13 November 2012

A Rigid Itinerary

It's been a while since I've written here, and my big adventure is coming to an end.  In 2 weeks, I return to Toronto upon the conclusion of my visa. 

With my time in Europe (at least on this journey) coming to an end, I wanted to get to Amsterdam to visit friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in over 3 years, since the last time I was there.

So, I booked my train tickets and got ready for a weekend of friend-seeing in Amsterdam.  Except I did a bone-headed thing and mistook my departure date when I booked the (non-refundable) tickets.  Only realizing this fact after the train had left without me on Thursday, I scrambled to find another way to get to Amsterdam on Friday. 

Thanks to the mitfahrgelegenheit.de website, I found a guy who seemed decent that was heading to Amsterdam and only asking for 35 Euros for the trip.  He drives frequently to Holland for business and had been using mitfahrgelegenheit for about a year and a half.  Now, for the uninitiated, mitfahrgelegenheit literally means "drive-with opportunity" and is a common way for Germans to travel in between cities cheaper than going by rail or plane. 

On Friday morning, I met M.* at the rendez-vous point at the appointed time and we met in person.  I was told that we were waiting for a Polish girl and we'd be on our way.  Unfortunately (as we would discover), this wasn't to be our day, and Polish Girl couldn't be reached by phone, and apparently, her boyfriend wasn't much help when he was reached either.  After thirty minutes, we left without her and proceeded out of town.  M. made a bone-head move of his own and took the wrong direction on the ring around the city and ended up heading south towards Munich instead of west.  After about 30 km or so, he realized this, and got off the Autobahn, turned around and burned rubber like hell to make up the lost time.

Now, I've been driven on German Autobahns.  They say that there's no speed limit, and that's true in some sense.  In some areas, there are indeed speed limits, and where there aren't, they recommend driving at 130km/h.  Well, M. (driving a nice Mercedes C class) was not interested in "recommended" speed limits and drove, at some points, as fast as 220 km/h.  Strangely, it honestly didn't seem that fast, given that people were driving very fast around us. 

Finally, we got on the right highway and M. kept booking along at high speeds wherever possible as we bolted for the Dutch border.  As we reached and crossed the border, M. noticed that a police car had pulled in front of us, turned on it's flashing light and had a "Police - Follow" sign in the rear window.  M. followed and pulled off the highway to a stop.

The two cops came out and asked for our IDs and asked why we were going to the Netherlands.  Apparently, it seemed like a random stop of travelers over the border.  They ran our names through their computer and apparently, there was a problem.  As I mentioned, there were 2 officers, one was Dutch and one was German.  Originally, they seemed very nice and calm, but the German guy came over to the driver's window and began to speak very forcefully. 

Basically, he told M. that he had outstanding speeding tickets in the Netherlands and he had to pay.  M. didn't have the money.  They asked if I did.  I controlled my urge to burst out laughing.  If M. couldn't pay, they had to lead us to the police station and figure out a way to pay.  We followed.

First of all, I have to say that M. was very adamant that they shouldn't be asking me for any money.  He could have tried to stick me with the bill, but he was definitely not trying to screw me over.  When we reached the station in Enschede, they sat us down (they still had our IDs, including my passport) and brought out the paperwork.  M. owed 616.90 Euros for 13 outstanding speeding tickets dating back to 2008.  Apparently, the system is much like photo radar -- they have officers taking photos or radar readings and chalking the bill up to the license plate of the car.  The driver isn't stopped.  The Dutch officer read off dates and by how much M. had been caught speeding by 4, 5, 7, 9 km/h over the speed limit.  Hardly what I could have told them about how fast he was driving in Germany!  Basically, he was caught speeding and fined, without being pulled over, for exceeding the speed limit by amounts that wouldn't even cause a cop in Ontario to put down his cup of Timmy's.

Unfortunately for M., he just didn't have the money and had to figure out a way to get it by 8pm or else they would tow the car (another 230 Euros) and because it was Friday, it would be impounded until Monday, costing him an additional 60 Euros.  Eventually, he got a hold of his son, who lived in Western Germany, and would have the money in 2 hours. 

I spoke to the officer, got my passport back and asked them to call a cab for me.  I ended up cabbing it into town, getting on a train for Amsterdam and finally reaching my friend's apartment at about 9:30pm (after leaving at 9:30am to get to the rendez-vous with M.).

It was a long and weird day.


* As you'll see if you keep reading, I think that it's wise that I decided to not reveal my driver's name. 

10 September 2012

KlezFactor videos

Today, I finally got down to getting a couple of new KlezFactor concert videos up on YouTube (see below for links).  Trying out basic video editing software (Microsoft's Movie Maker), the videos taken from my crappy little point and shoot camera came out all right.

Most importantly, I think they really capture the energy that the band has playing in front of fantastic audiences in Germany.

These videos were taken on Thursday, September 6 in our concert at Shakespeare and Sons bookstore (Raumerstrasse 36 in Prenzlauer Berg-Berlin).

First of all, the bookstore is the best English bookstore in Berlin.  Their selection is great, but most importantly, there's a warm, welcoming vibe in the store due to the owners/operators Roman and Laurel Kratochvila.  Also, they serve coffee, tea, and homemade cakes and cookies that are absolutely delicious.

The store has also been hosting events like readings and concerts and serves as a great intimate venue.  We've played there twice now, and haven't had to use microphones for either Dea (on violin) or me (sax/clarinet).*

For the second time, we played to a pretty packed house (although there's not so much room in the store), but the crowd was also very lively, which made it a great time for the band as well as the audience!

So, without further ado, here are the videos:  A special thanks go to Roman and Laurel Kratochvila at Shakespeare and Sons, Manuel Miethe for shooting the video, and finally to Ilya Shneyveys for joining us in "Bapolyer Freylekhs/Freylekhs in Zibn."

Asakh Noten

Bapolyer Freylekhs/Freylekhs in Zibn


* This also shows how sensitive the three other musicians are - Florian von Frieling on electric guitar, Alex Bayer on electric bass, and Daniel Prätzlich on drums.

18 August 2012

The Mishpucha

Now that I'm back in Berlin, I can write about the rest of my stay in Israel....

It was a really great trip, and the real highlights were getting the chance to see family members that I hadn't seen in as many as 22 years.

I was asked by several people how I had so much family in Israel in the first place.  Here is the very short version.

All four of my grandparents were Polish Jews.  3 of the 4 managed to get to the Soviet Union before things got really bad in Poland.  My mother's father (Zaida Boris), only 19 at the outbreak of the war, headed east with his older brother who had gotten back from the defeated Polish Army and rode out the war in Russian labour camps.  When he returned to Poland and reuinted with his brother, they learned that they were the only two survivors of what was a large family in Krakow before the war.  My grandfather married my grandmother and moved to Canada, where she already had family.  My great-uncle (Dod Henek) moved to Israel.

I saw Dod Henek's part of the family on Wednesday night (Dod Henek passed away about 15 years ago).  Dod Henek's son Aron and his wife Regina, Aron's two "kids" Doobie* and Chana (and her husband), and their kids.  Chana has two daughter's in their early 20s, and Doobie has 3 young kids, 2 of whom were there.

It's basically been 22 years since I've seen any of this family, the last time being during the summer my family spent there after my bar-mitzvah.  Chana's 2 daughters were just little kids at the time, and Chana told me how she remembered meeting me for the first time when I was about 3 or 4 on her visit to Canada.  I told her kids that I remembered them from when they were 3 and 1/2 years old (respectively).

