To listen to audio on Rock Paper Scissors you'll need to Get the Flash Player

log in to access downloads
Sample Track 1:
"Opening Suite" from The Other Europeans pre-release tracks
Sample Track 2:
"Moldavian Clarinet Suite" from The Other Europeans pre-release tracks
Sample Track 3:
"Klezmer Suite" from The Other Europeans pre-release tracks
Layer 2
The Other Europeans, Summer 2010 Tour

False Premises, True Connection: Uncovering The Other Europeans

In a far-flung corner of Europe, Yiddish and Gypsy musicians mingled. Klezmorim and lautari (Gypsy minstrels) joined to play at both Jewish and non-Jewish weddings—and wedded each other to boot. They played what the wedding guests wanted to hear, from traditional Yiddish music to the international popular hits of their day. Though romanticized and reviled as “others” elsewhere, here they formed a solid, vibrant core, until war tore their communities apart.

This is the world hidden in Bessarabia, a region in the post-Soviet Republic of Moldova, the unexpected world brought to light by the skillful and soulful musicians of The Other Europeans, a 14-member multinational Gypsy-klezmer supergroup with a free-flowing sense of their hybrid repertoire and of the abiding spirit of transcultural interchange.

The Other Europeans will tour North America August 15 – September 6, 2010 hitting Montreal, Amherst, Bangor, Boston, and Toronto.

“I started this project under false premises,” exclaims pianist, accordionist, and ensemble artistic director Alan Bern. “I assumed there was a Yiddish style and a Gypsy style, that we had to separate the colors and only then try to find a way to blend them. The idea was, in the first year of the project we'd all be together but the lautari and klezmer bands would rehearse separately; afterwards, we'd try to understand the similarities and differences in our repertoires and styles.”

Indeed, klezmer and the gypsy music of Eastern Europe, as played today, sound very different. Though once extremely lively, the dialogue between klezmorim and lautari stuttered to a halt with World War II, immigration, and assimilation. It was an easy step to assume that the differences had always been there.

And there were no field recordings. No living memory of what the music of transcultural Bessarabia had sounded like. Only a few vague and teasing hints: “When we traveled to Moldova as part of the project, to the town of Edinets, we played the musicians there some old American recordings of klezmer from the 1910s,” recalls Bern. “They had these two interlocking trombone lines. When they heard them, they said, ‘This is the old Edinets style,’” a sound that shines on “Goldene Khasene/Hora de la Cahul.”

Enter Dr. Walter Zev Feldman, historian and musician, who introduced Bern to a new vision of these communities. Feldman suggested that, instead of klezmer and lautari musicians playing two separate repertoires, all musicians in that part of the world could and did play each other’s music, as well as local renditions of Russian and Ukrainian dance tunes and pop hits like “Lily Marlene.” And this may explain why earlier ethnographers, several of which trekked through the area, ignored them: The klezmer/lautari community were professional, urban, ethnically mixed musicians playing across ethnic lines, the very opposite of the romanticized peasant folk musician sought by cultural nationalists.

“I realized I was wrong: Lautari and klezmorim were able to play many styles, and played to what their audiences wanted, not according to their own background. But it turned out to be a good idea anyway to start by playing in two groups,” Bern explains. “We’re dealing with the present reality, and the bands needed to work from two different sets of musical premises at first.” These two premises come together beautifully in pieces like “Klezmer/Lautari Doina,” which highlights the two differing approaches to the same melody.

Bern and his fellow musicians in the klezmer ensemble—some of whom are experts in jazz as well as klezmer—realized there was no point in trying to simply imitate the lautari band, led by Hungarian cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) master Kalman Balogh. They had to get at what made the Yiddish style in the Moldovan context unique. Bern feels the distinctly Jewish imprint most strongly not in the scales and modes, which are shared with plenty of other Mediterranean and Balkan musics, but in the pulse, the rhythmic feel and phrasing that links klezmer music to the Yiddish language and vocal music as well.

“If there are two versions of the same melody, then the Yiddish version is slower, more speech-like and story-telling,” Bern notes. “At a critical moment at the beginning of our project, I was playing some old Yiddish music recordings for a group of artistic advisors who were helping shape the collaboration. Some of them told me that I was romanticizing, that there was nothing on the old recordings that was especially "Yiddish." In that moment Kalman spoke up and said, , ‘I have to disagree. I hear something interesting you don’t hear today in this recording, something I'd like to learn.’”

This different sense of timing Bern links to the connection of word and music in Yiddish culture. "Young boys learn to read with melodies. So melodies themselves have an implicit story-telling dimension, even when there are no words" This sense is revealed in “Freilykh/Breaza,” which shows how the historical Yiddish and contemporary Moldovan styles can come together to reveal different facets of the same dance tune.

As the two ensembles began to merge and play together, Bern insisted on an approach to the pieces in harmony with the past—and most likely to yield dynamic, innovative results at the same time. “I insisted from the beginning that we educate ourselves and revive some of the cultural practices of 1920s, when this music was in its prime,” Bern remembers. “We have no arrangements, and my demand for the band, at any time, is that any musician can lead and create and respond. Not by being loudest, sometimes by being softest.”

This approach came at a steep emotional price: Tensions ran high, as some members longed for set arrangements and written music. Yet working through the differences and misunderstandings proved wildly fruitful, and the connection is palpable in performance, as The Other Europeans appear to intuit each other’s next notes. “We learn a musical story together and tell that story differently each time. Everybody had to be tuned in to everybody else,” explains Bern. “On stage, every time we play, it's the first time we're playing the music. We’re not imitating anything we did before.”