The ninth Atlanta Jewish Music Festival is kicking it old school for opening night with two groups that take traditional Eastern European music with roots in the 19th century and update it for the 21st.
The ninth edition of the AJMF will start with a set from Tsvey Brider, followed by a set from Beyond the Pale. The groups then will share the stage for a few tunes.
Not Exactly Brothers
The band name Tsvey Brider means “two brothers” in Yiddish, but Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell and Dmitri Gaskin don’t have any familial ties. Instead, the musical duo’s name springs from the intrepid musical connection they share.
“It reflects our working relationship,” Gaskin said. “On a spiritual level we have a musical connection that’s very deep and hard to describe. We approach this music in some sense in very similar ways and in some sense in very different ways.”
From a young age, Gaskin, 22, was introduced to traditional Yiddish music. He started playing piano when he was young and received his first accordion as a bar mitzvah present.
Russell, 38, a vocalist, got into the genre much later after converting to Judaism.
The two have been making music for six years, but they only recently started using the Tsvey Brider moniker. Together, they are creating contemporary interpretations of music in Yiddish.
Gaskin described it as “cultural fusion with Yiddish inspiration.”
“It’s not your grandmother’s Yiddish music,” he said. “We perform Yiddish art in a modern cultural context. The music is super-exciting, and I don’t think folks in Atlanta will have heard music like this before.”
Gaskin and Russell draw inspiration from a wide range of genres, both contemporary and traditional. They have performed and recorded with noted klezmer and Yiddish artists Anthony Coleman, Daniel Kahn, Michael Winograd, Michael Alpert and Veretski Pass.
A classically trained opera singer, Russell is a vocalist, composer and arranger specializing in Yiddish art and folk song, chazones, and Hasidic nigunim. He is married to Rabbi Michael Rothbaum of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, Mass.
Gaskin, who lives in Oakland, Calif., said he has been hooked on klezmer ever since playing in his first group in the genre at the age of 13. In 2009 he won the ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Award, and he is the proud owner of three accordions.
“Yiddish music is not the most complicated type of music by far, but it’s a very emotional type of music,” he said. “So it’s a very good way for me as a means of self-expression. It comes off in a way where it’s less about the amount of notes you can play but more about the emotions that you can affect in people.”
Tsvey Brider’s performance at AJMF9 will be the duo’s first since a five-date European tour in November. They also will perform in July at Yidstock 2018 in Amherst, Mass.
Beyond Euro/Folk Fusion
What started in 1998 as an ambitious experiment in the new acoustic genre has evolved into Beyond the Pale, an acoustic fusion group specializing in contemporary klezmer and Eastern European music.
In the beginning, the group would play everything from bluegrass and jazz to reggae and funk but soon realized that what connected the most with fans was the fusion material involving klezmer and other Eastern European sounds.
“When we first got together, there was a broader concept,” said Eric Stein, a mandolinist and founding member of the group. “It was still an acoustic concept, but the palette of sounds was a lot wider. So instead of being a band that was a chameleon from song to song, we took those styles that we were interested in, like jazz and bluegrass, and integrated them as influences that would shape our approach to the Eastern European and klezmer music.”
The band soon adopted the name Beyond the Pale as a nod to the Russian Empire’s Jewish Pale of Settlement, from where their music is partially derived.
Twenty years and four albums later, the Toronto-based band has performed at festivals and venues around the world and continues to break ground in the new acoustic genre with a blend of musical styles.
“There’s only two kinds of music,” Stein said. “Good and bad. So there’s really very eclectic tastes and musical tastes among all the members of the band.”
In the early years, the band went through a few personnel changes, leaving Stein and bassist Bret Higgins as the only original members of the band. For the past 16 years, though, the group has remarkably maintained the same lineup.
Stein said familiarity with his bandmates has led to a fluidity and comfort onstage that audiences can connect with.
“I think that our music has generally broad appeal,” he said. “It’s very accessible. I think what people connect with in our music is the sincerity with which it’s made and also the personal connections between us as musicians onstage. It’s something that I think people find very compelling.”
Originally a bassist, Stein picked up the mandolin after hearing the music of influential, genre-bending Jewish mandolinist David Grisman. After honing his chops playing bluegrass, Grisman created his own style of new acoustic music later dubbed “Dawg music.”
“That style of music was rooted in bluegrass but influenced by jazz, Latin, world music and Eastern European folk music,” Stein said. “He really sort of created his own sound.”
Stein got into klezmer music after taking Jewish history courses while in college and learning about his own Jewish history as the grandson of immigrants from Poland.
He later visited the country to get a taste of where he came from and became enamored with the culture and music.
“Jewish music was the furthest thing in my universe until the mid-90s when the klezmer revival started taking off,” Stein said. “The music started speaking to me. The fact that it gave me a connection to my identity and my heritage made it that much more compelling to immerse in it.”
The group’s stop in Atlanta on March 8 for AJMF9 is part of a nine-city tour of the South from March 2 to 12 that includes Charlottesville, Nashville, Huntsville and Lexington.