The newest CD from Cleveland’s Harmonia, masters of folk and Gypsy music from Eastern Europe, is titled “Hidden Legacy.” It could just as easily have been called “living legacy,” which is exactly what this talented band of musicians is doing by playing the traditional music of Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
The CD title, especially, resonates with me because I grew up in just the kind of world that bandleader Walt Mahovlich describes; the close-knit immigrant communities that seemed far removed from the mainstream culture surrounding them, and which few people outside of those communities even knew existed. Of prime importance within these communities is music, coloring and animating every major life event and then some; births, christenings, weddings, holidays, feast days as well as everyday life.
This music survives and thrives in America, thanks in large part to the successive waves of immigration from Easter Europe. Most recently, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War saw a new influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, adding vibrancy to existing immigrant communities and bringing many classically trained musicians to these shores, including Harmonia’s Alexander Fedoriouk, master of the cimbalom, a variation of the more familiar hammered dulcimer.
The liner notes produced by the band’s accordionist Walt Mahovlich brings an ethnomusicologist’s depth of knowledge, providing background on every song, including cultural factors such as whether the songs are played at weddings or in cafés or after a long night of partying, and also includes notes on some of the instruments.
The opening violin strains on the CD’s first track “Romanian Ritual Dances” sets the stage for the rest of the CD with its instrumentation and it’s changing tempo, the familiar 4/4 time groove grounds the song, making it feel familiar. Then about half way through the tempo doubles, as does the energy.
“In the High Pasture” slows things down a bit and features the stellar voice of Beata Begeniova.
The very next track, “Ukrainian Polka,” has the cimbalom keeping rhythm, giving the driving melody over to Andrei Pidkivka playing the “sopilka”, a type of flute.
And so it goes throughout the CD, alternating between fast, high-energy pieces and slower, even melancholic, numbers. From the “Slovak Shepherd’s Song” featuring the “fujara”, a six-foot long flute, and “The Mother’s Lament” with Andrei Pidkivka on the “nai” or pan flute, to the “Seven Step Hora” featuring the violin playing of Steven Greenman, and “Ukrainian Mountain Music” which closes out the CD with a fiery mix of music from the Carpathian highlands, featuring the beautiful voice of Beata Begeniova once again.
This eclectic mix of instruments and songs and influences from across Eastern Europe is what gives Harmonia its distinctive sound. Coincidentally, it’s what also makes Harmonia a uniquely American band, in the sense that its members trace their heritage back to Croatian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Slovak, Rusyn, Jewish, and Czech roots, yet have come together to continue the shared musical and cultural legacy of the peoples of these once Austro-Hungarian lands. And for a new generation they provide a window into a world that in one sense has long ago passed away, but in another remains a living, and a little less hidden, legacy.
You can catch Harmonia in concert this month at Nexus, 627 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115, 216-912-2816, on Friday September 28th at 8:30 PM. Tickets are $15.
Or next month, Thursday, October 18th with DJ Kishka, at Sterles Slovenian Country House, 1401 East 55th St., Cleveland; www.sterlescountryhouse.com, 216-881-4181.
Check them out at www.harmoniaband.com or on Facebook as Harmonia Band.