Tattered stamps and postmarks from disparate east European locales. Barely legible scribblings from anonymous correspondents of yesteryear. An old-country wedding band of mustachioed men in bowlers crowding around a long-gone shtetl cottage, their instruments held with pride. A serious little Polish-Jewish boy learning to play the violin... these images on the cover of Beyond the Pale’s Postcards (Borealis Records) capture lost moments of a once vibrant Eastern European musical world, as much a historical memory as a mythical ideal.
But this innovative Toronto-based acoustic group seeks to do more than simply put the pieces back together. They reframe this vanished world on Postcards, re-forging fragments into a distinct Jewish-Balkan twang that flows from virtuoso musicianship, group improvisations, new compositions, and an eclectic palette of North American sounds, from jazz and rock to bluegrass and funk.
“Our music coalesces around a kind of amorphous and scrambled geography” explains Eric Stein, group founder and mandolin maestro. “Each song is like a snapshot, a postcard from one or another of the far-flung realms in our eclectic musical universe.”
It’s a universe carved out of both the here and now, and the there and then, a wild mash-up of traditions: Jewish and Romanian folk tunes, contemporary Yiddish poetry set to timeless Roma melodies, odd-meter Serbian rhythms, slinky acoustic grooves, and intricate chamber-style songcraft. Just as pioneer mandolin player David Grisman coined “Dawg Music” to define his genre-twisting string band music, Beyond the Pale defies the labels usually slapped on groups exploring Eastern European Jewish music. “What we do is in many ways a lot like Dawg Music…but with pierogies,” Stein laughs.
All kidding aside, Beyond the Pale do not take tradition lightly, though they interpret it freely. ”We have our roots in a lot of folk traditions, but we try not to fetishize authenticity,” says Stein. He and Dutch-Canadian clarinetist Martin van de Ven bring Jewish music bonafides to the group through careful study of scratchy 78s of old-time klezmer bands, and copious research into obscure musical manuscripts collected a century ago by east European ethnographers.
That foundation is shaken and stirred by violinist Alekasandar Gajić, accordionist Milos Popović, and percussionist Bogdan Djukić, a trio of Serbian virtuosi who, as Stein puts it, are flexible and fearless. “These guys have an incredible knack for intertwining classical ideas with gritty folk energy and even pop aesthetics.” Held together by the pulsating groove and jazzy swing of bassist Bret Higgins, it all blends effortlessly into one. The group’s complex arrangements leave ample room for improvisation and intricate dynamic flow, all the while maintaining a rare depth for such an eclectic fusion. “We strive to make it about more than just taking elements superficially from different world music traditions and slamming them together haphazardly.”
Beyond the Pale’s nimble flexibility and adventurousness shine on originals like “Back to the Beginning,” a darkly urgent, “new music”-flavored composition Gajić wrote during a terrible night of bombing in Belgrade, and on Stein’s “Split Decision,” a tour de force of group improvisation that climaxes in a soaring, Santana-like percussion-driven frenzy.
Their soulfulness comes across in more contemplative pieces, like van de Ven’s “Are Two,” Gajic’s “Solution,” and in the slow and sonorous “Meditation,” an arrangement by Stein of a Hasidic nigun (wordless melody). “I got a hold of this four-part vocal score and re-arranged it like a chamber music piece for our instruments,” says Stein. “It has a longing and a sadness to it, and it felt right to dedicate it to my late brother David,” who had originally introduced him to the world of Yiddish music over a decade ago.
Beyond the Pale also looks to some unexpected sources for neglected and quirky repertoire. In the case of the delicious romp “Turkish Delight” the source is the legendary ninety-something cocktail pianist Irving Fields, known best for his ’50s-era Bagels and Bongos LPs, where Latin rhythms met Jewish melodies. The prolific songwriter has also spent a great deal of his career working cruise ships, compiling on his many ocean voyages “Melody Cruise Around the World,” a collection of musical odes to ports of call the world over, recorded on an old-school cassette tape recorder. Never released commercially, Stein got his hands on the tape from his friend and sometime collaborator Socalled, a rebel hip hop beatmeister. Intrigued by Fields’ tribute to Istanbul, Stein decided to give it “the Beyond the Pale treatment.” “On the recording, Irving is playing a Casio keyboard with this super cheesy flute sound, it’s really hilarious, but there’s an amazing composition there. I transcribed his performance, made a few adjustments, then brought it to the band and we created a group arrangement,” Stein smiles. “It’s one of the pieces on the CD I’m most thrilled about.”
The band’s deep respect for its elders also sees them mining the repertoire of other musical mentors. “Anthem,” for example, is based on an upbeat, clarinet-crazed bulgar from the repertoire of the late Moldovan clarinetist and Jewish cultural lifeline German Goldenshteyn, with whom band members had the opportunity to study. Emigrating to the US in the mid-’90s, Goldenshteyn’s handwritten notebook of eight hundred unique songs collected over his years playing in the Red Army and for Bessarabian weddings, has become a kind of new testament for aspiring musicians in North America. “That tune was his biggest hit, his anthem really,” Stein recalls. “I feel privileged to have known German, and in playing music we learned directly from him I think we’re honoring an important relationship between older carriers of tradition and younger musicians.”
Indeed, that honor appears to flow in both directions between the band and some of its more esteemed fans and musical collaborators, including the legendary singer/actor Theodore Bikel. The group performed at Carnegie Hall on June 15, 2009, in a spectacular 85th birthday tribute concert described by Bikel as “a night of music with some of my nearest and dearest friends.” Says Stein, “it’s been a thrill for us working with Theo over the last couple years. What an honor to be asked by him to perform for this incredible milestone, and at Carnegie Hall no less.”
Another source of pride: the band’s commitment and staying power. “So many bands of our ilk have either revolving personnel or just don’t stay together. But we’ve been at this for over a decade with virtually the same lineup and the band is so much about the unique personalities, not just plugging musicians into parts,” Stein notes. “The shorthand and repartee we have with each other takes the music to another level.”