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Mitya Gerasimov: Yid banderites won’t go away

The frontman of Pushkin Klezmer Band about the life of a Jewish musician in Ukraine

Pushkin Klezmer band is a Kiev musical orchestra of musicians from Ukraine, Moldova and Russia.

100 years ago, the music that Pushkin plays was the common musical language for different people living in Bessarabia and South Ukraine, a kind of “jazz” of this region. Today klezmer has become a branch of world music.

Preferring to play at weddings, Pushkin still performs a great deal at clubs, concert halls and festivals, and always keeps an element of dance in their music.

How did you end up in Kiev after you left your native Kazan?

It actually happened by accident, although now it’s obvious that I simply wanted the life that I live now. First I went to Odessa for romanticism and various Jewish legends. I thought I’d find Jewish exotica there, some old Klezmer musicians and Yiddish grandmothers. On the whole my interest was professional, I wanted to get closer to the roots of klezmer. I’m still getting there.

Where did your interest in Jewish culture come from?

I have a grandmother. She’s 90 years old and she lives in Israel, but once she lived in Kiev. Her first language was Yiddish, and her second was Ukrainian. She managed to leave Kiev with her sister at the last moment, right before the Germans came. And they were the only ones to escape from their large family. Kiev was always a center of attraction for me, it’s the city of my grandmother, she always talks about it.

I had an interest in klezmer music from childhood. When I was 12 years old, I started playing in a Jewish children’s group. In Kazan Jewish life was active at that time. But there were breaks when I only played classical music and neglected everything else. The new wave of interest in klezmer music for me was connected with the popularity of Kusturica’s films. I was surprised to discover that this bright and exotic Balkan music is very similar to the klezmer I knew. And Jewish music still interests me not in itself, but as a part of Eastern European musical wedding culture.

In an interview two years ago you said that you still consider yourself to be a resident of Kazan. What has changed since then?

At that time I already considered myself a resident of Kiev. They probably wrote it down wrong. I came to Ukraine six years ago and I found myself here. Of course, my native city is Kazan, my parents live there, I grew up there and learned to play music there. But in Kiev I’ve never had the feeling that I’m an outsider. I feel much freer and more comfortable here than in Kazan.

When you talk about comfort, do you mean everyday comfort?

That as well. I understand that the musical lifestyle that I have here is simply impossible in Kazan or in Moscow. Kiev in that sense has special opportunities for a creative person.

What sort of opportunities?

I mean the musical circle and the audiences. There’s feedback: people who come to Pushkin’s concert form our sound. We are closely linked with our Kiev audiences and feel very quickly if we’re doing something wrong.

Your group played at Maidan. What made you play revolutionary klezmer there?

Some of the musicians were at Maidan everyday without any Klezmer. We were just there as Kiev residents, as people who love our city and country where we live.

As soon as music appeared at Maidan, I wanted to play there with Pushkin. Firstly, I wanted to cheer up and warm the people who were cold and tired from standing there for days on end. We play cheerful wedding music, you can dance to it!

Additionally, I wanted to take part in dispelling the aggressively obtruded myths about fascists-Banderites-Russophobes-anti-Semites, which were used at Maidan. The best way to explain to my Facebook friends in Russia that Maidan wasn’t fascist was to show them videos in which crowds danced to Jewish music in front of the stage.

We also played in another groups at Maidan, and only performed once with Pushkin. It was at the end of December, after that there was no time for music.

Can you be called “Yid Banderites?” Of course, the word has lost some of its popularity, but still…

Last spring we held a great “Yid Banderite Shabash” at the club opposite the Brodsky synagogue. It seemed funny and relevant then.

Words like “Yid Banderites” are of course mainly addressed to our friends in the East. There is self-irony in it, and it mocks the myths of the anti-Semitic fascist Ukraine.

From the very beginning of the protest movement, Jews actively took part in the life of the country. Most of my Jewish friends were at Maidan. When the war began, Jewish organizations helped to create volunteer movements.

At Maidan the human rights activist Iosif Zisels spoke many times, and our friend Igor Golfman gave lectures on Judaism as part of the Maidan open university.

The Yid banderites won’t go away. Although the word is a bit overused, and doesn’t sound so funny anymore. It’s time to think up new jokes…

You play in a Jewish group at Ukrainian weddings. Have there been any cases of misunderstandings with clients?

