I have often been lovingly called a "wandering Jew." Besides New York City, I've lived in Budapest, Paris, Botosani, and Toulouse. In addition to touring, I often spend time on the back roads of Eastern Europe in search of musical links to the past. As a teenager I came to realize that, despite the richly creative, inspiring community of klezmer musicians, Yiddish artists and scholars, and Jewish cultural activists in which I had the privilege of growing up in New York, much of this culture was living an existence removed from its European roots. In an effort to enrich my understanding of what it means to be a klezmer musician in this day and age, I immersed myself in the myriad neighboring traditions and languages that influenced, and in turn were influenced by, Jewish culture and music. Here is a small taste of some of the people I've met along the way, mostly from Romania, where I've spent the most time. I hope you enjoy the recordings, videos, and photos. Hopefully more to come soon...
Hanging with Nicolae Covaci, 87-year-old Gypsy fiddler from Dragomiresti, Romania (region of Maramures). Nicolae is one of the last remaining traditional musicians in Eastern Europe to have played professionally for Jewish weddings before World War 2.
I've visited Nicolae in his village several times now, and each time he plays at least one Jewish melody that I've never heard before. Once during a visit with Bob Cohen and Eleonore Weill, he had moved to a new house. He explained to us that he had spent a few years working on a farm in Israel. Not bad for a 5-foot tall 80-something year-old Gypsy fiddler.
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 Gypsy musician family in Maramures. 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 he played for me, accompanied by his grandson on zongora, one of the typical Maramures chordal instruments. Basically, it's a guitar tuned to a D Major chord.
This beautiful region in northwest Romania, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is historically ethnically mixed, and thus, extremely culturally rich. Romanians, Hungarians, Saxon Germans, Gypsies, and Jews share their roots in Transylvania, 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 all 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
The village of Ceuaş (Szászcsávás in Hungarian), is world-famous for its phenomenal Gypsy musicians. Târnăveni (Dicsőszentmárton in Hungarian), however, is a neighboring town with its own incredible, relatively unknown musicians. They live in quite impoverished conditions. This particular band had sold their instruments for food, so we had to bring a fiddle, bracs, and bass for them to play on.
The cigánysor (Gypsy row) of Szászcsávás
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. There 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.