I stayed with Yossi and Shoshi.  Shoshi's father was one of Zaida Boris's cousins who also survived the war.  With only one close family member surviving, my grandfather made every effort to stay close with all of the more distant relatives he could find, and Shoshi's father was one of them.**

On Tuesday night, Shoshi's brother, Menachem (a conductor and teacher at Israel's top high school for the arts) came over for dinner with his wife and son (a budding bass player).  It was another lovely evening with conversation about Israeli politics (as much as I could figure out because most of that conversation was in Hebrew), as well as great "shop talk" with Menachem!

Finally, on Friday night, we had dinner at a really cool restaurant by the sea on Tel Aviv's board walk with Shoshi and Yossi, and their kids (and their kids spouses).  Again, i probably hadn't seen their kids since around my sister's bat-mitzvah (when Shoshi and Yossi were living in Ann Arbor Michigan and drove up for the weekend).  It was great to reconnect with them and meet their significant others!

I also saw several friends while in Israel, including the Ramzailech*** boys, Gal and Amit.  They came down and picked me up on Thursday for an evening at a bar to catch up.  We had met up in Berlin in March, and Amit noticed that it was our 3rd meeting, each one on a different continent (first at Klezkanada in North America, second in Berlin -- Europe, and third in Israel -- Asia, technically).

As you can see, after I finished my article and submitted it, I still had a busy week.  Sometimes I was a little lazy during the day (mostly because I didn't want to venture out in the heat), other times i walked around Tel Aviv, but for the most part, the week in Tel Aviv was about visiting family.  I know my grandparents (especially Zaida Boris, who just passed away in November) would have wanted it that way.  For all of that generation, the idea of keeping your family close was the most important thing.  They lost so many of their nearest and dearest in the Holocaust and made every effort to stay in touch with everyone that they found.

* It doesn't mean the same thing in Hebrew.

** Our closeness with our cousins in New York is also due to the my grandfather made large efforts to stay close with any family members he could find.

*** www.ramzailech.com

14 August 2012

Holy Crap He's Writing A Lot About Israel

So, before I move on to writing about my impressions of Tel Aviv, I thought I'd post a few pictures, mainly from the bus tour we did in the Galilee (pictures of Tsfat aren't on my computer yet).


Circassian Mosque


So.  Tel Aviv.  It's been good to see family that I haven't seen in a long time.  As mentioned before, I'm staying with Shoshi and Yossi in Ramat Aviv, cousins on my mother's side.  I did see them in 2006 when they were living in the Washington D.C. area for a year and I was in town to do some research at the Library of Congress.

I also saw my friend Eli, a trumpet player who I met in Weimar a couple of years ago.  We went to a jazz concert and had a really good dinner downtown. 

I had a brief visit with my father's cousin Miriam -- we managed to squeeze in a visit before she jets off to New York for 10 days. 

Yesterday I walked around Tel Aviv and realized that the city is becoming very American, rather than European.  Air conditioning is a must (especially at night, when the temperature doesn't seem to get any cooler).  However, the city itself has some fairly run down areas (as can be seen in this picture), but it appears that there's a lot of construction in that area, so that building may get torn down soon.
Otherwise, Tel Aviv is pretty small (compared to Berlin), and people seem friendly and welcoming (although I'm not really meeting strangers).  The service hasn't been as rude as expected, and I'm feeling pretty comfortable.

There is some anxiety about Bibi Netanyahu who is making noise about a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.  Most people think he's gone way out on a limb, and that he's pretty much talking nonsense, but they're afraid that he will follow through and that reprisals from the Iranians would target the cities.

Aside from that, my Hebrew is coming back, and I'm able to survive in most situations without reverting to English.  But language is a funny thing.  German is totally getting in the way of Hebrew, and certain words in Hebrew have totally avoided any attempt to recall them from the darkest recesses of my brain.  Of course, because most of the signage is in Hebrew, it takes forever to read, but I have been able to make out menus in Hebrew, bus schedules in Hebrew, etc. etc. 

So, the rest of my week will be filled with seeing family and friends, perhaps touring Tel Aviv (once I'm finished revisions on this article I'm writing), and generally taking it easy!

13 August 2012

More Israel (photos coming soon)

I'm now in Tel Aviv, sitting in a cafe/restaurant with nice, free wi-fi.  After walking around for a couple of hours down Allenby and around the beach, I've decided that I haven't seen the "pretty" part of Tel Aviv yet.  I haven't really had time to see much yet -- I've spent most of the day working on my article (to be submitted for publication on Wednesday) at Yossi and Shosi's beautiful, air-conditioned apartment.  I didn't go to the beach because a) I didn't have sandals -- walking on that sand would have been suicide, and b) I didn't have a towel.

The rest of the conference in Tsfat was really interesting.  We took a walking tour of Tsfat with a guide who, while I'm sure he had our best interests at heart, I'm convinced was making stuff up.  He was very friendly and wanted to relate everything remotely international to a member of our very international group.  However, he would play songs from an mp3 player through a speaker clipped to his belt, which became problematic as Shabbat approached in that very religious city.  He also was telling the group incorrect things about Sephardic Jews and music in the presence of our Sephardic music expert.  He also insisted that the epitomy of Ashkenazic music was "If I were a Rich Man."  Oy.

The next day, we had a bus tour of the Galilee, highlighting the diverse communities there.  We visited a Circassian town, much to the delight of the 2 Russian-Circassian scholars there.  It's a fascinating history of a people, expelled from Russia in the 19th century, who have settled in a north-south column through the former Ottoman Empire reaching from Turkey down to Israel. Following that, we visited an Christian-Arab village, hearing "George" play his string instruments and giving us a little tour of the town.  We had a great Arabic lunch there, and then headed towards a Druze town where we learned about the basic tenets of the Druze religion and culture. 

We then returned to Tsfat and hung around until after Shabbat and had a nice dinner amidst the craziness of post-shabbat traffic and Frummie-ness.

More thoughts on Tsfat:

While a beautiful city in the mountains, I feel like Tsfat has "gone to seed."  There's garbage everywhere, and (I'm assuming it's a summer thing), it's dusty and sandy all over the place.  The city is getting more and more run down (see my last post about how there's no money).  While a home for mystics and the ultra-religious, I can't really see anyone else living there permanently, and I don't think many people want to.  It feels like the Haredim are driving everyone else out, and while the town population most likely swells for Shabbat (people go for a "shabbat experience" like the Australian girl who sat next to me on the bus back to Tel Aviv), it appears that the continued deterioration of conditions may keep tourists away in the future, further wrecking the city's economy. 

But the Galilee remains my favourite part of Israel.  The rugged natural beauty is lovely.  I seem to have a thing for mountains.  Maybe it's because there aren't any in Toronto.

10 August 2012


I'm currently in Israel for about a week and a half, taking advantage of a general lull in life in Berlin, as well as the Symposium of the Music and Minorities Study Group of the International Council for Traditional Music.  This year (the symposium is held every other year), the conference is happening in Tzfat, Israel.

I haven't been in Israel in over 9 years, and never on my own as a solo traveler.  The first interesting thing I encountered happened before I even left Berlin.  At the airport, when I was checking in, I met a very nice young woman who was also traveling (on Pegasus Airlines, a Turkish company) to Tel Aviv via Istanbul.  When we got to Istanbul and our 3 hour layover, we also met up with an Israeli (living in Berlin) who was heading home to visit his children.  There was already a greater kinship amongst travelers heading to Israel than I have experienced traveling anywhere else.

I think that you'll notice through my discussions of Israel today that it's not going to be the typical "love letter" to the country that many people express after visiting.  I'm seeing Israel as a (dis)functional country with inherent problems beyond the much-mentioned problems between Israel and Palestine. 