I wouldn’t say that there is no anti-Semitism in Ukraine. It exists wherever there are Jews. But I think that now the level of anti-Semitism in Ukraine is much lower than in Russia or Poland, for example.

At any rate, we have never encountered direct manifestations of it. There were some anti-Semitic comments on Polish sites where our posters were displayed, but I don’t remember anything in particular.

But I do sometimes feel concealed, latent Judeophobia. For example, at Maidan, when I said on stage that we were going to play Jewish music, there was whispering in the crowd. I was afraid that they weren’t going to listen to us. But it only took five minutes for the mood to change, and the people started dancing. We were received very well.

In general, being ashamed of everything Jewish is the legacy of the Soviet era. Jewish music was greatly discredited, like any other folk music in the Soviet Union. People who aren’t familiar with Jewish music have a set of associations and clichés: “Khava Nagida”, “7:40”, Jewish jokes, TV shows about Odessa gangsters and criminal songs. On the whole, a bunch of kitsch and vulgarity.

Few people will admit that they won’t listen to music just because it’s Jewish. But among advanced young people to say “I’m going to a concert of Jewish music” means to feel a certain awkwardness. It’s not cool – it’s like admitting that you listen to Russian gangster ballads and Shufutinsky. Perhaps our mission is partially to break down these nasty associations.

When I enrolled at the Kazan conservatory, I remember that the “folk musicians” – the students who studied at the faculty of folk instruments – were considered to be a lower caste. That was bad taste and eclecticism all right – to play Bach on the accordion with pseudo-folk variations!

There was one excellent case at a Ukrainian wedding in the countryside. The people danced to us, and everyone was happy. We played for about an hour, and then the guests came up to us and asked: “Can you only play Irish music, or can you play something Russian or Ukrainian?” I don’t know, perhaps they would have been unhappy if they had found out that it wasn’t exactly Irish music…

How can Jewish music be made accessible and understandable to people who are far removed from Jewishness?

This is exactly what we are trying to do. Our audience is not all that Jewish. Perhaps half of it is. Our clients are mainly not Jews. It’s important not to be trapped in an exclusive group.

One of my favorite Klezmer groups is the Amsterdam Klezmer Band. They got famous when there was a fashion for Balkan music, and they fit well into the format of Balkan parties. They have a very stylish modern sound – and yes, their audience is mainly non-Jewish, I think.

Where do you look for new material for your work?

I love music from old Jewish records. They are mainly recordings made by Jewish Ukrainian emigrants to America. Part of our material comes from there. We also steal riffs from other musicians we play with. I’m not into using sheet music and I can only properly appreciate music by ear. Generally I think it’s pointless to write down folk music in musical notation…

Klezmer music remains as fragments in various neighboring cultures. Crimean Tatars, for example, play old Jewish songs at weddings which you won’t find in any anthologies. By some miracle the Tatars were able to keep their musical tradition alive. We Ashkenazis evidently didn’t have the chance.

My friend the accordionist Seryoga Tsygan, with whom I started Pushkin, knows a lot of klezmer melodies. I show him a song from Beregovsky’s collection, and he says that his father played it to him as a child. In some regions of Moldova professional gypsy musicians who play at weddings call themselves Klezmers, and there musical slang has lots of Yiddish words…

I constantly think about how Jewish music would sound today if it hadn’t been for the Second World War, and the Holocaust. Would it have developed in parallel with the music of other Eastern European peoples?

Klezmer is not a musical museum piece. We try to create genuine modern music. And it’s important for us that people feel like dancing to it.

What plans does Pushkin Klezmer Band have for the future?

Over the last few months we’ve been working on our first album. We took a long time to get around to it. Two and a half years ago we tried to record with the previous line-up of Pushkin, but all the material was trashed. I really hated the way it sounded.

Last summer we started preparing to record again. Recently I met the wonderful producer and sound engineer Yevgeny Stupka and realized that I wanted to work with him. He has produced and recorded many hits by Okean Elzy, Nochny Snaipery and Yolka. We have just finished recording the main material for the album, and now we are working on mastering the tracks.

I hope that the presentation of our first album will take place in spring. This is a very important stage of growth for us. It will be great if we get competitors and followers. I believe that a klezmer renaissance is possible in Ukraine, and that klezmer will become our national product, which will make Ukraine famous abroad.

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