A yor geyt, a yor kumt… (Onward 2014)

Well, 2013 was certainly an amazing year!  A lot of firsts took place, from our first forays outside of Boise, which included our first trip to the Northwest Folklife Festival, to releasing our first CD, it was really the start of lot of things that we hope to continue in the future.  Looking back, one of the most gratifying things about 2013 was the number of excellent artists that we had the opportunity to play with.  For years we’ve listened and looked up to acts like Vagabond Opera, Hawk and a Hacksaw, and Nu Klezmer Army.  To not only share venues with them, but to also gain their respect and friendship (and that of many other wonderful people as well!) really has meant a lot to us this past year.

Although some people have moved on, we’re also extremely grateful for the band members and friends that have stayed with us over the years.  It always amazes me what our bandmates bring to the mix, and it is very humbling and gratifying that they continue to work with us month after month, year after year.  We would not be able to do what we do without them.

This has also been an extremely challenging year, as it’s been the first full year that both Victoria and I have been going back to school full time.  Doing our best in our classes, raising four children, dealing with life well below the poverty line, *and* keeping the band moving forward has been an immense workload.  We were very fortunate that a lot of forward momentum (and some measure of our musicianship) carried us through 2013, as we were much less aggressive about developing material and finding gigs than we have been in the past.  And for what it’s worth, none of it is going to get any easier any time soon – we’re still both in school, still have all four kids, and we’re still poor.

Which doesn’t mean that we’re coasting through 2014 – far from it!  Right now we’re working on a hefty amount of new material, and we already have a number of high profile shows and plans in the works.  Starting with the Big, Badass Bellydance Show in February. From there, hopefully this will be the year that we find a place in the Treefort Music Festival.  And we’re planning our return trip to the Northwest Folklife Festival.  We’re also well in the works of bringing some very special friends and mentors to Boise for the second annual Idaho Jewish Cultural Festival.  I believe that there’s also going to be a focus on playing shows in smaller, more family friendly environments – like the Shangri-La Tea Room and the High Note Cafe.  For the new material, I think it sounds more like a real traditional Klezmer band, and also more like ourselves than anything we’ve done before.  For various reasons, there’ll be more of me playing double bass on a lot of our songs, plus more of my own translations as opposed to us just performing songs verbatim in Yiddish/Romani/etc.

So there certainly is a lot to look forward to, and for us to get to work on!  An enormous, heartfelt thank you to everyone who has come with us this far.  May we make many more friends and have many more musical adventures in 2014 and beyond!

How Vodka and Pickles came to be…

It’s come up on occasion that people have asked what the title “Vodka and Pickles” means or why we chose it.  We talked about it a bit on a radio interview once, but I thought I’d take a few minutes to both answer that question and talk about the album generally.

Putting together an album was something that we had wanted to do for years, and for a fair number of reasons.  Mostly because we knew that we had something which could sound amazing, and we wanted to put together the finest example we could that showed what we were capable of at our best.  And there was also a bit of a problem with the fact that a lot of the festivals that we wanted to apply for required a professional sounding demo.

We tried recording an EP in 2011, but the problem that we had was that, while we had a recording engineer, I was still pretty much producing the recording myself, and with no experience.  So after months of tweaking and mixing, we had two songs that were unsalvageable, two that had drastically changed since being recorded, and two that we felt reasonably happy with.  However, in the meantime, our two percussionists left the band to do other things, so between the changes to the songs and to our lineup, we decided to scrap that project and start again from scratch.

The first time I encountered the idea of single-mic recording in a way that made me think about it was when I read about Hillfolk Noir using it on “Skinny Mammy’s Revenge”.  Of course, it is a vintage technique, and no doubt almost all of the dozens of tracks from 78’s that I’ve listened to were recorded that way, but I didn’t really think of it as even an option until then.  I remember when I read about it at the time, I thought it would be fantastic to have the kind of discipline that it would require to do that, but I didn’t think we could manage it.  Also, at that particular time, we still had our percussionists, and I couldn’t imagine trying to balance them against the rest of the group in that way.  However, after they left, and we decided to scrap the first project, it became an idea we could play with.  So we experimented with it, read a lot of equipment reviews, did some test recordings, and came up with a plan.