My first reaction to the public Israel was a rest-stop on the highway on the way up to Haifa.  The small store and cafe was overrun with religious families stopping along the way.  It was hot (working its way up to 40 degrees celsius), and crowded with people ignoring many of the cultural niceties that I'm used to coming from Canada and having lived in Germany. 

Upon arriving in Tzfat, I did manage to find my way from the bus station to the main street (Jerusalem St.) and even managed to get an Israeli SIM card for my phone.  Walking along the circular street that had most of the city's shops, I was again surrounded by religious families.  Tzfat is a "mecca" for the Jewish mystics who follow the Kabbalah, and has become a very important place in Israel for religious Jews to live.  Unfortunately, the city itself is very poorly off, due to the fact that many of these Haredim do not work, and thus, do not pay taxes, draining the city of potential revenue. 

The drivers here are generally poor and impatient, with traffic snarling the ancient streets.  The sounds of Hebrew and English conversations are mingled with car horns as drivers try to get by people who have parked in the most inconvenient places. 

In many ways, while the landscape is beautiful in the mountains,* I find myself bristling at the way in which the ultra-orthodox Jews have seemingly overtaken the city.  I've heard stories, both in the news and from secular Israelis (some of whom have moved to Berlin), about ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem trying to impose their customs and laws on the entire country.

While I can't speak to Jerusalem, if Tzfat is indicative of the direction the country is going (large ultra-orthodox families who do not work or contribute to the country's economy), not only will secular Jews leave Israel for countries whose politics are more in line with their own, but Israel's economy will collapse under the weight of supporting so many non-working religious Jews.  Now, this should be taken with a grain a salt, seeing as that I have pretty much only been in Tzfat so far.

I'll definitely write more than these initial reactions when I return to a more "civilized" city on Sunday!

* Israel is going through a huge heat wave and is very dry.  Almost all the grasses are brown, and as my friend Assaf told me, Israel is usually only green in the winter, unlike the northern countries that I'm used to.

6 August 2012

KlezFactor at B-flat

On Saturday night, KlezFactor played our biggest show in Berlin to date, at the B-flat Jazz Club.  This is a club that is well known to host both local and international jazz bands in a variety of eclectic styles.  The club is also home to a well attended (free) jazz jam on Wednesday nights, hosted by Canadian expatriate, bassist Robin Draganic. 

As you may be able to tell from the photos, B-flat is almost antithetical to Berlin bar aesthetics and is a very nice place!  It's also a fairly large performance space which allows the band to "rock out" a bit more than in some other venues.

As is par for the course, our musicians are busy people, so we had to bring in a substitute to play bass with us.  Fortunately, my old friend, Markus Müller from Nürnberg, was available and came up to Berlin to play with us, with his 5-string fretless electric bass in tow.

People I speak to often are amazed at how little rehearsal the band is able to get away with (without sounding like we haven't rehearsed).  Before our concert in Bayreuth, we rehearsed only once with drummer Fin Panter, and for B-flat, we only had about a 1 1/2 hour sound check to all play together.  What this proves is that with great musicians who put in some work on their own to learn the music, things become very easy to put together!

One thing that never ceases to amaze me about German audiences is how attentive they are.  At B-flat, when the house music was turned off, everyone immediately began to pay attention to the stage as we came up through the audience.  While we tuned and prepared to play, there was very little noise from the audience.  In Canada, audiences would continue to talk until (and even after) we start to play.  This allowed us to start very quietly, with me playing a Nign in the lowest register of the clarinet.  Following this tune, in which we built to a crescendo with everyone playing, we played some of our more "jazzy" repertoire - "Negev" and "The Golem of Bathurst Manor" from our first album.  We then started to bring the audience along as we introduced more of our raucous and obnoxious ("Raucnoxious?") repertoire.*  Fortunately, the audience followed us where we went, and, by the time we finished (nearing 1am), we felt very grateful to have played for such a warm and enthusiastic audience.

And so, we have one more concert booked for Berlin at this time -- A return to Shakespeare and Sons bookstore on September 6th.  If you're around, please join us!


*This included a completely unrehearsed rendition of "Miserlou" that featured Markus Müller's wonderful Yiddish singing, and a very strange, free-ish version of "Fun Tashlich" somewhat akin to our recorded version from The Golem of Bathurst Manor 

Photos by Marc Stephan

20 July 2012

KlezFactor Road Trip

Things have been busy in Berlin!  Between the editing of my dissertation and the three gigs the band has played thus far, I've been a little to occupied to blog, but it may be late, but here's a new post.

KlezFactor made its European Debut on Thursday June 28th at Berlin's Kaffee Burger club.  Unfortunately, Thursday, June 28th was also the day of the semi-final game between Germany and Italy in the 2012 European Championship (or Euro 2012 -- EM 2012 for those of you in Germany).  So while our audience was not particularly big, they were enthusiastic! 

The most important thing was that the Berlin version of the band, with violinist Dea Szücs, guitarist Florian von Frieling, bassist Alex Bayer and drummer Daniel Prätzlich, has really come together well.  These musicians are not only good musicians (important), but generous with their time and creative energies (more important), which allows us to discover something new in the music in every rehearsal and concert.  The Kaffee Burger show was very tight musically, and it showcased the band and the unique sound that KlezFactor has always had in a great venue.

Our second concert was for a better audience (i.e., bigger) audience the following Thursday - July 5.  We played at a great little English bookstore in Prenzlauer Berg called Shakespeare and Sons.  While the venue was small, the crowd was enthusiastic as we played without any extra amplification (beyond small amps for the electric bass and guitar).  Again, there was a lot of space for creativity and it felt like the band took another step towards really getting a great sound.

Earlier this week, we traveled to Bayreuth in northern Bavaria.  Bayreuth is the place that Richard Wagner chose for his opera house.  Wagner was also a notorious anti-semite, so it was with more than a bit of poetic justice that KlezFactor, playing our "Jew-ish" music, performed in the town. 

I had been invited to give a guest lecture for the Anthropology Department of Bayreuth University, and the department was more than happy to accept my proposal to bring the band down as well.  While the weather attempted to conspire against us (by making our original outdoor performance venue far too waterlogged), we managed to bring in most of the attendees of my lecture to the kneipe (pub). 

This was by far the most enthusiastic reception of the band.  It could have been the alcohol, it could have been the fact that these anthropologists hadn't heard anything other than Wagner live for a while, but the excitement that the band generated in this performance matches pretty much anything that I've experienced in the years that KlezFactor has been around.  It makes me more and more secure in my thoughts that Europe is the right place for KlezFactor... if only it was easier to get paying gigs like this one!

Now the band kind of refits for our August 4th concert at B-flat Jazz Club in Berlin.  Our bassist, Alex Bayer, will be away and we will have a special guest, Markus Müller coming from Nuremberg to join us.  I'll write more about Markus soon.

14 June 2012

Die Wohnung/The Flat

On Monday night, I saw the Israeli/German documentary co-production, "Die Wohnung" (or in English, "The Flat").  This film was showing in Berlin as part of the Berlin Jewish Film Festival, and has previously screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and has also shown, I believe, at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York (although the producers wonder why the Berlinale, Berlin's top festival, rejected it).  It was an interesting test for my language skills, as the narration is in German, most of the dialogue is in Hebrew, and some is in English (with German subtitles).

It is a very interesting film that begins with the filmmaker, Arnon Goldfinger, and his family cleaning out his recently deceased grandmother's apartment in a nice neighbourhood in Tel Aviv.  One of the things that become clear early on is that his grandparents, the Tuchlers, despite living for 60-70 years in Israel, were still very much the German Jews that left Berlin in 1936. 

