian mankaneesh - a freshly baked flatbread topped with olive oil and za'atar spice - and tea. Three Euros for all of it. Why couldn't we have this at the corner market in my neighborhood?
Syrian breakfast
Given that the news in the Middle East at the time of our vist was rather catasrophic, we found everybody in the market to be chatty and friendly as they went about their business of selling fresh vegetables and halal meats and Syrian street food at prices even I can afford. We had two of the most impressive lamb kebab sandwiches of my life at one stand. it was hard to choose - there are stands offering kebabs, felafuls, lahmacun, every kind of Middle Eastern delicacy in its raw, local authentic version. We simply got lucky.

You choose your meat skewer, and they rack it on an upright grill to roast for about five minutes and roll it with parsley, onions, and sauce on a fresh flatbread. Two full kebab sandwiches and two ayran yogurt drinks came to nine Euros. And I will add on more thing: the Wiener schnitzel we had at the Viennale dinner that evening was transcendant as well. And then, on our way home, we stopped at the huge superkarket located in the Main Train station and did a weeks worth of shopping to bring home to Budapest. Yes, shopping for groceries is now cheaper for many things in Vienna - due to the 125% food inflation that Hungary has accomplished in the last year. We picked up smoked fish, wurst, cheese... at about half the price I pay at my local supermarket. As soon as they get the direct trains running again, I will be back!

Monday, October 16, 2023

Old Timers on Fiddle: Maramureș

Goreu Canaloș on fiddle, Tărșolț, Oaș, Romania.

When I began playing fiddle (as in not classical violin) Richard Nixon was the President of the USA. America was going through one of its periodic "folk revivals." There had been several by then: the Great 1950s Beatnik Folk Scare, then a period in the 1960s where cleancut trios and quartets with three guitars and a banjo sang arranged "folksongs" in harmony, then came the Dylan-does-Woody-Guthrie Protest  Song era. In the 1970s Bluegrass music broke into AM radio with "Dueling Banjos" - the theme song to the film "Deliverance". I had an old Harmony acoustic guitar that my parents got for me when I was recovering from an illnesss. Of course, I wanted an electric guitar, but my parents were smarter than that.  As a result I wound up playing a lot of old time blues, Appalachian and southern string band music, most learned from reissues of old 78 RPM recordings made in the 1920s, and friends of mine who drove down to West Virginia and North Carolina to tape record and learn from people like Tommy Jarrell and Melvin Wine. I never made the trip down south (although I did drive  to Canada recording fiddler Cameron Chisholm in Cape Breton in 1975) and by the time I could, a lot of the old timers had passed away. 

Chris March, Chops McCoy, and me on fiddle, 1975.

To us New York kids, North Carolina and West Virginia were the last pockets where the old "archaic" fiddle traditions still hung on. (I was entirely wrong about that. Time and age have granted me a lot of enlightenment as to what I am entirely wrong about.) I felt like I had missed out on some golden age of folk music because I had never made it down to the Appalachians a half century before I was born. When I moved to Hungary in the 1980s, I had the same sense: I wanted to get into the boondocks before their fiddle traditions evaporated into a dust of decaying folklorists' tapes. I finally got to roam around Transylvania in 1988. Since then I have made an astounding realization: this music is not disappearing. It isn't always apparent, but it hasn't disappeared.

Ceterașul Dumitru Covaci

This should explain why I am hooked on the Maramureș region of Romania. I know of almost no other region in the world where folk fiddling is as essential to the local cultural identity as in Northern Romania. Transylvanian music is still a proud badge of local identity, whether providing the background music to a wedding or thrilling the crowds in a bar before a football (i.e.: soccer) game. Tradition is strong in Transylvania.

 Ieud, August 15th, Virgin Mary Day.

Spoiler alert: If you didn't already know, I play Jewish music. Traditional, kind of like the stuff you probably call "klezmer." And due to the fates of history, there aren't a lot of people alive today who can play this sort of music. Maramures was once home to a large, rural Jewish population. Unlike Jews who lived in the "Pale of Settlement" in Russia and Poland, the Jews of Maramureș - like the Romanian, Zipser German, and Rusyn peasants who flocked to these mountains in the 1700s - had rights granted to them directly by the Hapsburg Treasury, and were able to own and farm their own land, an anomaly among Jewish settlements in Europe. As such they created a Yiddish world much closer to the culture of their neighbors, which lasted in some pockets even after the Holocaust. Today, however, most of the Jews of Maramureș are gone. A large part of their surviving descendants form the bulk of what we know as the Satmar Hasidim in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Antwerp Belgium. The community in the town of Sighet is now down to 22 members.

