Bivolița draws its core repertoire from the early, European sources of Jewish instrumental wedding music but finds contemporary interpretations that draw on the diverse musical experiences of its members. We are grounded in a democratic, chamber music approach to performance rather than reproducing the rigid, hierarchical performance structure of the soloist “klezmer” and his orchestra of unnamed klezmorim. And in exploring previously unrecorded manuscript sources, we find the freedom to develop arrangements that at one moment might emphasize a grounding in the German baroque, but suddenly shift into a free-form study of twentieth-century harmony. Our dance melodies move between the drive of an Appalachian hoedown and the stately exuberance of a renaissance dance.
Assembled through many years of travel and research, the concert program includes suites that link nearly forgotten ritual melodies—the dobridens, Mazeltovs, scotchnes, and volichs—with more commonly known American klezmer repertoire and co-territorial Moldavian dance music. But the program is not simply a reproduction of a wedding cycle. Instead, we use the traditional context as a springboard to new, spontaneous interpretation, and a deep appreciation of the core dance rhythms as a foundation for elaboration and improvisation within the forms. We also come from eclectic musical backgrounds, so our programs will usually include a few surprises ... a Yiddish tango here, a Russian waltz there ... a Tatar dance or a Greek hasapiko .... whatever is tickling our fancy at a given moment.
The music we play for simchas (Bnai Mitzah, weddings, and parties) and dance events draws from both the European and American klezmer repertoire, but it is also matched to each individual event. We can add Yiddish song or gypsy swing to the program, or some light classical music and a jazz standards set. We can bring in a drummer and bass player to add a little kick to the "hora" set at a simcha, or if you're really looking for trouble, ask us about bringing along the banjos and fiddles for a full-on klezmer hoedown.
So Why the Funny Name?
The coat of arms of the principality of Moldova bears the symbol of a large, horned aurochs (bull or bison) surrounded by a flower, a crescent moon, and a star. The true origin of the aurochs as the symbol for Moldova is lost to time, but the bison—in Romanian “Bivol” or “Bivolița”—has come to represent the agricultural richness of the Moldavian lands. It is also a reminder of the tribute paid by the Moldavians to the Grand Porte in Istanbul during the time of Ottoman Rule. Cattle were driven annually to the Black Sea coast and sold at fixed rates to Ottoman merchants, who sent them on to butchers in Istanbul. Both Jewish (Klezmer) and Gypsy (Lăutar) musicians would travel with the drovers to play in the streets and cafes of the capital during the winter months when there were few weddings back home. They would also play for the annual Greek Christian butcher’s guild Lenten festival (Carnival) and hear local popular Turkish and Greek music. This musical cosmopolitanism lead to a rich interaction between Jewish and Gypsy musicians, and the infusion of both musical styles with Ottoman, near Eastern, and Mediterranean influences. Our ensemble draws on this legacy to guide us in both selecting repertoire and for stylistic references.
Ok, but what's So special about European klezmer?
Is it different from American klezmer?
All of the music we call "klezmer" today originated in the Yiddish-speaking regions of Jewish settlement in Eastern Europe. But just as Jewish culture changed and adapted in the move to America, so did the music. The wedding day in an Eastern European shtetl began when the klezmorim rose at dawn to parade slowly through the streets of the village playing a dobriden, or “good morning” melody. The ritual continued with the “seating” of the bride with her female relatives, who wept at the separation of the young girl from her family—egged on by the badkhin jester who mocked the groom and his prospects for success in the world—to the accompaniment of a plaintive violin. After the bride was veiled and paraded to the chupah, the music switched to freylekh (happy) dance melodies interspersed with virtuoso “Mazeltov” pieces composed and performed for honored guests, shers, redls, and volachs. The party might continue for several days if the wealth of the mechutunim (inlaws) permitted, and they would be escorted home each evening with dobranacht (good night) pieces in slow threes.
These customs, and the specific music that went with them, had already begun to fall away as Jewish emigrants arrived in the new world. The hustle of city life and changing mores saw the wedding reduced to a single day and stripped of the complex social and ritual significance that linked the joining of a couple and a family to the larger spiritual health of the village. The American klezmer that emerged through the twentieth century emphasized the core dance genres—freylekhs, sher, and most importantly the “bulgar.” Of the ritual melodies, only the doina remained, now used primarily as a brief interlude or introduction between dance sets.
Equally importantly, the great klezmer soloists and key klezmer band leaders were introduced to the thriving musical and recording culture of early- to mid-twentieth-century of New York. In other words, klezmer met jazz and great things happened! One of the practical results was that the recording industry favored virtuosic clarinet performance both because it was easier to record a clarinet than a fiddle, and because a clarinet-led ensemble fit right in with the other jazz and dance orchestras competing for record sales at the time. Another result was that American klezmorim adopted some of the harmonic "chordal" sensibilities of American jazz music, moving gradually away from the more modally-inflected music of the European repertoire.
While we love the American canon, we also love exploring the modal inflections of the European repertoire. Stripping out notions of a "chord progression" and listening more closely to melodic gesture and modal development of these old, sometimes deceptively simple tunes has been a great inspiration in finding new pathways to elaborate on the basic melodies. By giving ourselves "permission" to think beyond older formulas of "melody" and "accompaniment," we have the freedom to spontaneously weave melody and harmony, texture and fundament into new and surprising combinations.
All right already, What the heck is "bessarabian" Klezmer?
Klezmer music developed through time to accompany weddings and celebrations across all of the regions of Ashkenazic Jewish settlement. But by the close of the nineteenth century, its most highly developed form was found in Bessarabian Moldova—the direct result of the social and musical contact between Jewish, lăutar, Greek, and Ottoman musical cultures. In addition to the core Jewish dances (redl, freylekhs, chosidl, skotshne, bulgar) and listening genres (dobriden, mazeltov, dobranotsh, gas nign), Moldavian klezmer and Roma musicians were instrumental to the development and spread of what Zev Feldman calls transitional dance forms such as doina, taxim, zhok (slow hora), terkisher, honga, sirba, and bulgar.
For us, examining the source materials from these four great musical cultures allows us to explore the connecting threads between them. By listening to old recordings and reading dusty folklore collections, we can tease out the idiomatic specifics of interpretation, harmony, and tempo that would signal to a local listener whether the band was playing for Jews, or Greeks, or Moldavians. We also find what European Jewish listeners also knew to be true—that the klezmer music from Bessarabia, the Jewish "south," was more developed ... more virtuosic... and more creative as a result of the intermixing of musicians and cultures in Moldova.
Of course, the most important thing is that it’s fun! There’s a unique pleasure in liberating a great fiddler’s treasured tune from the fading pages of forgotten folklore collection. Imagining how he would have played it—and for whom—is the wellspring for making it sing again. The preparation for this concert inspired in us a great burst of creativity and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. We hope you do too!