The scene was similar to what my own family went through recently, cleaning out my grandfather's house after he passed away.  However, my grandfather was in no position to accumulate possessions before coming to Canada the way the Tuchlers were.  Goldfinger, his mother, and his cousins went through the grandmother's large collections of shoes, handbags, and gloves,* before getting to the shelves of German books.

Eventually, it was on to the boxes of receipts, letters, and newspaper clippings.  It was here that the film becomes more than just a home movie.  Discovered amongst the clippings was a news story from a Nazi Propoganda newspaper that discussed a Nazi officer, von Mildenstein, going to Palestine.  With von Mildenstein and his wife on their travels were the filmmaker's grandparents. 

Goldfinger then delves deeper and deeper into this mystery of how his grandparents's lives could be so entwined with those of a Nazi officer.  What he uncovers is not only a riveting story from the past that complicates everything we are told about the Holocaust -- that the Nazis were evil murderers, and the Jews were mild-mannered victims -- but also people's ability to delude themselves into believing what they want to believe, and to avoid asking difficult questions.

It is a powerful film that tries to understand the complexity of human friendships as well as the power of denial and self-delusion.


* Think classy gloves, not winter gloves.

13 June 2012

And now, Klezmer (sort of)

As many of you devoted readers know, the title of this blog is "Adventures in Klezmer."  Many of you have also put up with my general rants about baseball, traveling, and whatever else popped into my head that I thought was blog-worthy. 

Well, this summer, I have a few concerts booked here in Germany and the Klezmer (sort of) will begin! 

Since I've returned to Berlin, in addition to finding a room to live in, looking for some work, getting set up in Germany again, I've also begun rehearsals for the aformentioned upcoming gigs. 

It has been interesting, as, for musical reasons, I've replaced three of the five band members in Euro KlezFactor.  It's never an easy process to replace somewhere, but for the first time since I've begun rehearsing my music in Germany, I feel like my musical vision is finally being realized. 

It's a hard thing to put into words. While the previous musicians were good, with the current group, things are easier.  They just understand where the music is going more naturally, which allows me to be freer in my own playing.  Another benefit is that the musicians are bringing more of themselves into the music, which takes it into different directions that it has been in before.  What this does is makes the songs (some of which I've been playing for 8 years) feel and sound new again, which also adds vitality to my own playing.

We have several concerts coming up, beginning with one on June 28th at Kaffee Burger in Berlin.  In my eyes, this is the perfect venue to unveil the German version of KlezFactor.  It's part of a Yiddish music series called KB im KB (Klezmer Bund im Kaffee Burger).  The series, founded by accordionist Franka Lampe and singer/instrumentalist/songwriter Daniel Kahn, has been running monthly at Kaffee Burger since January.  Some great artists (including both Franka and Daniel, and Vancouver's Geoff Berner) have played the series and from what I've been able to tell, they've been well attended.  The bar itself is also more of a rock bar, so KlezFactor's more heavy influences overpower the venue.  We'll unleash the full electric power (the "Kleztricity" if you will)* of KlezFactor on the unsuspecting masses.**

Also, Friday brings another klezmer jam session at Cafe Oberwasser.  Should be great fun amidst all the soccer (football) that's going on around here!


* No, I didn't make "Kleztricity" up right now.  It's the title of one of our tunes from our first album, The Golem of Bathurst Manor (available on iTunes and CD Baby)

** We hope there are masses.

16 May 2012

The Umpire and Mr. Lawrie

For those of you who aren't baseball fans, you may not need to read any further.  It's been a while since I've blogged, mainly because I've been back in Toronto for the past few weeks and nothing much has happened.

And then last night, in the bottom of the 9th inning of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball game, the proverbial shit hit the fan.  I'm always particularly attuned to "umpire incidents" in baseball because of the 15 years that I've spent as an umpire myself.  I've worked some of the highest levels of fast-pitch softball in Canada (and one tournament in the US), and have seen the elite of the sport duke it out. 

I am also no stranger to conflict on the ball diamond.  I have ejected players and coaches, been threatened, and I've even been spit on.*  However, I would genuinely have to say that despite the levels of intensity** that can be reached in games that I've officiated (a Canadian Championship, and several high-profile international club-team tournaments, as well as countless Ontario provincial championships, National qualifiers and league championships), I'm always astounded with umpires who carry grudges or make calls just to show up a player.

Which brings me to the "Brett Lawrie Incident."***  Toronto third-baseman and BC native, Brett Lawrie, a young (22) firebrand of a ball player if I've ever seen one, basically went ballistic, and threw his batting helmet in the direction of the umpire (Bill Miller) who had just called him out on a third strike that appeared to be high.  You can read about the incident yourself here: CLICK ME!

What bothers me, in addition to Lawrie's childish behaviour, is the umpire.  If you watch video of the incident, you will notice that Lawrie is ejected practically immediately after turning around following the umpire's 3rd strike call.

What this tells me is that the umpire DELIBERATELY was going to call any borderline pitch, and then eject Lawrie the second he made the slightest complaint/protest.  Why?  Probably because he didn't like the way Lawrie started running down to first base before he had made the call the VERY outside pitch that ended up being strike two.  Miller's thought process was probably along the lines of "That rookie son of a bitch.  Who does he think he is trotting down to first base^ before I make the call.  I'll show him."  Then, he proceeded to call the next pitch, borderline at very best (according to pitch data), but was actually very high on a batter like Lawrie, who is not over tall, and who crouches down when he hits, strike three.  This smacks of blatant predetermination by the umpire, and then a quick trigger. 

Umpires, when they know they've made a mistake and blown a call, will generally look for ways to keep from ejecting players for their own errors.  This was the opposite.  A deliberate call to make the rookie^^ look bad.  This brings the level of officiating down, and causes players, fans and media to doubt the integrity of the umpires.

Overall, Major League Baseball umpires have a sparkling reputation of being impervious to bribery, unlike some sports *cough* soccer *cough*.  Their integrity has been unimpeachable, and they are well paid in order to make sure that they are not vulnerable to being paid off.  However, petty grievances and "look at me" tactics are beneath Major League umpires.

While Lawrie was a jackass, Miller, hopefully, will not get off scott-free.


* Many of my fellow "Blue" remember the "Niagara Falls Incident," one of the only real incidents of its kind in Ontario Men's Fast-pitch softball.

** While the amount of money involved in the ball that I have officiated doesn't even come close to matching the Major Leagues, I've seen players and coaches go off on "Lawrie-esque" tantrums before.

*** Word has come down that Lawrie is being suspended for 4 games for his part in the fiasco.

^ If you haven't watched Lawrie play, he is possibly one of the most intense players in the league and doesn't "trot" anywhere.  It was more of a full blown sprint.

^^ Yes, I know that Lawrie is technically not a rookie.

16 April 2012

A Tribute to Jackie Robinson

Yesterday, the major leagues held their annual tribute to Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player to play in the Major Leagues.  It's been 65 years now since Robinson integrated baseball, and the game, and the world has been the better for it. 

It should be noted that Robinson was chosen to play (by Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers) not only for his baseball abilities, but for his character and personality.  His ability to hold his tongue while having taunts and objects thrown at him by fans (opposing and his own) and players made the "Jackie Robinson Experiment" a success and allowed other teams to integrate black players into their ranks in the following years.*

Robinson actually started his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers with their minor league affiliate at the time, the Montreal Royals, spending the 1946 season there.  While Robinson experienced a great deal of racism while the team was on road trips in the US, at home, Robinson was revered by the Montreal fans.  I'd like to think that this reflects well on Canada, and our openness to all races and ethnicities.

In 1947, he was brought to the major leagues and suffered the slings and arrows of American racists, both on the field and off.  However, as Branch Rickey told Robinson before he was signed to a contract, he was the player who "had enough guts not to fight back."  While some objected initially, his teammates eventually united behind him and were there to support him in his daily battles with overt and subtle racism.

