On a warm spring evening this month, the boisterous strains of Eastern European music wafted out the window of a large, Spanish-style home in Santa Monica. Inside the high-ceilinged living room, an unexpected sight greeted a visitor: Jewish and Romani (a k a Gypsy) musicians diligently rehearsing side by side.
A Jewish bass player vigorously bowed beside a Romani accordionist playing so fervently that sweat poured from his brow. A Yiddish consultant belted out the Romani anthem in the mama-loshn while a Rom sang the response in his language. In the middle of it all, klezmer maestro and attorney Barry Fisher supervised like a proud parent, jangling a tambourine in one hand as he ticked off the musical numbers on a clipboard.
The rehearsal was in preparation for an upcoming "YK2" concert, "Hot Wedding Music," which will feature the pieces that Romani and klezmer musicians played for centuries at nuptials across the old country. Before the Holocaust, both sets of musicians traveled the backroads of Eastern Europe, collaborating and competing and performing at each others' weddings and special events. Some of the tunes have been lost to Jews but are still a vital part of the Romani tradition.
If anyone could bring together 17 top L.A. Jewish and Romani musicians, it is Barry Fisher. His first exposure to the Rom took place in the 1960's, when he chanced upon a Rom encampment while hitchhiking through a remote part of Macedonia with his melodica. Fisher, who co-founded L.A.'s Ellis Island Band during the klezmer revival of the 1970s, continued his association with the Rom by playing at Gypsy events throughout the Southland. As an attorney, he has been an advocate for their Holocaust reparations and for their right to practice the ancient craft of fortune-telling, which culminated in a landmark case Fisher argued and won before the California Supreme Court.
The upcoming "Wedding Music" concert, he says, merges his interest in things Jewish andRomani. "It's an exploration of the culture of two peoples who have traditionally been vilified and romanticized," he adds.
Another native Angeleno, musician Michael Alpert, will return to Los Angeles for concerts of the "YK2" festival. At 46, the violinist and vocalist for Brave Old World is considered one of the pioneering virtuosi of the klezmer revival.
The son of a Lithuanian immigrant father, Alpert grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home in West L.A. He fell in love with Yiddish music through the songs of the workers and the partisans he learned at the school, run by Yiddishist-communists, that he attended from the age of 6. The only child of older parents, he felt a keen desire to help preserve their precious, waning Yiddish culture before it was gone.
His efforts included the co-founding of a band, the Chutzpah Jewish Orchestra, in the 1970s. Brave Old World came about in 1989 to turn klezmer into a Jewish art music for the concert stage. At "YK2," the klezmer supergroup will perform pieces from its most recent CD, "Blood Oranges," which serves as a trip to "Yiddishland," a place that no longer exists in Eastern Europe but is alive in the souls of contemporary Jewish musicians. The album seeks to answer the question, oft posed by Brave Old World members, 'Where would klezmer be today if not for the Holocaust?' "
In another "YK2" concert, Alpert and Brave Old World will share the stage with the Canadian-Ukrainian group Paris to Kyiv, whose forebears came from the same shtetls as many Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. The concert, titled "Night Songs from a Neighboring Village," is "very moving to me," Alpert says. "It's an encounter between Jews and Ukrainians after 50 years and [the] historical wedge between us."
"Hot Wedding Music" takes place Tues., May 16, 8 p.m., at the Skirball Cultural Center, (310) 440-4666. Brave Old World performs Thurs., May 18, 8 p.m., at Cal State Northridge, (818) 677-2488, and Sat., May 20, 8 p.m., with Paris to Kyiv at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater, (323) 461-3673. An artists' talk at 7 p.m. will precede the concert. - Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor