Sunday, September 3, 2017

Jews, Americana, Bluegrass, Jewgrass...


This is slightly off topic, but here's an article I wrote for Hadassah Magazine about the involvement of American Jews in bluegrass and Americana music, focusing on the current crop of musicians but also providing some background on what is a decades-long involvement.

Jews Plus Bluegrass Equals Toe-Stompin' Jewgrass



Banjo picker Eric Lindberg loves with a passion the distinctive harmonies of the acoustic country music known as bluegrass. However, he says, as a Jew, he long felt “a bit out of the loop.
“Much of the work from the inception and early days of bluegrass is deeply spiritual and Christian based,” says the dark-haired, darkbearded 30-something Lindberg, who also plays guitar. “Musically, I could connect with the songs on every level, but my identity as a Jew from Brooklyn always kept me from truly identifying with them.”
The solution? He and his wife, singer Doni Zasloff, formed a bluegrass band called Nefesh Mountain whose original songs meld bluegrass and old-time licks with lyrics reflecting Jewish traditions. “Nefesh is a Hebrew word which loosely translates as the soul or animating spirit of all living things,” they explain on the band’s website. “The mountain is a cross-cultural symbol used widely in Jewish text as well as in bluegrass and old-time musical forms.”
Bluegrass and old-time are two different approaches to traditional 20th-century American roots music, performed by ensembles made up mainly of stringed instruments such as fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar.
Nefesh Mountain’s 2016 debut album featured bluegrass greats Sam Bush, Mark Schatz, Scott Vestal, Rob Ickes and Gary Oleyar, and it included songs called “Singin’ Jewish Girl” and “Adonai Loves Me.” Lindberg and Zasloff are among the current crop of musicians who blend their deep-seated Jewish identities with an equally deep connection to traditional roots music—a fusion that some performers and critics dub “Jewgrass.”

[...]

New Orleans-based Mark Rubin, 51, a veteran of both the American roots and klezmer scenes, takes a different tack on his new album, Songs for the Hangman’s Daughter. In songs such as “Southern Jews Is Good News” and “Teshuvah,” Rubin, who was born in Stillwater, Okla., bluntly attempts to reconcile his experience as a culturally Jewish musician in the American South.

“It is not religious music in the usual sense,” says music critic Ari Davidow. Rubin “is in-your-face about who he is and how he doesn’t fit stereotypes. He is not just making a statement to anti-Semites who see Jews as aliens, but also to Jews of the coasts who find it alien to imagine that there are Jews who live in redneck territory, proudly embracing redneck values.”

The involvement of Jews with American roots music goes back decades, to the folk and old-time music revival that kicked off in the late 1950s and in which Jewish musician, musicologist and filmmaker John Cohen was a key figure. (Today, one of the top bluegrass artists is Jewish musician Noam Pikelny, recipient of the first annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass in 2010, though he does not address his Jewish identity in his music.)

Mandolin and clarinet virtuoso Andy Statman and award-winning scholar and performer Henry Sapoznik, now director of the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture at the University of Wisconsin, were both pioneers of the klezmer revival movement. They had been steeped in old-time and bluegrass before turning to Yiddish sources in the 1970s.


.... Read full article

Friday, July 14, 2017

Country Music... from Iran



I've just learned about and Iranian-born country artist -- Erfan "Elf"  Rezayatbakhsh -- who a founded a country band -- The Dream Rovers -- a few years ago and has tried to bring country music to his home country.


The web site "Saving Country Music" wrote in an article and interview in January:

He’s a singer and songwriter from Tehran, and along with guitar player Ahmad Motevassel, they are the Dream Rovers.
This is not some weird-sounding Iranian techno music with a banjo slid in there to certify it as “country.” The first album of the Dream Rovers was a covers record that included old country music classics like Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons,” and Merle Haggard’s “Hungry Eyes.” The band first formed as the Persian Rovers in January of 2007, and shorty after were forced to go on a hiatus after Elf was conscripted into the Iranian military service. After a few personnel changes, the band re-formed as the Dream Rovers—Iran’s first country music band.

Here's "Superstar," their first official video, released in 2011. The song was insired by Taylor Swift:




The Saving Country Music article tates:

Though most of Western music in Iran can only exist in forbidden, underground channels, Elf and the Dream Rovers were able to present their music publicly at the Sharif University of Technology (SUT) in Tehran on multiple occasions, and for audiences of more than 500 people.
“I was born and raised in a country that has absolutely zero background in country music,” Elf tells Saving Country Music. “Yet I am very passionate about preserving the true country music, which is the most important and authentic part of the American heritage and culture and introduce it to the people of Iran through workshops, concerts, and the release of albums and singles.”

Here's a video of the band performing at the university:




Elf went on to study country music in the East Tennessee State University’s bluegrass, old time, and country music program in Johnson City, Tennessee and graduated Summa cum Laude in 2014. He now lives in Canada.

He and his music were brought to my attention by ETSU Prof. Lee Bidgood, who teaches in the old time and bluegrass program -- and who has been a friend, advisor and sounding board on issues of "the imaginary west" and country music outisde the US ever since we met more than a dozen years ago. Lee's book on Czech bluegrass is coming out this fall, and it is he who was the driving force behind the documentary on Czech Bluegrass, Banjo Romantika, in which I am an onscreen commentator.