Sculpture of Peewee Reese and Jackie Robinson in front of MCU Park in Brooklyn, NY
Another story has the Jewish baseball star, Hank Greenberg (by then at the end of his career), whispering words of encouragement in Robinson's ear after a collision at 1st base. 

Within 2 or 3 years, most major league teams had become integrated.  Yes, if Jackie Robinson had not been the first black major leaguer, someone else would have held that distinction.  However, if the "Noble Experiment" had failed, it may have been years before another general manager would have been willing to try.

Jackie Robinson's integration of baseball was an important symbol to the American people that black people could be more than just society's underclass.  Like integrated swing orchestras in the 1930s (including Jewish clarinettist Benny Goodman's bands), the integration of baseball was one link in a chain of events that led to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. 

While American (and Canadian) society isn't perfect, let's all think about where we would be if the southern US states still practiced segregation.  Living in Europe for the last several months, I can see an ugly racist streak rising again in the form of "Christian Democrat" parties.  A conversation I had yesterday with a friend from Sweden told me that these racist parties are looking to push out immigrants, particularly Muslim ones.  These parties are not saying anything new.  They are stoking the fires of heterogeneous nationalism** that, you can argue, were the cause of of almost all of the violence on this continent since the beginning of the 20th century. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently declared that multi-culturalism in Germany is dead.***  Perhaps the Europeans need to look to the painful struggles of black people in North America, and the examples of exceptional human beings like Jackie Robinson to understand the contributions that ALL citizens can make to society.

I hope everyone had a happy Jackie Robinson Day.  The Blue Jays won.

* In a rather shameful display, the Boston Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate.
** See Niall Fergusons "The War of the World" about war in the 20th century.
*** http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/17/angela-merkel-germany-multiculturalism-failures

10 April 2012

Sibling Rivalry

So my brother has been traveling.  He actually got a passport and has ventured outside of our home and native land, taking advantage of his vacation time, visiting London, and, starting tonight, Berlin.  Except for his trips to Quebec, this will actually be his first time (since visiting Israel with our family when he was 8) visiting a country where they don't speak English.  No, England English doesn't count as a different language.

He's also been blogging on his travels daily, which kind of makes me want to keep up with him.  However, since my daily existence at this point consists of trying to "when i get sick, I just stop being sick and be awesome instead,"* not much is going on except trying to ride out the sick.  I do have a rehearsal with Euro-KlezFactor today.

Now, I actually won't be in Berlin for most of the time my brother is.  I'll be up in the north coast of Germany in the city of Rostock giving a guest lecture at the Music Conservatory there (the Musikhochschule).  My bro arrives in Berlin tonight and leaves Saturday morning, and I leave for Rostock at 8:45 tomorrow morning, arriving back in Berlin on Friday around 1:15pm (German trains are nothing, if not punctual).  Since I can't be around to show baby brother around Berlin (and translate for him), here are Mike's tips and recommendations for Avi's Big Adventure.

1. Berlin is not really Germany.  Like New York does not really represent America, and London does not really represent England, Berlin is an urban, cosmopolitan centre that doesn't reflect "traditional" German culture.  The fact that Berlin is hundreds of kilometres from Bavaria, the place that has become the stereotypical representation of German-ness is irrelevant.  Berlin's cuisine is exemplified by the great Vietnamese and Turkish eateries (had a great bowl of Pho yesterday -- the Vietnamese answer to chicken soup), and by the Doner Kebap in particular.  In the "touristy" areas, the Doner Kebap can go for as much as 3 Euros, but is significantly cheaper in the Turkish areas (Kreuzberg, Neukolln).  Anyways, if you do want "Bavarian-style" eateries, there's a place called Hofbrauhaus near Alexanderplatz on Karl-Liebknecht-strasse.

2. There's ALWAYS something going on in Berlin.  Berlin, unlike London (which likes to delude itself in thinking it), is actually a 24 hour city.  I know of a club that's open from Thursday night until Monday morning (haven't actually been in it though).  Buses run 24 hours, and on the weekend, the trains run 24 hours too.  I HAVE had a falafel at 4am.

Whether it's cool things to see during the day, or cool things to do at night, Berlin has become a party Mecca for Europeans looking to drink all night.

3. Don't let your Canadian sensibilities scare you.  People drink EVERYWHERE here.  On the streets, in the parks, and particularly, on the subways.  It is legal.

4. Unlike Toronto, Montreal, and London, the transit system works on an honour system (mostly).  You buy your ticket, validate it, and then have to present it when asked by transit officials. There are no gates that open when swipe or scan a ticket. In about 4 1/2 months, I've been asked to show a ticket about 5 times.  The fine is 40 Euros the first time.  I HAVE seen people caught and had to pay the fine.

5. Berlin has a lot of history, ancient and recent.  Ok, ancient is kind of stretching it.  But Berlin has been settled as early as the 12th century, and a regional capital as early as the 15th century.  While most of the city was destroyed in WWII, there are loads of places to go to check out the Imperial, Fascist and Communist eras of Berlin.

     5a) Schloss Charlottenburg - This is a palace that was used by the Hohenzollern Prussian dynasty.  I still haven't been yet.
     5b) Tiergarten - This huge park is has my favourite monument in Berlin - the Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven Gedenkstatte (monument).  This 3 sided statue not only celebrates 3 of the greatest composers hailing from German speaking lands, but the photos at the information board has an amazing picture of the monument as it was in 1945 after the war.  It wasn't fully restored to it's early 20th century splendour until about 2005.
     5c) Siegessaule - this large monument (in the Tiergarten) was built to commemorate a German victory over France in the late 19th century.  Basically this was the last victory monument you'll see in Germany. Also supposedly very impressive is the Soviet monument in Treptower Park.  Been to the park.  Didn't see the monument though.
     5d) Brandenburger Tor - The Brandenburg Gate is THE tourist site of Berlin.  It's pretty impressive.  It's at the end of the Unter den Linden Promenade.
     5e) There are plenty of Nazi museums and tours (although I haven't been to any).  You can go to Sachsenhausen (concentration camp) outside the city.  Near Checkpoint Charlie, there's the "Topography of Terror" museum, there's also a monument to the burning of books by the Nazis on Bebelplatz off Unter den Linden.
     5f)  I would also highly recommend the Jewish Museum (also fairly close to Checkpoint Charlie).  I HAVE been here, and the museum looks both at Jewish life in Germany historically (since Jews settled here), as well as the destruction of the Jewish community during the Holocaust.
     5g) If it's more recent history you're interested in, Berlin has many memorials and museums to commemorate the communist history of half the city.  I'd recommend the DDR Museum (just off the Museumsinsel (museum island)), although it's not a particularly big museum.  I also recommend the Stasi Prison.  A bit tricky to find though.  They have excellent English tours.
     5h) The Berlin Wall.  This icon of recent history can be found in several places.  I would recommend the Bernauer Strasse memorial in Prenzlauer Berg.  Here, you can get a good idea of what the wall looked like with its watchtowers, and "death strip".  You can also walk the Mauerweg, a kind of park that traces the entire length of the wall (all 170 kms of it) around the city.  There's the kitschy, touristy piece of the wall that they've put at Potsdamer Platz, along with the guy in an East German uniform to go along with it.  Finally, there's the East Side Gallery on the East side of the Spree River that extends from Ostbahnhof to Warschauer Strasse S-bahn stations.

6.  You don't need German in Berlin.  The city is so international, but also so tourist-oriented that German is not needed at all.  It is helpful, but not necessary.  English rules!

7. The aforementioned transit system is excellent.  If you're only here for a few days, you'd probably want to buy day tickets.  They're about 6.30 Euros for a day and allow unlimited travel on all S and U bahns, trams, and buses.  Unlike London, the transit system follows LOGIC.  And, the transit was built first, not haphazardly as it was needed to relieve over-flowing and over-burdened subway lines like in Toronto.

8.  I'm sure you'll discover more cool stuff about Berlin on your own.

So there it is.  Welcome to Europe, Avi/Adam, or whatever your name is.  See you in about 12 hours.


*bonus points if you can spot the reference.  Another excellent line from the same place is "I'm fine.  My nose is just overflowing with awesome and I had to get some of it out."

9 April 2012

(was) Livin' in a HELL HOLE!*

Well, for those of you wondering how things have been over the past week or so, since my return from England, they have been pretty shitty.  Much of the shitty can be traced to the room I was really cheaply subletting at the Circus at Postbahnhof (right near Ostbahnhof).  I figured I had about 2 weeks to put up with the room, and then I'd be back in Canada for a while.  I had "roughed" it before and experienced the 2 minute walk on a cold night to get to the toilet at many years at KlezKanada, so that certainly wasn't a deterrent. 

Basically the room is one of 3 or four small rooms/apartments that is housed underneath the rail line.  However, as I discovered very quickly, while others may be ok staying there, my particular complex of allergies makes it a nightmare situation for me. 

Many out there may say, "allergies?  What allergies?" Well, I'm allergic to most animals (in particular Dogs, Cats, Horses, Rabbits and Rats), as well as dust-mites and one or two kinds of mold.  Since the lack of sleep over in England (particularly at the end of my trip) has resulted in my traditional "lack-of-sleep cold), I was dealing with a cold, as well as the difficulty I was having breathing at night due to the allergies in the Circus Room(TM).  I thought that this would pass, but sadly, it just got worse.  Finally, Sunday morning, I woke up at 6 am, struggling to breathe and went to the aforementioned toilet.  When I saw myself in the mirror, I noticed that I had red blotches over most of my face due to the allergens. 

I decided that I would not be able to continue in this living situation, and put the call out to some friends for help.  Thankfully, to my HUGE relief, the wonderful, amazing violinist in my band, Dea Szucs was going out of town until after I go back to Canada and offered me the use of her place Prenzlauer Berg.

So now, I can breathe a huge sigh of relief (literally as well as figuratively), and recover from this cold!


* if you don't get this reference, go see "This is Spinal Tap" NOW!

5 April 2012

Jolly Old

Last week I was in England.  I went for the Leeds International Jazz Educators Conference (where else?) in Leeds.  However, due to logistics and costs, I ended up flying in and out of London, and taking the four+ hour bus ride to Leeds.

In the almost 2 days I spent in London, I had a chance to catch up with some old friends.  Gregg Brennan* has been living in London for the last 3 years and we got together on both of the days that I was in London (sandwiching the 3 days in Leeds).  And since Gregg is a loyal reader of the blog, Hey Gregg!  It was good seeing you!

Impressions of London:

- Crowded
- Lots of Construction
- Do NOT want to go back until after the Olympics are over.

But I've been to London before (you should check out the original Adventures in Klezmer blog if you want to read up on that), so I didn't feel the imperative to do the whole sight-seeing thing.

I will make special mention of the hostel I stayed at: the White Ferry.  In addition to being located very close to the Victoria Coach Station (where I caught the bus to Leeds), the staff was very friendly.  When i couldn't find a locker to stash my stuff at the end of my trip, they were kind enough to allow me to leave my stuff in their luggage room, from which I could pick it up at 3am before getting my bus out to Stansted Airport for my early morning flight back to Berlin.

As a side-note.  Apparently London is so paranoid of being blown up by bombs left in lockers by terrorists, there are no lockers to leave bags in while you go about your business around town.  There are "left luggage" kiosks at bus and train stations, but they close at midnight, thus making things inconvenient for anyone who needs to pick up their bags any later. 

The conference in Leeds was interesting.  There were some great jazz performances (particularly by the Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu), and interesting papers, although, coming from the field of ethnomusicology, some of the papers on jazz pedagogy and theory were a little outside of my interest zone. 

The real benefit of going to these conferences is to meet the interesting people who show up.  Not only were there cool British people, but I met musicians and academics from Brazil, Portugal, Germany, Austria, and several other Canadians and Americans.

As for Leeds itself, I was expecting a lot worse.  It seems to be a university town, so the nightlife is skewed to the young, and there's a cool pedestrian shopping area in town.  The main problem with Leeds is that there isn't much in terms of sights to see.  The town hall is nice (although dirty), but we weren't around there in time to go inside and see it.  I've been told that York is the city to go to in the north for the sights.

The last thing I'll say about England is that the whole "driving on the left" thing messes you up. 

I've decided that the side of the road that people drive on not only influences the flow of traffic (and the direction that you look when crossing the road), but there's a whole cultural paradigm that surrounds it.  It's quite disorienting.  So, my message to the Brits is: conform to the rest of the world!  Or else!

Oh.  I took a grand total of 2 pictures in England -- both on my phone, and I can't be arsed to transfer them to my computer.  Imagine away!

* You may remember Gregg as the original drummer in KlezFactor.  You can hear him on our first album, The Golem of Bathurst Manor.  Available on iTunes, Spotify, Last.fm, CD Baby, and many other fine vendors.

17 March 2012

Less work, more sight-seeing

Since the amount of work on my plate has lessened recently, I decided to spend some time this week getting out of and seeing some more of Berlin.  Winter is not exactly the most convenient time of year to sight-see, so with spring upon us, I ventured to see the Holocaust memorial and the Tiergarten (on two different days).

I still don't know what to make of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin.  Located a stone's (really good) throw from the Brandenburger Tor, and right next to the American Embassy, the Denkmal für ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe) is a basically a series of concrete steles (or slabs) that, towards the streets, are fairly short, but the further in towards the middle you get, the taller the slabs get so that you are enveloped by them.  Obviously these unidentical monuments are symbolic, but it's hard for me to decide if the monument is effective.  I saw teenagers flirting and running around and children playing hide and seek within, and wondered if they even knew what the point was.  For me, this is the biggest problem with the monument.  If you just go there without knowing about the Holocaust, the monument can just seem like a maze, or a game.

kids jumping from one slab to another
My other sight seeing trip was mainly to take advantage of the amazing weather we've been having here in Berlin over the last couple of days.  I went down to the Tiergarten (like Berlin's Central Park).  It's called the Tiergarten (Animal Garden) because it was once the hunting grounds for the royalty and such.  It's the oldest (and biggest) in Berlin, and was redesigned in the 1830s.  After being decimated in WWII, the park was restored after.  In the middle is the Siegesäule, or the Victory tower commemorating some victory against France in the 1870s.

It's definitely a peaceful place to escape the city, and on a day when the sun was shining and the temnperature about 18 degrees celsius, it was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Brandenburger Tor
Monument for Haydn Mozart and Beethoven

Beethoven, with gouges from small arms fire in WWII

The Siegesäule

Finally, this week was not entirely without klezmer.  My friends' band from Israel, Ramzailech, had a 3 concert tour in Germany beginning in Berlin on Thursday.  They play what they call "hardcore klezmer" - a mix of klezmer and hardcore heavy metal music.  I sat in with them for their last encore song, and then went to the Klezmer Stammtisch where I klezmered away until about 1:30AM!

6 March 2012

Much ado about nothing

So, this post is mainly dedicated to my mother who, wonders about what's going on with me if she doesn't hear anything (or see anything in the blog).  Hi mom!