Jewish and Rusyn musicans, Bogdan, Maramureș 1909 

Like their neigbors, Maramureș Jews were avid fiddlers - the ceteraș is an essential figure in the life of Maramures, and even after the Jews had been eradicated during the Holocaust their presence and musical traditions continued to have an echo effect on their neighbors. (The villagers, mind you, did not take part in the eradicating. That was the work of the Hungarian Army.) When I began recording music in the 1990s, older fiddlers - particularly in the Iza Valley - still played a repetoire of Jewish fiddle tunes. They did not necessarily remember the details or context in which the tunes were played - most had heard them as teenagers while playing as pickup musicians for Jewish fiddlers playing outside their home communities. (Gheorghe Covaci "Cioata" from Vadu Izei remembered playing with the Shloimovich family band from Rozavlea "They used to pay us with cake!") These were tunes that were remembered mainly because they were interesting musically, since most Maramures tunes are connected to either a ritual function or to an aspect of social dance. For the aging fiddlers I met these Jewish tunes were simply "cool tunes my father played for listening." 

The late Brothers Nicolae and Viktor Covaci from Dragomirești in 2015.

If you have heard recordings of dance music from Maramureș, it is easily identifiable: the fiddle is backed by a four string guitar tuned to an open A chord and a small bass drum. The guitar - called zongora - which, oddly, means "piano" in Hungarian - has been around since at least the 1920s, when Bela Bartok made recordings in the Iza valley. There used to be an older style, however, that used a three string viola kontra fiddle like the one used in central Transylvania, and a bass. Around 1964 the Petreus Brothers, a fiddle and guitar dueo, recorded an album for Electrecord, the Romanian State label. The State culture authorities declared that from then on all Maramures music had to be played on fiddle and guitar to be broadcast on TV or radio, effectively killing the older style of music and the repetiore that went with it, including the Jewish tunes. During the Ceaucescu era only a few ethnomusicologists had access to tape recorders and little of this style of music survives, although a recording made by Ghizella Sulițeanu and Anca Ghircescu in 1971 featured the fiddler of Borșa, Gheorghe "Stingaci" Covaci and his band playing several sets of the Jewish repetoire in the older style.

Ion Pop is one of the hardest working musicians in Maramureș. He is the leader of the Iza folk music ensemble, and as he says "I'm a peasant from Monday to Friday, and a musician on weekends." Ion, in fact plays a large role in the continuation of Maramureș traditions. He consciously strives to make the old village aesthetic marketable, playing for village weddings as well as appearing on television and at festivals. 

Ion Pop with Fumie, just off to work!

Romania loves its folk music, but just like the United States has Contemporary Country and Western, Romania has Musică Populară - at any time there are about seven round the clock TV video channels playing professionally produced "folk" music videos featuring idealized peasants and trained dancers and musicians lip synching while choreographed stepping around the haystacks. Ion doesn't do musică populară. Among his talents, he single handedly revived the use of the three string kontra viola in Maramureș music. Once, when I asked him who was left in Maramureș who still played music in the old style, Ion answered "You and me, Bob. We are all that's left." 

Jake on stage with Ion Pop in Breb, summer 2023

Luckily, we aren't all that's left. Zoe Aqua from Denver, Colorado has been living in Transylvania for thae last few years actively learning from the surviving village musicians, and has even synthesized what she has been learning into her own compositions in traditional style on her CD "In Vald Arayn" (dowload it from bandcamp!) Jake Shulman-Ment has been a fixture of the New York klezmer scene since he was a wee child. He has traveled around Maramures with me as well as spending a year living in Bukovina while working with the Lautar orchestra of the city of Botoșani. His CD A Redele on Oriente Records in Berlin is one of my favorites. He is also one of the reknowned Brothers Nazaroff.  Vasile Rus, from Vadu Izei, also consciously preserves a repetoire of Jewish melodies, and was instrumental in teaching the style to Zoe Aqua, who subsequently, taught some of this music at a workshop last summer at KlezKanada.

Nicolae and Viktor
We were lucky to meet these musicians when we did. Sadly, most of them are no longer alive. Jake and I leanred  a lot from Nicolae Covaci in Dragomirești, who passed away around 2019. His brother Viktor could play the Jewish repetoire when playing duet with his older brother, but unless I prompted him he couldn't remember more than two or three of the melodies, since he had been born after the era when Jewish musicians were in the area. This summer I dropped in on Viktor only to find his wife dressed in black - he had passed away in late July, two weeks before my visit. I miss him. Viktor was one of the last old style fiddlers in the region. He was a great guy to hang with, gentle and always the little brother, even into his 70s. Two years ago we filmed him while working with Argentinian film makers  Paloma Schachmann and Leandro Koch on their indie documentary The Klezmer Project "Adentro Mio Estoy Bailando" This weekend Fumie and I are going to Vienna to meet them at the Viennale film festival for the Austrian premier of the film. I wish Viktor could be with us. 
Bonus: At 1:10 into the trailer, Fumie is dancing with Maria, the wife of fiddler Dumitru Covaci.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Romania Part 1: Trumpet Fiddles and Goulash

