Paris to Kyiv
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Songs from a Neighbouring Village
One evening in a village in Stalin’s Ukraine, the Yiddish poet Herts Rivkin went out onto the porch of his house. He stood under a remote sky, a solitary man in a silent, hungry countryside. But he was not alone. From the neighbouring village, not so far away at the end of a rutted road, he heard songs. They were Ukrainian songs and they quenched his sorrow, he wrote. They poured forth “like flowing honey” from the throats of his neighbours and filled the air “with precious warmth that streams from the fires of home.”

The poem is reprinted in the program notes of the May 1 concert, “Night Songs From a Neighbouring Village: Traditional and New Jewish and Ukrainian Music,” at Symphony Space in New York City presented by the renowned World Music Institute. I had already heard the story about Herts Rivkin and his poem when I sat in on an interview for the music show “New Sounds” at radio station WNYC (“I'm told all the cabbies in New York listen to it,” gushed the show’s gregarious host, John Schaefer). Interviewed were the musical colleagues and collaborators of “Night Songs,” Paris to Kyiv from Winnipeg and Brave Old World klezmer group from New York. Gradually it was sinking in that their collaboration, far from being unexpected, even a little scandalous, was in a sense inevitable.

But it takes some close listening. When Paris to Kyiv performed the pre-Christian carol, “Pavochka” [Peacock], in the studio - Julian Kytasty plucking measuredly at the (zither-like) bandura, Martin Colledge more robustly on the cittern, joined by the smoky jazz viola of Richard Moody and the taut, rounded soprano voice of Alexis Kochan - their air of erotic melancholia seemed several worlds away from the all-male, rollicking, jazzy swoops and riffs of Brave Old World’s Alan Bern pumping away on the studio piano, Stuart Brotman lugubriously on the electronic bass, Kurt “He Rocks n Rolls” Bjorling on clarinet and the incandescent violinist and jüddischmusikant Michael Alpert shouting out the Yiddish rhymes of “Uncle Elye” [“My Uncle Elye is a homespun guy...”]. But, as Alpert and Kochan underscored for interviewer John Schaefer, their musics come from the same place.

This explains that feeling a Ukrainian or Jew will get about the dance music at the other guy’s wedding, that there’s an acute familiarity with the dance rhythms and melodic scales, the minor key and even earlier modes, that point to musical exchanges as well as influences: “We've been neighbours in the way we make music,” said Kochan. “It’s as though we were listening to each other all those years ago in the village.” In fact, Ukrainians were paying the klezmorim, who were professional musicians, to play at their festivities and that’s how Ukrainian folk music acquired the fiddle and the hammered dulcimer, according to Alpert.

Kochan and Alpert are both working against the popular ethnic stereotypes of their music - what Kochan calls the banquet-hall accordions and “bombastic, male chorus- driven, merry folk ditties” by guys with Cossack mustaches, and Alpert the “Fiddler on the Roof and the comedic schtick” of wedding and bar mitzvah dance bands - by excavating deeply enough into their respective traditions to find something original and literally unheard-of.

In both cases, they began with the family treasure trove. Kochan, whose parents taught her hundreds of folk songs including Irish, was singing Ukrainian liturgical music by age 3. Alpert’s parents were “skeptical left-wing black sheep” of the family but his mother was a superb pianist and a cousin sang Russian Yiddish songs which, together with his education not in synagogue but in the leftist schule of the Jewish Cultural Fund in Los Angeles, provided the high school radical with the alternative to the American cultural mainstream he craved.

Then in 1978 Kochan went to Soviet Ukraine for six months where in pre-war Ukraine her paternal grandfather had worked in a bank and sat as a social democrat in the Polish parliament, “fighting for the rights of all peoples.” And suddenly, as she described it in an interview in Dibrovka club on 2nd Avenue in New York’s Little Ukraine, “my little world of North End Winnipeg got a whole lot bigger.” She heard eastern Ukrainian polyphony, songs so old they were virtually Stone Age, and women singing below middle C! “Joan Baez was digging up lovely old English ditties - where’s our music?” She went on a hunt: “There’s no archive as such but there are thousands of songs.” She’s found them in printed collections and songbooks, Soviet-era and diasporic, in the field notes of choir directors who hung around old village women and brought their songs back to their choirs, “throwing them into the repertoire along with all the tractor songs.” Here finally were the ritualistic songs about marriage terrors and the lamentations of the women tormented not by their drunken husbands but by their own drunkenness in the village taverns. Here were the medieval canticles of Kyiv and the work songs of the salt-traders of the steppes. They may not all be art but they are the rough jewels, the “true riches,” of the Ukrainian spirit, which move Kochan and then, through the exquisite medium of her voice and the delicious counterpoint of her co- musicians, not to mention two to three years of work on a CD, they move us. That, at least, is her hope. “I'm breathing new life into them and developing this new language for the rest of the world. We don’t live in little ritualistic communities anymore.”