Basically this blog post is about nothing.  Nothing really interesting is going on (since getting back from Prague).  I've moved apartments to a sublet that's much cheaper, bigger, and just a few minutes away from where I was before.  Despite this 4-block change in geography, it's changed my transit paradigm a little bit.  It's a little further away from the nearest night bus, and it's not as close to the S-bahn station at Ostbahnhof (but there is a bus that goes there).  But, thanks to the great transit network in Berlin, it's still easier than ever to get around. 

Incidentally, I was asked to show my ticket again yesterday, which makes twice in over 3 months.  Had I not had a ticket and paid the fine, I probably would have spent less money overall (although you have to show a ticket to the driver to get on the bus).

Aside from that, I've been working.  Revision upon revision of the dissertation keep me busy, along with the writing of a couple of conference papers that will be presented this month.  The constant rewriting is not only tedious, it's EXTREMELY tedious.  The fact that the end is somewhat in sight is the only thing that keeps me going. 

KlezFactor is on hiatus until the bass player and drummer get back from Argentina, and we're closer to confirming a couple of concerts in the summer, although I'd like to be able to say that we've got more than a couple!

So that's about it.  Writing, rewriting, but I'm definitely trying to enjoy the improving weather!  It's been less grey and cloudy lately, so I've been able to get out and run more!

1 March 2012

Weekend in Prague

So I figured I'd write a bit about my weekend in Prague for those of you who want to read about that!

Berlin can be a grey, depressing town, particularly in the winter.  So it was nice to get out of the city for a few days and head to the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague.  While initially a shock to the system, where everything is written in a language I don't understand, I quickly remembered enough about the city to find my bearings and take public transit to my friend Ondrej's house.

You see, dear readers, I've been to Prague before.  Ondrej and I met in 2008 at a conference centered around the theme of Improvisation in Montreal.  In addition to being a Phd student in Philosophy in Prague, he's also a musician.  We exchanged music and both dug what the other was doing.  So when, in 2009, I was in Europe for another conference,* I visited Ondrej and his partner Halke, and their son in Prague for a few days.  During this time, I recorded some tracks on clarinet for Ondrej's band's last album.**

I've been wanting to get back to Prague to visit and perhaps collaborate on some more music with Ondrej.  He's now working on a solo album and wanted to lay down some hot clarinet action, and we spent an evening in the studio on this trip as well.

While the area that Ondrej and his family (with another child now) live in a very "Eastern-European" area of the city -- lots of grey apartment blocks, crappy stores, bad roads, etc. -- the old town is stunning, and makes Berlin look like a bleak grey shithole (no offense).

With some nice weather, Ondrej used my visit as an excuse to get out with the kids and see some of the areas in the city that they wouldn't normally.  We went to the west side of the Charles River, walked around the old castle, seeing the cathedral, and then climbed the hill to the observation point, where you can overlook the city.  There, I split off from my friends, needing to get away from the relentless, unbridled energy of the little ones (one's 6, the other's 2 1/2), and spent a couple of hours walking around, traversing the famous Charles Bridge, and just seeing the sights.

That evening was our studio evening, with Vladya the engineer.  I'm not sure how to describe Vladya.  He's the type of guy who just loves music.  He works for Radio Free Europe during the day and records music for people in his off hours.  He's also very enthusiastic about everything!  He took us to a bar, bought a round of beers***  He also got us these sandwiches which had cheese, pickles and chili peppers.  Sounds gross, but they were amazing.... and spicy.  Ondrej had to excuse himself to stop crying from the chili heat!  We also met this weird Jordanian guy who offered to share his weed with us.

The next day was a lazy Sunday.  I ended up staying at Ondrej's place and getting a lot of work done.  That night, Ondrej and I went on a little pub crawl of cool little music venues, getting to watch part of a Miles Davis concert video from the 80's (Look ma!  That keyboard player has a poodle on his head!), part of a documentary on building and racing a solar car, and avoiding a blues jam that wanted to charge us to get in.  However, we drank a lot of beer and still made it back before the metro stopped running.

Monday was also a "catch up on work."  But it was also a walk around and see how pretty the city is day.  Pictures:

The Cathedral at the Prague Castle

Detail on the Cathedral

City from the castle hill

Tourists (on the Charles Bridge)

Apparently, Jesus was a Jew.  Statue on Charles Bridge

Caption Contest!  My entry:  "Oh no!  It's Godzilla!"

The classic cathedral framed by another statue in the square.


* Ok, the conference was in London, but i took a few weeks after to do some Euro-tripping.

** They're called eggnoise, and their last album is called Yolk.  Look them up.  They're pretty awesome.

*** Beer is even cheaper in Prague than in Berlin.  A mug of beer at the local bar in Ondrej's neighbourhood cost less than 1 Euro each.

14 February 2012

I Want a Divorce! or, how doing a PhD is like a (bad) relationship*

I sit here, on St. Valentine's Abomination ... I mean, Day, and realize that my date is actually my dissertation.  And I'm not even writing it.  I'm revising it, which is far, far more painful.   Thus, I reflect on the fact that doing a PhD is very much like being in a bad relationship.

Sure, it starts of all wondrous and shiny.  You spy a lovely academic field across the room and introduce yourself.... "Oh, Ethnomusicology... let us go off and make sweet music together."

And at the beginning, it is magical.  Getting to know all about Ethnomusicology, "There's stuff other than the music?  Amazing!"  And with Ethnomusicology on your arm, you are the envy of all your friends, stuck in offices working in finance, law, and medicine.  They covet your life, "You get to listen to music all day!  Music is awesome!"  Those other professions never even tempt you . . . you only have eyes for your beloved Ethnomusicology.

As the relationship gets deeper, you enjoy Ethnomusicology even more.  You bask in the sensual pleasures of new musics from different lands that offers more than just a one-night-stand with a strange academic field might offer.  True love is much more satisfying than mere ear-candy.

And then the relationship becomes more routine, hearing the same old songs, dancing the same old moves - after all, you need to settle down and pick a specialty eventually.  You see your friends and their jobs that pay them "money" and which buys them things like "cars" and "houses."**  You wonder what it might be like with those other jobs, if the novelty of their pleasures could be as sweet.  But you tell yourself that mere money and stuff can't match the satisfaction you get from your relationship with Ethnomusicology.  Those moments of true satisfaction can't be replaced.

But four, five, or even six years down the road, the relationship has turned sour.  You can't get Ethnomusicology's nagging voice out of your head. "THIS WRITING IS CRAP!  WRITE ANOTHER DRAFT!"  You don't go out anymore, you're chained to your former beloved.  You sit at your desk, wishing you could be free of the Annie Wilkes that you freely chose.  Ethnomusicology's touch has withered, and the pleasures are only occasional and routine.  There are days that you just can't stand to look at Ethnomusicology, let alone touch it.  You crave for a job crunching numbers in some financial tower downtown, wearing a suit every day, if only the pain would end, and a paycheque will have a couple of extra zeros in it.

Finally, you realize that the only way to ever be free again is to end it.  Hours and hours of paper work go into making sure that Ethnomusicology will never ever have such a hold on you again.  You examine the documents for loopholes and make sure that every i is dotted and t is crossed.  Then, you finally survive your cross-examination, submit your reams of evidence, and when it is over, you receive your get*** and are free from Ethnomusicology's evil hold, once and for all.

Until you try to write your book.


* Note to academics:  My actual dissertation title is far shorter than the title of this blog.

** Or "condos" if you live in Toronto.

*** -a get is a Jewish divorce document.

7 February 2012

Berlin: The Land of Transience

One of the things that has become perfectly clear to me in the two months that I've been in Berlin is how Berlin is pretty much a temporary place for many people here, and for most of the people that I meet.

