Home Quebec music Klezmer meets Transylvania in violinist Zoë Aqua’s “magic mix”

Klezmer meets Transylvania in violinist Zoë Aqua’s “magic mix”

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(New York Jewish Week) – Before the Holocaust, Cluj, the unofficial capital of Transylvania, had 13% Jews, roughly the same percentage of Jews as New York today.

“I think of New York now as a very Jewish place, and it’s 13% Jewish. So I was like, ‘Okay, Cluj had that feeling,’” says violinist and composer Zoë Aqua.. “The Jews of Transylvania were historically Hungarian speakers, so you wouldn’t necessarily be walking down the street and hearing Yiddish, but the city had a Jewish presence and it was part of the culture,” as New York today.

These kinds of connections – across Eastern European cultures and between Jewish communities past and present – inspired Aqua’s first solo album of original compositions. “In Vald Arayn” (Into the Forest), which will be released on September 1, reflects Aqua’s immersion in Transylvanian folk music in Cluj, Romania, where she lives until spring 2023 on a research grant. Fulbright.

In particular, she studies the way in which folk musical traditions are transmitted from generation to generation.

Aqua, 32, was a founding member of Tsibele, a five-person band led by women, queer and non-binary musicians, and released the album “In Droysn iz Finster” (It’s Dark Outside) in 2017. following year, as part of the klezmer duo Farnahkt with accordionist Mattias Kaufmann, she released the album “Ultraviolet”. She performed with Michael Winograd’s The Honorable Mentshn and as an understudy for the Klezmatics for the “Indecent” show on Broadway.

And while Aqua has worked as a composer, teacher and violinist in the klezmer space for almost a decade, she is reluctant to describe her next album as exclusively klezmer, and explains that it is also influenced by folk music from Transylvania. . The title of the album is itself a play on the name Transylvania, which means “beyond the forest” in Latin.

Although all 11 songs on the album were composed by Aqua, she collaborated with local Hungarian and Transylvanian musicians – Attila Fenyvesi, Laszlo Zsikai and Gergely Reman – which introduce instruments like the cimbalom (which is played like a dulcimer) and the brácsa (similar to a viola) not usually seen in North American klezmer. Aqua’s sister, Annie, who is also a violinist, accompanies her on many songs.

“I’m really excited for American audiences to hear this Transylvanian string orchestra sound because, especially for klezmer audiences, it’s a bit different from what we normally hear, both in terms of rhythm and in terms of the instruments used,” Aqua told New York Jewish Week in a Zoom interview.

It’s not necessarily Jewish music that Aqua studies, but there is a Jewish element to it, a long-standing community tradition. “The main reason I wanted to go to Transylvania is that they still have these unbroken musical lines and people from these musical families who learned from father to son over generations, Aqua explained. “We had these same types of musical families in klezmer music, especially in Eastern Europe.”

Aqua said the Transylvanian music she studies in Cluj does not overlap with klezmer tunes as much as other folk tunes from other parts of Eastern Europe. She plans to use her next year of research to explore, especially with older musicians still in Cluj, how they and their families’ traditions have been influenced by Jewish musicians.

Aqua and György Moldován – known as “Ilka Gyurika” – playing in Sic, Romania during his Fulbright research. October 11, 2021. (Attila Fenyvesi)

New York itself is see his latest klezmer revivalsaid Aqua, who lived in New York for nine years before moving to Romania. “It’s good to be in New York if you’re interested in klezmer because there’s a critical mass of people who are interested in it. There are instrumentalists, there are people who are interested in Yiddish dancing, the Yiddish language and Yiddish singing.

The music label Borscht Beat, which is releasing its album, is part of this revival. The label, started earlier this year by Brooklynite Aaron Bendich, promotes contemporary Jewish, Yiddish and klezmer music. Bendich emphasizes that he sees his role as the continuation of a musical tradition, not the revival of one.

“In Vald Arayn” is the fourth album from the Borscht Beat label.

“I’m very excited about this magical blend of new and old, past and present,” Bendich told New York Jewish Week. “It’s a truly unique album. The compositions are all new, original and from the spirit of Zoë, but they sound so authentically traditional, as if they came from Jewish Transylvania 100 years ago.

Aqua also participates in a movement to diversify and update access to klezmer. She teaches klezmer music at the Brooklyn Conservatory, Yiddish New York. For this interview, Aqua joined the call of Klezkanada, a Montreal organization that promotes Jewish and Yiddish arts, where she gives workshops throughout the week.

“Old-school klezmer music, especially in Europe, was for men only, Aqua explained. “We are reconstructing a scene here that, in many ways, was a broken chain of transmission. We can now make choices about how we want to make this scene more inclusive and involve more women and gender non-conforming people, and not only involve them, but enable them to be able to be leaders.

Aqua said she was very excited to find out what listeners would take away from her album and what kind of connection they would feel with the Yiddish, Klezmer, Hasidic, Hungarian and Romanian influences that she “put into a blender “.

Part of the answer came last week during this summer’s Klezkanada retreat in Quebec.

When Aqua previewed the album during a night session, “people were dancing,” she said.

Listeners can listen to a sample of “In Vlad Arayn” and pre-order the album on the Borscht Beat bandcamp website. The full album will be released on September 1.