And about a full year later, this is what we got. It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of recording hours and many, many more hours just thinking things through, listening, fixing, listening again.  It’s like any kind of complex project.  Imagine building an armoire for instance, complete with shelves, curved legs, etc.  The more detailed that your plans are going into the project, the more you know about what you need from each part as you make it.  You do always have to adjust the plan to fit the parts you’re getting to some degree, but doing too much of it leads to something ugly and unsound.  And figuring it out from both ends as you go takes time.  For awhile, it bothered me that something like a single-mic project took a bit over a year to complete, but in retrospect, it was a feat of discipline to get it done at all, and it quite possibly could have taken longer.  Anyway, now that we’ve gone through the process once we now know that we can do it again.

Which brings me to the album title.  No, it’s not a statement about the condition of our livers.  In the first place, pickles are traditionally served with vodka – it’s kind of the Russian equivalent of pretzels and beer.  So this is what the host breaks out first when he has company.  For hardcore Russkis, it is what’s for breakfast.  Either way it has a connotation of being what starts thing off – a forshpil.  It’s what gets the party started.  Between the first recording project, and the various phases our recordings went through, I thought of a lot of names for what to call it (and not all are printable).  But as this project was coming to a close, I wanted something that suggested it was just the beginning.  Eleventh-hour apologetics?  Perhaps.  But there it was – Vodka and Pickles: a party unto itself that also suggests even greater things to come.

Appropriation, Advocacy, and the Road to Hell

Being a good friend can be a tricky business.  And it can get much trickier when you’re trying to be friend to other cultures, or to a culture in particular.  Assuming that you know I’m part of a Klezmer group that also branches out into related genres of music, it’s not difficult to see where this is going.  Pretty much from when we started this band, we knew we wanted to include Romani music in our set.  This was for a few reasons: 1. We love it and it’s fun.  2. We wanted to highlight the dialogue between Romani and Klezmer music – that since we see them as two sides of the same coin, we wanted to show both parts of that coin. 3. We wanted, in whatever measure we could, to promote Roma culture and bring something of fairly authentic Romani music to people who may not experience it otherwise.  Although I don’t think our conviction on all three points has ever wavered, we were also aware that we were treading on territory that wasn’t necessarily our own, and this did give us pause.

Because, let’s face it, there is something of a dark side to the new, multi-culti, global age of teh internetz.  There was a time when you actually had to engage in a culture to learn anything about it.  *Maybe* you could find a book or field recordings, but still.  Compared to the modern days of YouTube, when folk songs from Mongolia to Macedonia are a mouse click away, when do you get to decide what culture’s riches are yours to play with?  We could start throwing in half-ass versions of Uzbeki music and it’s not as if anyone could *stop* us.  With Roma culture in particular, the success of Gogol Bordello has brought some awareness, but with that it has made the term “gypsy”a very chic adjective to attach oneself to these days, and that’s something we’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with, and would rather distance ourselves from.  You might ask, if we truly valued Romani culture, why would we even take the risk of being part of that bandwagon?  Because for us, it still comes down to the above three reasons – nothing about the mode du jour changes that.

Anyway, before all of that started getting hairy, what made me personally get over my own self-consciousness was actually a show that we played fairly early on, with a group that did (does) traditional African drumming and dance.  Now, half the drummers, and all of the dancers, involved were white.  But color aside, their authenticity was astounding – the precision, the energy, the exact flavor of the enthusiasm was so spot on that their emotional connection to what they were doing was without question, even though their heritage was apparently different.  So when someone that obviously dedicated feels a connection that deep to a culture, even one they weren’t born into, and can express it, who is *anyone* to slight them for it?  And then I thought about the issue from my own perspective as a Jew.  A number of non-Jews are involved in Klezmer, some as members of some of the most prominent Klezmer bands currently playing, others as complete non-Jewish ensembles playing in, say, Germany.  And certainly, it doesn’t take a foreigner to exploit a culture – a Jew could make a hash of his own heritage, as could a Rom.  Really, as a Jew, all I could ask would be that anyone who approached my culture (be they of it or not) to do so with respect.  So I at that point, I figured that, so long as we continued to study what we were doing, and did our best to represent well, we were doing okay.