Being an ex-pat, you meet a lot of other ex-pats, and one of the first questions that gets bandied around is "how long are you here for."  For some it's a few days, others a few weeks, and still others have been here for years and are still not really Berliners.  But, truth be told, there aren't very many real Berliners in Berlin (besides the donut, but they're not called Berliners....they're Pfannkuchen).

Berlin is a rather odd European capital.  Someone told me when I'd just gotten here that it's the only European capital that had a worse economy than the rest of the country.  Berlin is poor.  And not like Toronto which boasts quite a wealthy populace.  Berlin's populace is poor.  And because the populace is poor, the cost of living is low, which keeps the salaries low.  And yet, foreigners and Germans keep coming to Berlin, and leaving again. 

It's this lack of permanence here that really strikes me.  My friends in Toronto are settling down and buying property and having kids, and getting long-term jobs.  The friends that I've met here are in a completely different space, whether they're 25, or 45.  Everything is transitory, and people are constantly looking for a place to live for the next little while because the last short-term rental ran out.  It's a strange feeling to know that friends that you make one week more than likely will be gone soon.  Or you'll be gone soon. 

Just some thoughts on a cold Tuesday night.

18 January 2012


Well, today, I discovered one of the down-sides to the vandalism that is rampant in Berlin. 

While I might not have mentioned it before, it's everywhere, and you kind of stop noticing it after a while.... although the bus stop right near my building had the little glass casing covering the map of Berlin smashed last week.

Anyway, this one inconvenienced me much more.

I spent the early afternoon stripping the sheets from my bed, the pillowcases, the covers on the duvets, and packed up my bag to go do my laundry.  The closest "waschsalon" that I've been able to find is a good 15 minute walk from my apartment. 

So, I walked the 15 minutes, heavily laden with bags of laundry and my box of detergent until I arrived at my unattended* Waschsalon.  What do I find?  I sign on the door that says that "due to an act of vandalism" they are closed.

Fuck you, Berlin hoodlums.

*As far as I can tell, no one works there.  The place is all automated.

13 January 2012

A very klezmer weekend

This weekend (it's Friday afternoon at the time of writing) is going to be a great weekend for "getting my klezmer on."

It's already started out on a great note, with the first rehearsal of what will probably become the initial European version of KlezFactor (yes, I'm keeping the "c" . . . I already own the domain name). 

I didn't necessarily know what to expect, particularly since I had only met the drummer and bassist, both from Buenos Aires (no names yet, people), through the mysterious internet.  I had put up a posting on the couch-surfing website looking for "serious" musicians for this project, and the drummer had replied.  I knew they would be professional caliber players from the sound files they sent me, but would they be the "right" kind of professional players - flexible enough to be able to play KlezFactor's music.  Well, the tunes that they really had time to prepare were rock solid, and even the ones that we were looking at without preparation started to groove pretty quickly!  An excellent beginning!

On guitar is an Italian jazz player that I met at a couple of the jazz jams here in Berlin.  He's very solid reading chords and I'm sure once he can bring his effects and gear to rehearsals, he'll have no trouble rocking out!

On violin is a very special Hungarian player who is not only bringing her classical training (gained while she studied at the Glenn Gould School in Toronto), but her experience playing Hungarian folk music!  I can already hear some of the wonderful Hungarian inflections that I can hear when I listen to Budowitz, and it gives me goosebumps!  And she improvises!

So, as any band-leader knows, now comes the hard part.  Booking, scheduling rehearsals, managing scheduling conflicts, etc. 

Also on the klezmer docket this weekend is another klezmer Stammtisch in Berlin at Cafe Oberwasser.  That's going to be Sunday night, and hopefully it'll be as much fun as it was the last time!  I'm also going to be getting together with Franka Lampe (the great accordionist) to play some klezmer tomorrow afternoon!  Which reminds me... need to get little gifts to drop by my neighbours so that they know I'll be making noise, and that I appreciate their understanding!

8 January 2012


After being here for just about a month, I feel like I've been able to get a decent sense of the pulse of Berlin.

Berlin is like that scruffy, dirty stray dog who follows you home and charms you so much that you can't get rid of him. 

While Berlin won't be mistaken for a "beautiful" city, it is definitely a unique place.  What makes it so special, both within Germany and Europe, is the energy and life in the city.

There are parts of the city that have been cleaned up for the benefit of tourists, Alexanderplatz, and the tourist sights (mostly in the Mitte region) for example, but most of the "lived in" Berlin is more than little grungy, and graffiti ridden.

Part of this is due to the overall, "anything-goes" attitude that pervades Berlin.  Marijuana is sold freely in the some of the parks (I was offered 3 times within about a minute in one), alcohol is sold and consumed literally anywhere (see the thousands of bottlecaps filling in the spaces between the cobblestone sidewalks), smoking is allowed in some bars, and clubbers party well into the following day's daylight (which comes late here).

Because of the high unemployment, the low cost of living, and the number of people who are just "hanging out" in Berlin, the city has a "laissez faire" attitude where, for the most part, people do what they want to do and are living for today rather than opting for a life in the suburbs, saving for their retirement.

Berlin is a really international city (for Europe), and doesn't really feel "German" like other places in Germany does.  There are many immigrants, and while German is the language, many people speak English and I know several expatriates who have been here for years without actually learning the local language.  You can get pretty much anything you want here (although the selection of soap in bar form is rather limited), and practically no one is actually from Berlin (even the Germans).

Things I like about Berlin:

U/S Bahns -- transit is really easy, and with the exception of a few areas that require multiple transfers, I can get to just about anywhere within about 30 minutes from where I live.

Super cheap! - Berlin has one of the lowest costs of living in Europe, and is by far the cheapest place to live in Germany.  At the grocery store (all prices are in Euros), a .5L bottle of beer will cost you around 1 Euro, and a bottle of soda will cost about the same.  100g of chocolate can cost as little as 0.35 (for the bad kind), and a particular kind you can get in Canada (Ritter Sport) will usually clock in at under 1.00 (usually $2.50-$3.00 in Canada).  Fresh fruits and vegetables are about comparable in price (although of lesser quality here), but milk, meats and cheeses can be very cheap relatively.  I also recently bought an umbrella for 2.75.

Cafes/Bars/Pubs -- they are all over the place, and usually busy at night.  Most offer cheap beer (usually .5L for around 3 euros) and coffee, and all of them are unique.  There probably are cookie cutter Irish or British style pubs, but even in Germany they're a little unsual, and something out of the ordinary. 

People -- The people who live here are generally very open to meeting people and are very friendly and will invite you out for drinks in a heart beat. 

Things I don't like:

Drunk Assholes on the weekends -- I live on a fairly busy street with the windows of my apartment facing the street.  This means that when drunk assholes are walking down the street, singing in the middle of the night, it pisses me off.

Dog poop all over the streets -- people don't really pick up after their dogs. 

Bad musicians on the subways -- I get it.  There's lots of unemployment in Berlin.  You came to Berlin because you think a) you have talent and something to say, or b) it's a cool city and you don't need much money to survive and party here (see the comment on Drunk Assholes).  Here's the thing.  I don't want to hear you on the subway strumming your crappy guitar and singing off key.  I also don't want to hear your accordion in my ear. 

Anyways, I probably have more to say about Berlin, but nothing is coming to mind.  However, I will leave you with the tantalizing information that this week, I actually begin to play music in contexts that could lead to potential public musical consumption.

I've been asked to join a little chamber group that plays music from the 1920s because their clarinetist is leaving the group, and we'll rehearse this week.  Also, the first rehearsal of what potentially could become Euro-KlezFactor takes place on Friday.  The future awaits.