The bus to the train
A cymbalom player in Graz
Preview review of Budowitz' "Mother Tongue"
I was not looking forward to the bus trip to Zagreb. The idea was to take the overnight bus to Zagreb, thence to catch the morning train to Graz, where I would meet Josh Horowitz, a cymbalom player that I had so far met only via e-mail. If all went well, we would join with his girlfriend, Ruth Yakov, and head into Vienna where she was giving a concert that night, and thence on to Budapest the next day to see Bob Cohen and Di Naye Kapelye. The idea of a couple of days of music instead of politics was majorly appealing.
The bus was like locals around the world, perhaps a bit better organized as we all had numbered seats. On the way out of Sarajevo, in the waning daylight, we passed a neighborhood that had been totally destroyed. Unlike downtown Sarajevo, which sustained heavy damaged, but often looked okay at street level, this was nothing. The "lucky" buildings were merely shells. Most homes had been leveled such that there was some minor rubble around what had once been a foundation. Yet, around each home were trees and field such that one could almost believe that this had been a bad dream. Perhaps we would awaken at any moment.
The bus slogged onward through the beautiful Bosnian hills. At each small town we turned off the road and pulled into a bus station where there might be none, or at most, three or four new passengers. Unlike the bus from Belgrade during the day, this night bus was never going to reach capacity (although, actually there were two night buses--one which started out with all seats taken, and ours, which was perhaps one quarter full). I settled in with Ivo Andric's Travnik Chronicles (in my edition, called "Bosnian Chronicles," at the apparent whim of the translator). I had read The Bridge over the Drina as part of my self-assigned reading to get ready for the trip. The Travnik Chronicles, focusing on the lives of both an Austrian and a French Consul in Travnik at the beginning of the 19th century, during the period of Napoleon's height. It is quite different from the historic, centuries-long scope of The Bridge over the Drina. This work is much deeper, much more philosophical, and, of course, in consequence lacks some of the wonderful eventful storytelling. Reading it, however, is the same pleasure, and it makes good company. It is even more fun, when we stop for a long coffee just outside of Travnik, to reflect on being at the site of the book.
After Travnik, I find myself nodding off and actually asleep more and more. Periodically we are all awakened by police checking passports, and eventually, around 2am, actually enter Croatia. Despite my worries, there were no further "transit visas," although I do get a modest passport stamp as we enter Croatia.
In Zagreb, a student of Electrical Engineering from Sarajevo U. walks over to the train station with me. It is a brisk ten minute walk, quite unlike the situation in Belgrade where the two stations are side by side. Unwilling to get local Croatian "Kuna," I exchanged only a few marks in a the railway cafe bar for some coffee and a "boruk," the local "borekas," or cheese filo pastry. It was microwaved fresh for me ;-), and was no worse than it looked. On the other hand, it was a pleasure to pay for a train ticket with plastic again. The depredations on my ready cash have become extreme.
The morning train to Graz was a pleasure. I got to sit in a Second Class compartment, which meant having a small seating enclave for half a dozen folks (or just a couple who are spreading stuff around). There were temperature controls (not that they worked) and a window and a couple of folding tables next to the window. The privacy is enforced by a door which leads to the corridor, outside. As we left I was joined by a mother and her daughter, and by an older woman. After confirming that we had no comfortable languages in common, the three women engaged in animated and friendly conversation for a few stops. At one point I heard them discussing my laptop, so I pulled out the camera, took a photo of the grandmother figure, transferred it to the computer, and then turned the computer screen around so that she could see how it looked. We grinned--she was pretty impressed--and then I returned to my typing and reading.
Croatia and Slovenia are no less beautiful than the rest of the former Yugoslavia. Much of the way we followed a gentle, narrow river. The houses remained similar, and the scenery remained wonderful. By the time we passed through to Austria, the hills were low mountains again, the the wheat fields alternating between fields of squash. And, indeed, I later had a delicious pumpkin soup as part of lunch in Graz.
I arrived in Graz on schedule, and then began wrestling with the Austrian phone system. I would deposit a coin, dial Josh's number, and get a mechanical voice telling me something incomprehensible, and then nothing--but the coin would be gone. As I was wrestling with the problem, Josh, himself, arrived, identified me, and we head outside. (In the excitement of being met, I left my address book by the phone; happily Josh's girlfriend, Ruth, another musician of repute, rescued the book from the station lost and found a few days later and forwarded it to Germany, where it waited until I returned to Hamburg after Yom Kippur.)