In 1970, while his friends volunteered for kibbutz labour in Israel, Alpert volunteered for a youth brigade in Tito’s Yugoslavia and returned to live in Zagreb 1972-73. While the experience was ultimately disillusioning - “the hubris of state socialism,” as he explained in an interview in a SoHo cafe - the eastern European world remained a cultural alternative for this Vagabundenherz [vagrant heart], most particularly as a source of Jewish music and song. A student of musical ethnography, he went looking for the originals, in artifacts such as 78 rpm recordings of Yiddish music, archival collections of sheet music, the files of the Institute for Jewish Research founded in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1925, and in the “living exponents” of traditional music in the Jewish immigrant and first generation musicians in the United States. “As an ethnomusicologist, I was interested in the life histories as well as the music, trying to reconstruct them across the huge gap of the Holocaust. The Old Country is gone for all practical purposes.”

“If you dig deep enough into your roots,” Kochan had told me, “you eventually reach the roots of other cultures.” In Ukrainian song she hears overtones of the Turkish, the Celtic, the Roma, and “crossing geographical and musical boundaries with the velocity of light,” according to critic Robert Enright, has picked collaborators accordingly. Julian Kytasty is a third-generation bandurist, Martin Colledge has his own Celtic band in Winnipeg, Richard Moody plays viola for the Wyrd Sisters. Kochan once worked with a Persian percussion master in California and with percussion virtuoso John Wyre.

Meanwhile, digging away in his corner of the communal plot, Michael Alpert, aware that much of eastern European Jewish music “found its flowering in Ukraine” and committed to put the two musics together again on the same stage, pricked up his ears at a 1992 klezmer camp in West Virginia at the sound of some “prairie Canadian Ukrainian music” that sounded just like a Jewish band. He started asking around about Ukrainian music, became interested in Bill Boychuk and the Easy Aces who included a clarinet just like the old time Jewish bands in Ukraine, then was pointed in Kochan’s direction when she was working on her CD Paris to Kyiv and invited her to the 1993 klezmer camp to teach Ukrainian folk songs. “We were kindred sensibilities,” he recalled. “I felt a warm, beneficent presence had come into my life. It was very exciting, this Ukrainian-Jewish encounter in the mountains of West Virginia.” The first version of “Songs from a Neighbouring Village” was commissioned by New York's Jewish Museum, a concert they repeated in Toronto and Berlin. Kochan thinks Alpert “very brave,” a sensitive, verbally expressive, quick-witted artist “blazing a trail” into a new music that continues, not merely quotes, the original.

So, after the rites of passage performed through the Ukrainian and Jewish sources, Kochan and Alpert find themselves at the end of the twentieth century, addressing their own time in a musical vernacular of their own generational experience. For Kochan, who sees herself a musical “minimalist” compared to Alpert’s more “romantic” approach, the Ukrainian song is stripped bare to its genetic code, its “dead centre,” and re-voiced by Kochan’s ethereal instrument as a story for all of us. For the ecstatic musicians of Brave Old World, the “very twentieth century idea” of developing and recombining melodies and motifs, opens the door to emotional expressions not usually associated with folk music, “violence, pain, really letting it out.” I thought of the hair-raising performance of David Krakauer’s “Klezmer Madness” at Bang on a Can (a festival of “uncategorizable musics”) May 2 at New York’s Henry Street Settlement, of the almost lunatic energy of his blistering clarinet, and wondered into what phantasmic world this “dancing rabbi” had migrated. Of Winnipeg jazz pianist Merilyn Lerner’s collaboration with Cuban saxophonists. Of former Edmontonian-now-Brooklynite John Stetch’s extended, moodily-coloured jazz piano versions of Ukrainian dance music. Of jazz-trained pianist Uri Caine’s newest project, a group called Zohar with the Moroccan-born cantor, Aaron Bensoussan.

