“World capitals – London, New York, and Vienna” all have International Festivals of Jewish Music, observed Airat Sibagatullin, spokesman for the Tatarstan Minister of Culture. “Today, Kazan can take its place among them.” So began Kazan’s first International Festival of Jewish Music, the brainchild of Edward Tumansky and Boris Lvovich. The festival featured an ambitious program of international Jewish musicians of all genres from many different countries, including Israel, the USA, Russia, Ukraine, Cuba, and Austria. The evening of 4 June saw ulitsa Peterburgskaya transformed into an open-air concert, a stall from the Israeli Embassy cheerfully distributing flags and pamphlets as curious passers-by stopped to watch. Kazan’s Jewish community was in attendance (though Rabbi Yitzhak Gorelik was at the time in Israel), as was its leader Mikhail Skoblionok.
The opening Press Conference in the Regina Hotel had asked all the expected questions, chiefly among them, how one defines Jewish Music. “I am first of all a native Kazan resident. I’ve worked with so many Tatar musicians and performers I can even understand some Tatar, yet I think it is paramount to understand that for a Muslim Republic such as Tatarstan to hold a Jewish Music festival is very symbolic of the peace we enjoy here,” said Lvovich. “It’s so sad that politics puts people into corners and divides them… if my Tatar friend Rinat can dream in Hebrew and I in Tatar, then we can both wake up in peace.”
“Jews emigrated everywhere and assimilated local cultures, in the process giving these cultures a new vision of themselves, a new interpretation – that surely must be the essence of Jewish music,” he added.
“Klezmer,” reminded Yitzhak Auer Bach, head of Joint Russia “has a national face but no borders.”
Austrian-born Klezmer musician Roman Grinberg pointed out that, although his band played Klezmer, many of its members were not Jewish. Grinberg was bought up in a Yiddish-speaking household, yet he added that Klezmer was born in Bessarabia (present day Moldova) and was partly a product of the ethnic mix there. Dmitry Gerasimov, leader of Kiev’s “Pushkin Klezmer Band,” pointed out that “Jazz, not just Klezmer, has many Jewish influences. Charlie Parker worked with a great deal of Jewish Musicians and Louis Armstrong wore a Magen David. There is more to Jewish music than traditional Klezmer.”
Baku-born classical and experimental pianist Leonid Ptashka shed some more light on the question, adding that “the term Jewish Music can be very misleading. There is Jewish music from Africa, from Asia, from Europe.”
“But surely all these Jewish musicians, from wherever they are in the world must have something in common?,” asked a journalist in the audience.
Ptashka mused, before answering, “Brit Milah.”
Over the course of the next three days Kazan enjoyed an impressive range of Jewish musical events. There was a piano master class by Leonid Ptashka; concerts by Yekaterinburg-born American Broadway singer Robin Erkol (“who some people see as a cross between Liza Minelli and Barbara Streisand,” Lvovich pointed out); Salsa and Flamenco with Cuban-Israeli Yana Mirabelle and Esperansa Rodriguez, Kazan’s own Simcha Klezmer band (two of whom are Tatar, two Jewish); and modern Israeli music with Yelena Galkina, David Kobiashvili and Yulia Belyayeva.
Israeli dancer and choreographer Dana Lifanova also held a master-class in Israeli and Jewish styles of dance. American-Jewish classical composer Gamma Skupinsky premiered her new opera “The Black Monk” in Kinoteatr Mir. Most remarkable was an energetic performance by the two St.Petersburg-based Klezmer groups, “Dobranoch,” and “Opa!” in the bar Zheltaya Kofta. Dobranoch’s Balkan-infused Klezmer with Osama Shakhin on Arab Darbukha percussion was a great success, as was what can only be described as Klezmer-Ska, a small yet remarkable niche in Jewish music filled admirably by Opa!
In a fitting testament to Lvovich’s words, the Jewish music festival culminated in a packed full gala concert in Kazan’s Ğaliaskar Kamal Tatar Theatre on 6 June, featuring pieces from all participants in the festival. Delegates from the Israeli embassy in Moscow were received warmly by Head of Tatarstan State Council Farit Mukhametshin, who was eager to point out the multiculturalism and inter-ethnic harmony Tatarstan enjoys.
“Most Jewish music festivals are simply renditions Hava Nagila and Tumbalalaika,” lamented Lvovich, “and we of course intend to widen that spectrum.” Tatar musical ensemble Tatarica played “Hava Nagila” on traditional Tatar instruments whilst pop group “Qazan Yegetləre” gave their own rendition of the same song, and a specially written piece for the occasion, “Druzyey – Tatari i Yevrei” (“Friends, Tatars and Jews”). Leonid Ptashka gave a well-received recital of piano pieces based on Jewish liturgical and Sephardic music, accompanied by considerable skill on the Shofar. Ulyanovsk’s Academic Band played more traditional swing and Jazz pieces, and of course more traditional Klezmer pieces by Odessa-based Mamini Deti and Moscow-based Klezmasters ensembles. Roman Grinberg and Klezmood’s moving Yiddish-language “Ikh hob dikh tsu fiel lieb” with superb clarinet solo by Sasha Danilov was a fitting closing to the evening.
Lvovich, with great optimism, invited the audience to meet again, next year, in the same place and same time. There were a number of familiar faces in the audience from Kazan’s Jewish community, though as Leonid Ptashka addressed the audience in Tatar with “Qazan, min sine yaratam” (Kazan, I love you), the raucous applause showed the large number of Tatars who had also come to attend. Kazan has never before had so large a focus on its Jewish community and local Jewish culture, and with Minnikhanov’s visit to Kazan’s synagogue and meeting with Chief Rabbi of Tatarstan Yitzhak Gorelik, it seems Jewish life in Kazan, with its friendly inter-confessional and inter-ethnic relations, could reach new heights should the city’s Jewish music festival become the annual event its organizers wish it to be.
“Rabbi Nachman,” observed the leader of Kazan’s Jewish Community Mikhail Skoblionok, “said that every nation has its own wisdom and every wisdom has its own song, the purpose of the Jews is to sing all the songs as one song.” An annual Jewish music festival on this scale is an ambitious undertaking, yet standing in the foyer of the Kamal Theatre with an Echpochmak (Tatar pastry) in hand and Klezmer in the air, the Tatar-Jewish fusion works surprisingly well. Given the overwhelmingly positive response to the quality and quantity of offerings in this first festival –the highlights being Roman Grinberg, Opa, Dobranoch, Pushkin Klezmer Band and Leonid Ptashka – there is every reason to have yet greater expectations for the second.