Josh Horowitz is one of those natural storytellers and fun people to be with. He informed me, sadly, that Ruth's concert had been cancelled on account of rain, so we should get some chores done so that he would be free to come to Budapest the next day. This was disappointing, but one bows to the inevitable.
We rushed over to a large industrial-type building where there were apparently a variety of art studios, and from the sound of things, a band rehearsal space. There we encountered a woodworker named Alex Seidler who was creating some new cymbalom sticks for Josh. The sticks were adjusted for a while as Josh tried to get the right balance and correct, comfortable space for his fingers. The sticks slightly resembled piano hammers at one end, and Josh talked about trying to get the weight at that end right--a lead inlay was too heavy, no inlay, or even an ebony inlay, too light. At the other end of the stick, the wood was cut with curved notches, above and below, so that this end would fit comfortably between two of Josh's fingers as he played. Here, the problem was too much weight, and Alex had drilled graceful holes through the sticks, trying to lighten things up as much as possible without compromising the strength of the sticks. To me they looked fine, but further adjustments were made.
Lunch was at a Vienna pub. Josh is an ethnomusicologist, and worked at the University under a friend and mentor who is one of the pioneers and major names in the field. The professor's son, Mikus, was to join us for lunch. On the way, Josh explained that the professor had just retired and become "professor emeritus." That meant that Josh got transferred to another department, where his fieldwork's value was not recognized, and his jobs at the university were just now over. Uncertainty lays ahead as Josh becomes yet another unemployed musician.
Mikus talked about his father's work. Mikush is actually putting together web pages about the blues based on his father's ethnomusicological studies. At first I tried to be polite, but it quickly developed that Mikus knew the subject thoroughly, and loved talking about it. It was heady, fascinating stuff--none the less fascinating for discussing American Blues "context shifting" in a pub in Graz. Mikus is, himself, a bit of a beginning webmaster, and seemed very knowledgeable about typography. Later that night we would bore Ruth a bit as we discussed our mutual hero, Jan Tschichold, and tried to explain what it was all about.
Trying to make a living as a musician is vaguely plausible in Europe, where there are government funds for folk festivals and for research, although, even with his job, his fieldwork, and touring, last year Josh made very little. Now, not only is the official job gone (see below), forcing him to figure out some new way of making ends meet, but klezmer has come into vogue in Germany. This sounded like good news, except that what it really seems to mean is that shlocky, fifth-rate, emotional bands with no clue as to what klez really is get lots of work locally, and groups like Budowitz are in demand only from those promoters who specifically want Budowitz--the days of getting additional gigs simply as a generic band are over.
Actually, the klez scene in Europe, and especially in Germany, seems even more complicated. There are the bands that are famous here and in the States: Brave Old World, Budowitz (Josh's band), and Joel Rubin (with whom Josh recorded the wonderful Bessarabian Symphony), for instance. Then, there is the Israeli, Giora Feidman. Feidman started recording his brand of klezmer back in the early Seventies--I remember being able to purchase his albums when I moved to Jerusalem from Kibbutz in 1973. This is an emotional, sort of macho, occasionally shlocky form of klez. Feidman also claims, with some justice I think, to having attached the formerly disparaging term "klezmer" to the music he plays, music that in an earlier age was simply known as "jewish" music, or "our" music (just as local bands in Romania or Serbia never referred to their music as "Romanian" or "Serbian"). There is no love lost between the klez revivalists, even the European ones, who come from a very different spectrum of attitudes about the music, and Feidman, who, as I said, sounds somewhat macho and shlocky, but was, actually, there first. And, of course, taking after Feidman are the dozens of shlocky, third rate imitation Feidman bands that are cutting into business for the bands that I happen to love.
It's a mess. But I have the disadvantage of having seen Feidman twenty years ago, and of feeling that I was looking at the "Fiddler on the Roof" version of Jewish music--a romanticized piece of shlock that is a sterile part of the Jewish "roots" scene for middle-aged, middle-class Jewish Americans who want to plug in a "Jewish roots" feeling while visiting Jerusalem. Why this stuff is so popular in Germany, I dunno. Maybe it's related to (what I see as) overwrought German philosophy and poetry, so different from my own preferred William Carlos Williams or Denise Levertov. I'd hate to stereotype anyone :-).
