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Sample Track 1:
"Roads of the Roma - Djelem, Djelem" from Hidden Legacy
Sample Track 2:
"Ukranian Mountain Music" from Hidden Legacy
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Harmonia, Hidden Legacy (FolkSounds Records) Notes from the (Immigrant) Underground:
Harmonia Reveals America’s Evocative, Unheralded East European Sounds

Can you keep a secret?

There’s a party going on you’ve never heard about, every weekend. Behind unmarked doors and down basement stairs, dancers dressed to the nines whip around in joyful circles, shout for more when the tune stops, and teenagers trade centuries-old dance steps all night long.

It’s the immigrant underground, where a living mix of Old and New World musical culture jumps and twirls in the old hearts of rustbelt cities or in backwoods retreats. The tunes may change, but the roots stay the same, as generations of Americans keep their heritage thriving and welcome new, wildly talented players into their midst. Players who have wowed Carnegie Hall as soloists with major orchestras one night—and rocked a community ball the next.

The house band for this unsung scene: Cleveland’s Harmonia, a trans-European ensemble of crack musicians who know the music from the banks of the Danube to the Carpathians’ eastern forests like the back of their hands. On Hidden Legacy (FolkSounds Records; May 22, 2012), the group beckons with six-foot-long shepherd flutes and bluesy laments, with upbeat dance suites and smoldering Romani (Gypsy) numbers.

“You strike up a csardas or kolomyjka, and people go nuts,” exclaims accordionist and Harmonia founder Walt Mahovlich. “The people in the audience may be third or fourth generation, but when the band starts up, they just won’t let us stop. It’s great to be part of making sure that this stays a living tradition. You can’t keep it alive without great musicians.”

{full story below}

Harmonia reveals the layers of tradition that have evolved as decades of immigrants arrived in American cities from Eastern Europe: the social dances of Hungary and Croatia, the beloved gypsy serenades that once graced supper clubs from Budapest to Cleveland, the acoustic virtuosity of formally trained post-Cold War émigrés.

Mahovlich, a third-generation American, grew up marveling at the Grape Harvest Festival parades that once ran down Buckeye Road, the main drag of Cleveland’s Hungarian neighborhood. He grew up hearing his mother’s favorite Hungarian songs and savoring the music at Croatian picnics thanks to his father. After leaving Cleveland for college, Mahovlich got so homesick that he headed back to the city and began playing clarinet and accordion for community events, catching Slavic, Hungarian, Romani, or Romanian music every weekend. The music varied widely—and evolved as new waves of immigrants came, settled, and raised families.

One thing stayed constant, however: Wherever there were good musicians, community life was, and remained, vibrant. “Back then, you could easily hop from a dance to a party and hear all kinds of groups from different ethnic backgrounds,” Mahovlich notes. “The same thing holds today, actually, though the ethnic communities have become more spread out.”

Mahovlich eventually met up with violinist Steven Greenman, who had just come back from a whirlwind performance tour in Europe, and the two immediately hit it off. They connected with Hungarian Roma (Gypsy) bassist and mentor, the late Jozsef Varga, and the trio began playing gigs regularly.

And at just the right time: when an influx of new immigrants from across the former East Bloc arrived in Midwestern cities. This new crop came with both stunning musical educations and traditional songs in tow. Mahovlich and Greenman ran into cimbalom whiz Alexander Fedoriouk at a music jam in Pittsburgh. Though they came from different East European traditions, “I knew I wanted to play with him from the first moment he struck the strings,” laughs Mahovlich.

Fedoriouk hailed from a town in Western Ukraine (Kolomyia) famous for its dances and its Carpathian mountain music. There, Fedoriouk paid his dues in villages so remote, he had to hike in with his cimbalom on his back. His striking skill won him a spot in the Kiev Conservatory, and an international reputation. Invited to tour the U.S. in the 1990s, Fedoriouk decided to stay, eventually pursuing a degree in ethnomusicology, jamming in Gypsy jazz circles, collaborating with contemporary composers and symphony orchestras, and performing with jazz greats like Herbie Mann.

As more and more traditionally rooted musicians with conservatory training arrived in the U.S., Harmonia continued to gather virtuosi with diverse ethnic backgrounds and a shared devotion to Eastern Europe’s spirited sounds. Harmonia features sopilka (Ukrainian flute) and panpipe player Andrei Pidkivka (his soulful paying heard on “Mother’s Lament”); and violinist Jozef Janis (whose Gypsy training shows in the fiery lead fiddle on “Songs from Vojvodina”). The group also recruited musicians proficient on instruments rarely heard on the American stage, like the Slovak fujara, a traditional shepherds flute six feet long, played in rippling cadences by bassist Branislav Brinarsky on “Slovak Shepherd’s Song”.

”Harmonia really became complete,” says Mahovlich, when versatile and savvy vocalist Beata Begeniova joined. Originally from a culturally distinct and mountainous area of Slovakia, Begeniova inherited a deep folk tradition and unique song trove. Begeniova can belt out open-voiced traditional tunes from her Rusyn heritage (“Forgive Me, Mother”), or purr through the swooping contours of Romani ballads like “Road of the Roma/Djelem, Djelem.”

Though sometimes pensive or rootsy, Harmonia brings a polish and flair to dance numbers—traditional suites of couple dances from Transylvania, or round dances from Romania—that only a hardworking dance band can achieve. Drawing on their diverse experience (Brinarsky, for example, has a hard rock band), Harmonia find subtle ways to elevate songs at the center of community dances and events to a thrilling mastery. “Romanian Ritual Dances,” an ancient ceremony that is now a symbol of Romanian-American identity, features joyful melodies and expert fiddle lines that would delight Taraf de Haidouks.

Whether keeping the party going at a formal dress ball or getting young fans dancing around the bonfire, Harmonia finds fresh moments in the oldest of forms, dusting off dances like the polka and turning them into crowd pleasers. “Some people think this kind of music is only popular among the older generations of immigrants, but that’s just not true,” Mahovlich states. “Our biggest supporters in the community and most enthusiastic fans at shows are young.”

“Someone writes a pop tune and it’s gone. But this music is still with us and still popular,” smiles Fedoriouk. “You could have heard the music on the album, the music we perform, centuries ago. We put our little twist on things, but the core, the root remains the same.”

<< release: 05/22/12 >>