Pictured above is a plate of iahnie de fasole cu ciolan afumat. Stewed white beans with smoked pork hock. It is one of the most radically non-kosher foods existing in the universe. It is also one of the most delicious. Similar dishes may exist elsewhere in the world, but iahnie de fasole with smoked pork is decidedly Romanian. You can't get this in Hungary, or in Serbia, or even in pig loving Austria or the Czech republic, which boasts the highest per capita consumption of pork in the world. Only in Romania. And in Romania, you can get it in nearly every restaurant, where it is usually the most expensive dish on offer, and still clocks in at under USD $10. It had been too long since I had been to Romania to enjoy its swiney delights... so this summer we made plans to meet up with Zoe Aqua and Jake Shulman-Ment, two of my close associates in the world of old style Jewish fiddling, to drive around the porkier parts of Romania visiting some of the older fiddlers. As fate would have it, our small party expanded into a small safari as six other friends joined the caravan, but somehow we managed. 

Neolog Synagogue, Oradea, Romania

We started out just across the border from Hungary in the city of Oradea, (known as Nagyvarád in Hungarian.) Once a grey and dusty border outpost, Oradea has spent the last few years using its European Union funding to spruce up and attract foreign investment. I was literally shocked at how magnificent the city had become, with several pedestrian streets lined with carefully restored old buildings filled with outdoor cafes and shops. But we were in Oradea to hop out to its suburban villages. In nearby Cihei lives Marius Mihuț, a maker of the vioara cu goarne, a resonator fiddle unique to the Bihor region of northern Transylvania.

Zoe was there to purchase a vioara from Marius, and every time we visit him he and his sister like to make a party of it. First, there was wild boar goulash made over an open fire in the backyard, followed by home made salami and home brewed palinka de prune, plum brandy. This is the reality of doing ethnomusicological "field collecting." You end up with wonderful, insanely generous new friends in places you would never expect. Also, amazingly great fiddle music.

Vioara cu goarne remain a popular instrument for weddings and celebrations around Bihor county, because it is loud enough to be heard over crowds at events such as football matches, where the local identity of the instrument dovetails perfectly with the local Oradea football team (by which I mean soccer for all you Americans...) 

The demand is such that Marius keeps quite busy churning out these hand made fiddles. The horn is attached to the body through a small reonator device set beneath the bridge and strings, rather like the metal resonator on a National Steel or dobro guitar, but in miniature. A more developed tone can be made by using the resonating device cannibalised from old phonograph players, particularly the Czech Suprahon brand, which Marius collects by being in touch with antique phonegraph collectors on ebay.

"Bobby" the deer with Fumie and Zoe

Did I metion that Marius keeps a pair of tame deer as house pets? Yes he does. Bobby and Bambina. He's raised them since they were orphans found by some local hunters. They walk around the farm in back and seem to think they are just another one of the goats. He also has a couple of baby wild boar. I'm pretty sure those will not end up as house pets, though. The goulash is just too tempting.

The Status Quo Ante Synagogue in Marosvásárhely

With a few days to spend before we traveled to Maramures, Fumie and I decided to see Tărgu Mureș, (Marosvásárhely in Hungarian.) For some reason, I have never actually stayed in this traditionally Hungarian speaking city, (today about about 50% use Hungarian and the language has official status) although a lot of my acquaintances in Budapest hail from here. I, personally, base myself in Cluj (Kolozsvár) when I am in Transylvania, and for some reason I haven't ever had a big reason to spend any time in Marosvásárhely. It is, however, off the tourist circuit and that meant hotel prices were cheap, and so was the food pictured above, the iahnie de fasole cu ciolan afumat from the Laci Csarda around the corner from our pensiune.

Herbal teas, fresh berries, and jams

The thing to do in any town in Romania is to visit the local open market. We were there in time for summer produce to be piled up in small mountains. People will preserve fruit and make huge amounts of  vineta and zakuska eggplant spread for use later in the year.

Mountains of egplant
Usually there are people setting up to sell locally made products like carved spoons, basketwork, and custom farm tools. Fumie found a 90 year old woman selling thick woolen socks she herself knitted, perfect for Fumie's mom and sis back in Tokyo, so she began to ask about them and the woman was utterly charmed by the existance of a Japanese woman who can chat in basic Romanian with a markedly Maramures accent.