After lunch we headed back to the apartment to meet Ruth, an Israeli who abandoned opera for singing Sephardic Jewish song. Later that evening we pursuade her to play a demo tape in lieu of the concert we missed. The music is great--very rembetika sounding, very Greek, with her own wonderful soaring voice adding the Arabic-style rembetika vocals. Amazing.
The question is whether to rush out to the hills to talk with someone who is doing some instrumental work for Josh, or to listen to the new CD that Josh's new band, Budowitz, is about to release. Josh is the hottest, or one of the hottest, Jewish cymbalom players in the world, so just hanging out is a treat. Hearing some of his music would be divine. But, after a quick shower for me, we decide to head for the hills. This is actually quite a treat, as now the four of us are talking and Josh is driving just as he might while doing fieldwork on the muddy (where they exist) roads of Romania. In fact, at one point we discover that the road we are on doesn't quite exist. That is, to say, that a bulldozer is in front of us moving earth around, we are driving on somewhat packed earth by now anyway, and the bulldozer simply, temporarily, flattens enough earth for us to get by. Josh drives through the mess fearlessly, telling stories about Romanian roads as we go.
The craftsman, Konrad, that we have driven out to meet is a professional tsimbl manufacturer. Apparently a chromatic tsimbl has caught on in Austria to be used to teach kids music, and Konrad dashes these things out by the dozen and more. As we enter, he is just cutting another frame on his table saw. He is wearing a typical Austrian hat on his head, presumably to keep the intense wood dust out of his hair.
He and Josh discuss the work that needs to be done while Konrad almost dances around the work area, pulling out his measuring stick, scurrying out to grab some wood or an example. I try to take a picture, but the person is never at rest. Still, he is delightful, and it is a pleasure to watch his face as he discusses plans to fix an Austrian xylophone, and to build a stand on which to play it, all to be done within the month.
Once business has been concluded we retire to the local pub for a drink. Konrad says, "If you can't drink a beer with a person, you can't do business with him." Yet, one can tell that where we unable to join him, he would have cheerfully given us a different homily, instead.
Seated around the table, and and Josh trade stories, some of them quite outrageous. Konrad describes how coffee came to be smuggled out of Arabia with just a single bean on a branch; Josh describes an encounter with bears in Yosemite. Konrad, occasionally, mentions his war service in Yugoslavia, and then in Italy where he was captured by the British, during the Second World War. Konrad has been making cymbaloms since 1958, but they really began to catch on in the Sixties. Business has been booming since.
Since Josh manages to get the check for the beer, we have a glass of wine to wrap up. By now it is getting late, so we take a quick walk up a hill to see the Austria vistas and catch a few late season raspberries. Austria is beautiful, to be sure, but I am not ready to warm up to it. For Josh, though, Austria is the opportunity to work with folks like Konrad, good, salt of the earth folks who do good work and tell good stories. It is easy to feel that pleasure.
Dinner is wonderful salad and tehina and warm bread and cooked paprika peppers prepared by Ruth. Eventually, too, it is a chance to hear her music, and then at the end of the evening, to be overwhelmed by Budowitz. When the CD reaches the stores at the end of October, 1996, you can safely run out and purchase copies, as the band, while claiming to perform 19th century Jewish music, plays so well, and so intricately, that klezmer is no longer the main reason for listening. Rather it is the musicianship and interplay and excitement that surround the particular chosen form. (I'll have to grab these words next month when I get a chance to review the album!) In short, as I had expected, I am a major fan. The band has fiddle and the old three-string bass and accordions and cymbalom, together as a band, and in various ensembles depending on the piece and how it sounds best. This is where you hear how much this music is close to the best of Romanian and Hungarian and Gypsy sounds. "Mother Tongue," on Koch International, coming soon to a record store near you ;-). The liner notes will also blow you away--Josh is a professional ethnomusicologist. When you get that, and storytelling together, you get liner notes worth tossing the CD and reading just the notes--but don't do that--the CD is also good!
By now, we are exhausted--I have been up most of the last couple of days, and Josh is in severe back pain. We decide that I will take the train in the morning to Budapest to hear Bob Cohen's band, Di Naye Kapelye, and Josh will follow only the next day.
Needless to say, in the morning there is barely time to check e-mail and we are off (but what a pleasure to be able to check e-mail!), with minutes to spare. I need to change trains only a few times (at one of the Brucks, and then an underground ride to the West Vienna train station), and about 6 hours after we set off, I arrive again in Budapest, this time at the wonderful Keleti station.
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