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From Klezmer to mbira, worlds of music will fill fest's final day

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Lansing State Journal, From Klezmer to mbira, worlds of music will fill fest's final day >>


Steven Greenman was a young man, heading to the top of the old, classical-music world.

He was in Austria, where Mozart and Strauss and others composed.  Then he discovered klezmer music and changed his career. 

"There's a soul in it," Greenman said. "There's something I can connect to."

Now he's one of the Great Lakes Folk Festival people whose music speaks of other worlds. 

The festival offers many relatively familiar sounds, including Celtic, Cajun, blues and polka. But it also has music that people might not recognize.

The Steven Greenman Klezmer Ensemble and Tamburitza Rroma capture long-ago, Eastern European sounds, Stella Chiweshe does the mbira music of Zimbabwe; George Kahumoku Jr. does traditional Hawaiian songs.

At times, audiences will understand none of the words. Reviewing Chiweshe, Larry Katz of the Boston Herald wrote: "Unless you speak Shona, the message takes second place to the intoxicating and gratifyingly varied music created by Chiweshe and her band."

Whether we understand the songs or not, many bear heavy messages, cultural or political.

Chiweshe grew up in what was then South Rhodesia, under white rule. For a time, she said, the native music and instruments were banned. "If anyone was found with anything, they were hanged."

Ignoring the music was impossible. "It was like I was being buried alive," she said.

So she led a double life. She played all night at forbidden reunions, then did her day job.

When the music was legalized, Chiweshe became one of the first female mbira stars. Then, in 1980, her country became the independent Zimbabwe."

I saw a lot of people in white," Chiweshe said. "They were all happy. They said, 'It's over! We have independence.'"

Now she tours the world. People unfamiliar with her words still savor the sound.  "Chiweshe's shimmering mbira melodies are infectious," wrote Mark Jenkins of the Washington Post.

Kahumoku has his own culture-clash complaints. That was long ago, he said, between Hawaiian natives and English settlers."

The English said wherever cattle roamed, that was their land," he said. "Where I came from, cattle roamed all over the place. We lost over 8,000 acres."

When Kahumoku landed a scholarship to the California College of Arts in the 1960s, he was drawn to the protests in nearby Berkeley. "I identified with the need for reform," he said.

His own approach has often been more cultural than political. Kahumoku talks about native traditions in food (he had his own TV cooking show), fishing and music. He has won awards for traditional Hawaiian songs and is finishing a master's degree in education.

The members of Tamburitza Rroma didn't realize how important their music was.

They grew up in Chicago, where music was part of the Croatian neighborhood and social center.  Joe Kirin Jr. and Steve Kirin Jr., who are cousins, became third generation players of tamburitza, a Gypsy-influenced folk music.

As a teen musician, Joe said, he saw how important the music is.

"In Yugoslavia, we got a standing ovation. That was something we'd never seen before, We thought, 'Wow, people really like it here!'"

The music had faded in Europe, but had been preserved in the U.S., he said. "It grows on you.  Playing it becomes part of your life.”

Greenman also changed his life in Europe.

He grew up in Pittsburgh, in a thoroughly American home. His great-grandfather on one side and great-great-grandfather on the other had emigrated from Russia. 

He studied classical violin, did well and went to play in a music festival in Austria.

That's where he found klezmer, an Eastern European style that is loosely described as Jewish jazz.

"I was walking down the street, when I saw this guy playing it," Greenman said. "He was an American Jew, living there…"

“I grew up going to services and leading services, but I didn't, know much about this. It totally, opened me up to a new place."

At 36, Greenman is now an expert who lectures on klezmer. He plays the violin for a wide-ranging group that also includes cymbals, clarinet, tuba, accordion and more; he preserves the sound of another century, in another continent.


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