“I'm not a nationalist, but a humanist,” Kochan told me. “Inclusive, bringing in people to my music.” No more thinking black and white, go the lyrics of Alpert’s “Blood Oranges,” just a true and open heart, A beggar and a wanderer no more. Sentiments which bring them to the heart of their musical linkage - the audacious sympathizing of Ukrainian and Jew whom history, and ethnic mythologies, would have suspect, even detest one another.

There is no avoiding this frisson of subversiveness. The two communities in North America have bloodied each other’s noses in protracted public campaigns defending and accusing alleged war criminals and in private, almost ritualistic expressions of Slavophobia and Judeophobia. “Jews have seen Ukrainian culture as the antithesis of the Jewish world,” Alpert explained. “They've called Ukrainians the *ultimate pogromists’ and themselves the *victims’ of Ukrainians.”

Unsurprisingly, he has been challenged by some American Jews, the “mutterers,” to justify not only his closeness to Paris to Kyiv but his desire to share the stage with them. Yet when they performed at the Jewish Museum to a mainstream Manhattan audience, “the audience sat very patiently through an overlong program and gave us a standing ovation.” Likewise his friends and associates who “embrace” the whole idea of collaboration: “I tell them that to have found someone like Alexis, from a prairie, progressive, social democratic background, is to have found the Ukrainian us!”

Likewise, Kochan’s generation of Ukrainian-Canadians, rooted now in a Canadian homeland, is not only interested in the collaboration but ready for it to happen. She is convinced that it is precisely at the “artistic interface” that attitudes and mentalities are changed - it is artists after all who have the burden to imagine alternative narratives for their communities - and that as “fearless explorers of the depths and edges of their respective musics” her and Alpert’s groups have left the past behind and created a new place from which to work as Ukrainians, as Jews. Homeland me and homeland you, sings Alpert, Homeland Christian, Muslim, Jew, Homeland not at war, in his characteristic blend of personal and political statements.

But the pain is not to be denied. I asked Kochan “how it was going,” her search for the “truth” about Ukrainianness and her artist’s desire to free her people from a past that “haunts” them. She spoke of the joy of the music-making and of the connection with listeners brought to their own joy, but a shadow is cast over them all by the “low self-esteem, the inferiority complex after eons of oppression” of a people with a collective sense that being Slav is somehow a vulgar breach of good taste and breeding. Her hope is that, in presenting Ukrainian song as “something honest anad interesting to us as artists,” all people, Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians alike, will eventually believe in the culture’s worthiness. “What I do is healing for the community, a creative leap into the future,” she concluded. “I don't think all the answers are in history.”

Alpert was struck by Kochan’s “haunting” by history - it used to be him, he told me, who talked about the haunted past, and while he can still “riff”on that too, “in the final analysis what Jews and Ukrainians think of each other is not very relevant.” Much more important is to find people with whom you feel “at home.”

Michael Alpert’s first language was Yiddish and it is the language of the texts of Brave Old World, a statement to the rest of us that Yiddish is a living language that can convey meaning from the very up-to-the-minute world as well as from the lost one. To genug shoyn ale yogenishn, un e-mail, un voice mail, un avolim [So enough of all this running around, All this e-mail and voice mail and worldly vanity] But he uses it also to carry the inexhaustible meaning of old Uncle Elye’s “sweet and shining vision,” which Alpert repeats through his songs as the meaning of joy and pleasure and freedom and justice, a world of peace even as he witnesses Kosovo and Colorado. Dayenu! he shouts. Enough! The world is a sorrowful place, it's true, but it is not just sorrowful. It is also Uncle George Caba on the fiddle, playing a Rumanian tune, what a party, what a joy, and it’s you ready to die from happiness, with friends around you left and right.

There were some five hundred of them gathered in the audience at Symphony Space for “Night Songs From a Neighbouring Village.” They sat raptly for Paris to Kyiv and bounced in their seats for Brave Old World. Then as a kind of epilogue to the program, Kochan, Kytasty and Alpert retook the stage. To the quiet strumming of the bandura, Kochan and Alpert sang in Ukrainian and Yiddish polyphony - Alpert the text of Herts Rivkin, Nakhtishe lider fun shkeynish dorf [night songs from a neighbouring village], Kochan a lullaby, Oy khodyt son [dream piece] - I imagined to each other, as though they had joined the ghost of the old Jewish Ukrainian poet on his darkened porch, to send stories to each other through the thickening night air of home.

Myrna Kostash is the author of Bloodlines: A Journey Into Eastern Europe and The Doomed Bridegroom: A Memoir