The Saving Country Music article concludes -- echoing the words and attitudes of many European country artists:

Erfan “Elf” Rezayatbakhsh and the Dream Rovers may not be your next favorite honky tonk band, but you may also be surprised by their knowledge of country music and proficiency. Like many country music artists and bands from non English-speaking countries, some of the subtleties of the art form can get lost in the translation. But that says nothing about the heart and dedication Elf has brought to the music, recording country songs in both English and his native tongue, and illustrating how even country music, which seems so characteristic of a specific place, can defy borders, and perforate insular environments and the inherent differences between the American and Iranian mindset.
“When there is music, nobody thinks of fighting,” says Elf. “That’s why I came to the United States—not only to study country music in its homeland, but also to travel to the country which had been introduced to me by the media in Iran as ‘the enemy’ and ‘the great Satan’ and see the people, talk to them, and learn about their culture through them.”





Click to read the full article


Thursday, July 6, 2017

I'm writing about Winnetou....!




I’m delighted and excited to have been asked to write the Foreword to “Reiten Wir!” —  an anthology of new short stories based on Karl May characters to be published in October as part of events and initiatives this year marking May’s 175th birthday.

Gojko Mitic as Winnetou

Proceeds and royalties will go to support the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany.

Karl May theme beer at the Karl May festival in Radebeul, some years back

My first exposure to the Imaginary Wild West in Europe (and Karl May) dates back to 1966, when my family spent the summer in Prague -- my father was leading an archaeological dig in the village of Bylany, near Kutna Hora, east of Prague.

In preparation for writing my Foreword, I dug out the diary I kept that summer -- and where I noted the Czech fascination with Winnetou and the Wild West.

"Cowboys 7 Indians are BIG. Esp. the W. German (I think) movies Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. In almost every store window you see color postcards &/or slides with scenes from the films being sold [;] I have seen Winnetou candy bars, books, a poster in a record store for the Winnetou music etc. W. is apparently the solemn-faced 'Indian' (typically clthed) who looks like either Sal Mineo or Paul Newman (or both). Shirts, brown with fake buckskin fringe & laced neck are advertised as ARIZONA, & next to them re TEXAS blue jeans....[...] More Winnetou junk: iron on patches, special blue jeans, new cards, packs of cards of the actor who plays Winnetou. Magazine cover..."

Karl May and Indian stuff, on display in Germany



Later in the summer, I watched Winnetou, the movie, on television.

"It was a pretty bad movie but interesting for a couple things. The cast was international. Herbert Lom was the baddie & Lex Barker Old Shatterhand. These two are US I think. Pierre Brice (French) was Winnetou. Then there were British & others. I think it was filmed in Yugoslavia. I don't know in what language -- it was dubbed in Czech. This was the first time [in a movie] I ever hear an Indian (Winnetou) who didn't have a deep voice. He was high & thin & nasal. Also, the Indians were goodies."

Our family went to a live performance of the operetta "Rose Marie" (of "Indian Love Call" fame), set in the Canadian west. It starred the pop singer Waldemar Matuska who, I wrote "is a big star here. His pictures are in the shop windows and magazines & record stores almost as much as Winnetou."

I decided that Matuska would be my favorite singer and bought a picture postcard of him (which I still have) to go with the ones I bought of the French actor, Pierre Brice, who played Winnetou in the movies.

Many years later, when I first started seriously researching the Imaginary Wild West and the European country music scene, I met Matuska, who was headlining of the first Czech country festivals I attended (in around 2004).



Matuska, who had moved to the United States in the 1980s, died in 2009.

I wrote at the time on this blog:

Matuska was a towering figure in Czech popular music and culture and was instrumental in popularizing American folk and country music to the Czech audience. (Singing, as was required under communism, Czech lyrics to American songs.) He also appeared in the seminal 1964 movie "Limonady Joe" -- a wonderful send-up of the singing cowboy genre of movies and a classic of Czech cinema.

Matuska was important to me in my connection with Eastern Europe, and in my feel for the music and popular culture of the Czech Republic in particular. He became my idol when, as a kid, I spent the summer in Prague with my family in the 1960s. I bought picture postcards of him -- he was lean, bearded and extremely handsome. And I convinced my entire family to go hear him at a rather weird performance of "Rosemarie" at a sort of indoor sports arena...Matuska played the role of the mountie that was taken by Nelson Eddy in the classic movie. I remember that it was a rather static performance, as they all seemed to sing to the microphones that were hanging prominently above the stage...

When I actually met Matuska decades later, at the Strakonice Jamboree folk and bluegrass festival in the Czech Republic in 2004, it was a remarkably emotional experience. I had just begun following the European country scene, and Strakonice was my first Czech festival. And there he was -- the idol of my youth!

Matuska -- who had "defected" to the United States in 1986 but, after the fall of communism, returned frequently to CZ to tour -- was the headline act. Heavier, even bloated-looking, with clearly dyed hair, he didn't look much like the slim, handsome singer/actor of the 1960s, but he had the audience in the palm of his hand.

I went backstage and spent 20 minutes or so talking with him. I felt shy and fluttery! What I remember are his hands -- very small and delicate, with polished nails and an almost dainty ring.