Also, it has been a good year from wild mushrooms. These are fresh chanterelles going for about USD $6.50 a kilogram. Not a pound. A kilo. I don't really want to slag on any of the places I have visited in Romania, but honestly? These mushrooms were the most exciting thing I saw during my time in Marosvásárhely. It is a pretty town, in a stunning location. Don't miss the mushrooms!
After a day in Székélyland, we were off to visit fiddlers in Maramureș, a few hours drive to the north. I will post more on that later. Pictured below is what greeted us when we arrived. Home made sausage with stewed sour cabbage. No. It was not kosher. It was, however, wonderful. 

You may well ask about my obsession with pork. Well... for most of my young life I did not eat pork. Although my family did, I avoided pork for a variety of reasons from the time I hit my teens until after I moved to Hungary. That all changed for me in Hungary and the Balkans. You have to be pretty effing hardcore to avoid pork in Hungary, or anywhere else  in Central Europe for that matter.  Pork is simply what is for dinner, lunch, breakfast, snacks, and in the intravenous feeding tube that hangs over you as you take your last breath. The amount and variety of pork available here was so overwhelming that I used to write a regular column for the English language newspaper in Budapest - Budapest Week - bylined by "the Prince of Pork." Its easier now - there are halal butchers and kosher markets, and vegetarians are no longer slaughtered as mass entertainment in the town squares, but after that first bite of kolbasz so many years ago, there was no going back for me.)

Thursday, June 15, 2023

We Become Peasants

After going dormant for the longest spell in its long history, the blog is back. I'm sorry about the delay. thanks to the readers who took the effort to reach out to me and inquire whether I was still alive or had been incarcerated or just gone off my meds and become a Republican. I'm fine. Life has been a bit less adventurous in the last year... we spent a lot of it (well, too much of it) in the USA getting surgical things stuck into various bits and parts and getting squeezed through MRI tubes and other such nonsense (playing Klezmer music around NY, eating Turkish food in Paterson and Yemeni food in the Bronx with the near-legendary Bob Godfried...) but finally we are back in our Budapest home and happily finding our true selves. We have become peasants. We are now people of the soil, as they say in nationalist circles. 
Our little plot of Heaven
Usually I write posts about our visits to various peasants around East Europe, but we finally decided to take the leap and become peasants ourselves! For years we have been using our huge living room window to grow basil, peppers, and other kitchen herbs, while Fumie has turned our inner courtyard walkway into a minor botanical garden of flowers. I used to have a garden when I lived in a rundown slum tenement in Allston, Massachusetts in the 1980s - growing in soil I composted from horse manure I trucked in from the Boston Police stables on the back of my bicycle.

Allston, Mass. 1982, with zuchinni
When we lived in Zuglo we had a balcony on which we grew a huge amount of herbs and peppers, and when we moved downtown that was supplanted by a huge living room window. Fumie set up a small mega-industrial scale window garden and soon our living room was being taken over by errant avocado plants, smelly muskatlis, and potted mints and basil. We needed more room. And luckily, the Kisdiofa Community Garden appeared on our horizon and we applied for a plot. 

our living room window nursery with community garden below.
The community garden is conveniently across the street from our building. When we first moved in it was a vacant lot with rubble from a demolished building, but a community organization (KEK) set about cleaning it up and trucking in organic soil to set up an urban garden in our densely developed old downtown Pest neighborhood, the seventh district Jewish Ghetto. The garden is strictly organic, and an entire compost system was built this year, so we can bring our kitchen scraps downstairs and recycle them into dinner for next year.
Cherry tomatoes and Japanese cucumbers
We got back to Budapest in March, so we were a bit late in getting started, but the folks running the garden were there with advice and guidance and soon we had turned over an abandoned plot, worked in organic compost and petrified alga-limestone, and we put in our early spring vegetables. One part of the plots is for flowers, including something Fumie found at Stop and Shop in Teaneck labeled "Grandma Flower Mix" that she swears by and we have no idea what is in it. Spring in Budapest this year was cold and wet and long, and the results were that our chinese yu-tsai greens didn't make it, our snow peas failed, and our radishes emerged as a lesson to other radishes to just say no to the Man pushing crack. On the other hand, once it warmed up we had a bumper crop of lettuce and we had an amazing crop of arugula, which we are still eating.

Since, we have put in tomatoes (cherry, black Krim, and yellow) Japanese cukes, peppers (Jalapeno, Japanese Shishito, and Romanian hot long pepper) two types of eggplant (Japanese and Italian) and okra. Okra is hot weather vegetable not often seen in Hungary.  We are almost too far north to grow it, so I am counting on late planting and global warming to see us through. It is also, without argument, my favorite vegetable. When I'm in the US I eat about a kilo of it a week, and with peppers and tomatoes I should be fed well into the fall.

OK. There was Yemeni food in the Bronx...

And Turkish Kunefe hot pastry with home made pistachio ice cream in Paterson...

And of course, nobody loves New Jersey diners more than my Dad, who will be 97 on June 20th:

But we are very happy to be home!