But there’s also another consideration which occurred to me recently, while reading about another issue in advocacy.

I may or may not earn some looks of consternation for mentioning this movie (in retrospect, it was rather ridiculous), but I remember there was a line that stuck with me towards the end of “Soul Man”, when, after reviewing the disciplinary action against the main character for impersonating a black man, James Earl Jones’ character comments something to the effect that at least perhaps now he knows something of what it’s like to be black, and he replies, “No, I don’t.  Because if  I didn’t like it, I could always get out.”  This is the liability of those who advocate for others, and it’s one that’s often overlooked with the best of intentions.  When the effects of your advocacy don’t benefit or hurt you directly, you walk a fine line that the nobility you feel in your cause does not make any broader.  I could attend every “pro-something” rally and stir every pot to be stirred, but when I put my sign down and step away from the crowd, I go back to looking like your average white guy, no matter how “connected” I feel to the cause.  Thus, what I do in these realms affects others much more than myself, and nothing will ever change that.  Does this mean refraining from advocacy?  Some would argue that this is the safer and more respectful option.  While I see the sentiment and the logic in this (an incompetent ally can certainly be worse than an enemy!), it isn’t one that I can personally accept.  Because, aside from truncating our band’s set list, most of what I’m interested in doing professionally involves this kind of advocacy.  And with few imaginable exceptions, the best way to learn to do anything is to do it as best you can, AND to always look for ways to improve.  And in the meantime, to understand that intentions are no substitute for responsibility.

Shnirele Perle – Of Moshiach and Bellydance

Shnirele Perle has kind of taken on a life of its own. It’s funny how things can sometimes work like that. In it there’s kind of a metaphor for our whole deal, which is why I’m writing about it now. When we first brought it to the group, I had been doing it for some time, pretty much shamelessly copying Pharaoh’s Daughter’s version. And, really, why not? It crystallized what really turned me on about that whole album – the mixture of Ashkenaz and Sephardic music into something both traditional and modern. Plus it has a great, driving rhythm, a nice rubato, a climactic finish – things that make a great song… even for bellydance.

One of the dangers of doing something totally non-traditional is running the risk of seeming like you don’t even know what the tradition is. And/or being accused of subverting or ridiculing what you actually love. And in most views, having a dancer swerving and shimmying her stuff to a vision of the Jewish Messiah is about as ridiculous as one could get. Yet, this is the kind of thing that happens when art encounters art without pretense. Yes, I know what the Yiddish means. Yes, I was fully aware of the irony from the first time Amanda danced to it. But the key here is that she danced *to* it. The music and melody spoke to her and the dance was her response. Art encounters art. Life encounters life. Something new happens, and orthodoxy is left on the pier while you set off for strange waters. It helps to have a good crew.

But back to Shnirele. I’d had the idea for some time to mix Basya’s version with the “original”, more contemplative Klezmatics version, however a solution for how to transition from harmonium to oud wasn’t really forthcoming, so I left that thought on the back burner for a year or so. Adding Matt on accordion opened up the possibility, so we tried it. And what came out was really kind of the culmination of years of playing this music, these instruments, and of living with that song. It’s a version that’s obviously informed by both the Pharaoh’s Daughter and the Klezmatics version, but it’s also its own. It has its own momentum, and lives and breathes independently of them, or even of how I’ve played or listened to it before now. And we have new dancers that continue to be inspired by it. Apropos? I dunno. But when you mix things that don’t automatically make sense together, sometimes they start making their own kind of sense. Like the mixture of Chassidic nigunim and Balkan dance music that is much of what Klezmer is. We all are weaving borrowed threads, and in this we are all equal. Some of us are better weavers than others though (and more clever borrowers!), and therein lies the work ahead.