Hanging with Nicolae Covaci, 87-year-old Roma fiddler from Dragomiresti, Romania (region of Maramures). Nicolae was one of the last remaining traditional musicians in Eastern Europe to have played professionally for Jewish weddings before World War 2.
Travel in Eastern Europe has been a major influence on Jake's music. It has also informed his understanding of the role he serves as a klezmer fiddler in this day and age. Jake was lucky to grow up in New York, immersed in a richly creative community of klezmer musicians, Yiddish artists and scholars, native Yiddish speakers, and Jewish cultural activists. Still, he came to realize that much of the traditions he was learning were removed from their European roots. Traditional artists who inherited an unbroken chain of musical transmission embody the music's integral societal functions. Jake has immersed himself in the myriad neighboring traditions and languages that influenced Ashkenazic Jewish culture and music. This search has led him to befriend, study with, and document many living treasures who represent links to old and beautiful cultural memory. Here are some examples!
Maramureș is a remote region of the Carpathian mountains at the border between Romania and Ukraine. The Covaci family is a Roma musician dynasty that retains an older style of regional fiddling. I had the honor of visiting Nicolae and several of his brothers many times over the years. They are among the few musicians I have encountered who played professionally for Jewish weddings before the area's Jewish population was decimated in the Holocaust. Their repertoire also includes Romanian, Hungarian, Hutsul, and Roma music. Nicolae passed away in 2016.
Here is a Jewish tune Nicolae played for us in October, 2014. With Michael Alpert and Jake Shulman-Ment, filmed by Bob Cohen
Maramures tunes with Nicolae and his brother Victor Covaci
Ion was another of the great violinists of the Covaci family in Maramureș. He also had a large Jewish repertoire. I had the luck to visit and record him in August of 2006. Sadly, he passed away a couple years later.
Here are two Jewish melodies from him.
Transylvania is a beautiful region in northwest Romania, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is historically ethnically mixed, and thus, extremely culturally rich. Romanians, Hungarians, Saxon Germans, Roma (Gypsies), and Jews share their roots there and the folk music reflects this diversity. It is also one of the last remaining regions of Europe where rural lautari (professional Gypsy musicians) still live and work in their villages, although this is changing very rapidly due to modernization and the loss of folk traditions. Musical styles vary widely throughout Transylvania, although it is mostly string-based, with the lead fiddler, or primas, as the bandleader. Like the klezmorim of old, the trade of a lautar is passed down through the family. These musicians learn to play by observing and copying their elders, much like children learn to speak languages.
Photo: Eleonore Weill
These amazing musicians from Târnăveni (Dicsőszentmárton in Hungarian) had sold their instruments when I visited them in 2005. We brought them fiddles to play on. Who knows how long it had been since they had last played, but they floored me from the first note.
Iosif Ghemant Funeral, Gherla
While in Cluj in May, 2011, we learned that Iosif Ghemant, a famous and greatly respected violinist from the town of Gherla, had passed away, and that there would be a large traditional lautar funeral the next day at his home. We didn't know him, but we knew this would be quite an event, so we got in the car the next morning, drove to Gherla, and found his house. It wasn't difficult to find, as there were at least 100 mourners, including some 25 musicians with their instruments, playing his favorite tunes outside his house. We were invited into the house to view the body. He was lying in his coffin on the dining room table, surrounded by enormous men crying and kissing his forehead, expounding on what a great musician, and kind soul he had been. I doubt that I will ever forget this.
Here is the funeral procession, accompanied by the traditional processional melody for the dead.
Filmed by Eleonore Weill.