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World Music Review

A Union of Klezmer, Romany

May 18, 2000|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An actual betrothal may not have taken place, but there was plenty of wedding spirit in the air Tuesday night at the Skirball Cultural Center. One of the opening events in YK2!, the Yiddishkayt Los Angeles cultural festival, the program brought together the related musical traditions of Romany and klezmer in an event aptly titled "Hot Wedding Music."

Despite differences in ethnicity and culture, the Romany people (usually labeled "Gypsies") and the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia were both minority groups, sharing much of the same territory and experiencing similar oppression. And accordionist Barry Fisher, the leader of the klezmer ensemble Ellis Island, focused the program upon the intersection at which the music of both cultures came together--the wedding ceremony.

The two ensembles--Ellis Island and a group of Romany artists featuring members of the Stevens family and Russian singer Lolita Gelakaeva--performed both alternately and together. Starting with an anthem followed by a procession, the program quickly moved into spontaneous mode, with many of the selections chosen spontaneously, very much as they would be in actual wedding performance.

The similarities were apparent, never more so than in the folk song "Ale Brider," which was presented in both Yiddish and Romany languages. And the animated, Eastern European rhythms and melodies underscored the fact that both cultures were masterful adapters, taking in elements of the societies that surrounded them, transforming them into their own forms of creative expression.

Among the many talented performers, singer Lisa Wanamaker was a standout, her warm-hued voice and flowing melismas bringing life and substance to traditional themes. Among the Romany, guitarist George Stevens was equally impressive, a thoroughly dramatic figure, performing with a flamenco-like physical presentation and a passionate exposition of melody.

But the real accomplishment of the evening was Fisher's convincing musical evidence of the musical linkages that took place when Romany and klezmer musicians crossed cultural and social boundaries to link their artistry, appropriately, in the joining-together atmosphere of wedding celebrations.

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