The world over, major rivers dig valleys into the plains, becoming thoroughfares dotted over time with great cities that become known for their musical heritage. The itinerant working people and wandering vagabonds in these regions in turn music of their own over time. In the West, the muddy Mississippi, with New Orleans, Memphis, and St Louis, saw the earliest blues and jazz music move from field hands to city clubs. In Europe, the blue Danube’s fertile valley likewise flows through Vienna, Budapest, and Belgrade, from the Black Forest to the Ukraine. The folk and gypsy music of Eastern Europe represents music coming from the same place in the human heart, though in different languages and on a different instruments. And, as any world music aficionado will point out, the reverse is equally true.
Harmonia is seven veteran musicians whose latest CD, Hidden Legacy: Folk and Gypsy Music from Eastern Europe is an ambitious, raucous walk through an exotic musical travelogue that serves to educate, entertain, and impress both fans of the genre and interested newcomers. The 15 songs draw heavily on the talents of two violinists (Josef Janis, with a bit a gypsy flash; Steven Greenman, a Klezmer expert) who can both smoke the scales and complement one another very well. Andrei Pidkivka’s pan flute and Soplika are added to the mix with cimbalom, a large hammered dulcimer, played amazingly well by Alexander Fedoriouk. Dramatic, full-throated vocals are added by Beata Begeniova on many tunes, and founder Walt Mahovlich’s accordion is prominent as well. Five of the seven players originated in Eastern Europe.
The recording has a live-in-the-studio spontaneity with lots of rough edges, perfect for this kind of thing. The “Romanian Ritual Dances” that start out give way halfway through to a fiddle-to-beat-hell rave up, and the flute and cimbalom stay right there, shredding cleanly and effortlessly. Okay, these guys are for real, what’s next?
Well, “In the High Pastore,” which is a majestic anthem sung by Begeniova with dramatic harmonies. Expect polkas on a disc like this, and “Ukrainian Polka” is a high energy workout that transcends its dance rhythm to become a virtuoso flute and dulcimer riff-fest.
Other highlights include “Slovak Shepherd’s Song” with haunting, droning flute effects and a nice vocal by bassist Brano Brinarksky, “The Mother’s Lament” with cimbalom eliciting a grand piano/ harp feel, and “Moldavian Stomp,” which is just that, a brisk folk dance at breathtaking speed. Some of the later tracks in the generous, 64-minute album lump together Transylvania and gypsy traditions; tunes like “Hungarian Dances from Transylvania” and “Hungarian Suite in Gypsy Style” are sort of gypsy music jam pieces, stringing incompletely realized melodies and ideas together. Better is “Ukrainian Mountain Music,” as some grassland attitude can be heard in Begeiova’s vocal, and the foot-stomping music has a little bit of extra edge, sort of a jamboree. Just like the jamborees on this side of the world.
Hidden Legacy should be required listening for world music fans, new and old.