Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Zoe Aqua: The Romanian Synagogue Concert Tour

The Vizhnizer Kloys Synagogue, Sighet.
We return to Romania every summer. We just can't get it out of our system. Like salmon swimming upstream to reach their home waters, we take the train every summer to Transylvania. In theory it is a simple train trip. But it is never easy. Often the trains are re-routed or, like this year, the border is closed because Romania has entered the Schengen zone. Schengen, you may say, "That's great! No more border checks!" Not quite: the main rail crossing at Episcopeia Bihor was deemed "not ready for Schengen" so the train had to be diverted to Valea de East Bumfuck. But we got there. Satu Mare here we come! 

The Synagogue of Satu Mare. Not the Big One.

Satu Mare abuts the Hungarian border, and for most people it is known mainly as the original home base of the Satmars - one of the largest and most insular of the fundamentalist Hasidic sects ever to emerge from the extremist Hungarian Hasidic movement. But since the Holocaust the Satmars now mostly live in Brooklyn and Antwerp. Today there are less than 100 Jews left in Satu Mare, and Klezmer violinist Zoe Aqua - with her local band and her collaborator, British violinist Anna Lowenstein - was going to give a concert at the last remaining Synagogue in Satu Mare.

Zoe and Anna in the Satu Mare Synagogue
Zoe Aqua is well known in Klezmer circles as one of the young generation of violinists diving deep into tradition in an effort to inject some much needed life into Klezmer music. Most East European folk traditions have survived into the 21st century, while the folk traditions of  east European Jews were abruptly cut short by the Holocaust. Jewish survivors left for Israel or the America where - like the Satmar Hasidim - they worked to rebuild the intellectual and religious atmosphere that had been destroyed. They did not put a lot of effort into maintaining folk music traditions so that their assimilated hippie grandchildren could wake up in the 1980s and say "I'm bored of playing bluegrass banjo. I want to play Jewish music!" What we know today as "Klezmer" music was revived by a hard core of Jewish musicians who had to learn pretty much from scratch from the last alter kakkers living in Brooklyn and from scratchy gramophone 78 RPM records gleaned from Coney Island antique shops and archival sources like YIVO. 

Zoe with Maramures fiddler Dumitru Covaci
That first generation of Klezmer revivalists have now ourselves become The Old Guys and it is time to pass the baton to a younger generation, one that is not covered by Medicare and can still get out of folding chairs easily. One of those young virtuosi is Zoe Aqua. Originally from Denver, Zoe was already an accomplished violinist and music teacher when she began to play Klezmer, and soon moved onto neighboring styles of music such as Transylvanian fiddle. When I first heard Zoe she was technically perfect - as a violinist - but she lacked that certain "oomph" that you get from hard core Transylvanian and Romanian fiddlers. The lead fiddler in east Europe is called a "primás". In east European string bands there is a strict hierarchy - the primás is the leader, and the accompanying second fiddles, violas and basses follow the primás. There simply ain't no democratic discussion of roles in a Gypsy band. It helps that most trad bands in Transylvania are family based - you can't complain about the leader when your sister is married to him. (And 99% of the time, it is a him.)

Zoe spent two years living in Transylvania studying traditional violin styles. During that time she visited dozens of traditional musicians in villages far off the main roads, and learned the etiquette for working with Romani families in rural areas: you bring gifts for the wife, chocolate for the kids, and you make sure to pay the fiddler for his time. She also got good enough to be accepted among the discerning and very male in-crowd of Hungarian fiddlers who pay for the dance houses in Cluj. 

Zoe kidnapped in Oaș
Zoe's newish CD "In Vald Arayn" brings those two traditions, Klezmer and Transylvanian - together in compositions of her own that have the unique feel of traditional music, driven by a seasoned primás accompanied by a band of experienced Hungarian tancház musicians. This year Zoe crowdsourced funding for a project to bring those pieces to their original audiences by doing concerts in some of the remaining synagogues in Northern Romania. Me and Fumie had the pleasure of joining her for the final leg of the tour, which as always meant dropping in to visit old fiddling friends in the mountains of Maramures and the Oas region. After Satu Mare it was on to a concert at the synagogue in Sighetul Marmaței, otherwise known as Sighet, once a vibrant seat of Carpathian Jewish life and the home of Elie Wiesel. More on that in the next post - as well as amazing Romanian donuts!


Ivan said...

Dance houses in Cluj?

dumneazu said...

Cluj / Kolozsvar dance houses are usually held at the Heltai Haz https://www.facebook.com/HeltaiFolkCenter/?locale=hu_HU