Beyond the Pale, an acoustic fusion band that plays a complex blend of klezmer, eastern European folk music and music from the Balkans, is releasing their new album, Ruckus, with a series of shows this month.
Formed in 1998 as a trio, Beyond The Pale developed a distinctive sound – influenced by jazz, classical, bluegrass, reggae and funk – early in the band’s career. The group features leader Eric Stein on mandolin, Milos Popovic on accordion, Aleksandar Gajic on violin, Bret Higgins on upright bass and Martin van de Ven on clarinet.
In part, Stein attributes the band’s longevity to the recognition it has received, which he said is “a strong glue in keeping us together.” Recognition has come in the form of three Canadian Folk Music Awards. Their 2009 release, Postcards, received two of them.
Like Postcards, their new release features arrangements of traditional tunes and original material. The 13-track CD showcases the band’s high level of musicianship.
Ruckus includes an arrangement of the traditional song Oltenilor, which was originally recorded in 1917 by Joseph Moskowitz, a Romanian-born cymbalom player. The musicians put Oltenilor through the Beyond The Pale blender. “That tune encapsulates our approach to traditional material. You’ll hear there’s lots of different shifts and changes,” Stein said. In the original version, one instrument plays the melody straight through.
Another traditional tune on Ruckus is Batuta, which Stein arranged with a reggae groove. Stein learned Batuta, a traditional Moldavian tune, from German Goldenshteyn, a clarinet player from the Soviet Union. “He represented this older generation of musicians born before the Second World War, who had stuck with Jewish music traditions in eastern Europe. He really influenced a lot of younger musicians, as they were coming into the scene,” Stein said.
Stein, who is the artistic director of the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, came up with his original composition, The Whole Thing, while playing with whole tone scales. “It doesn’t fit in any genre and reflects a variety of influences,” Stein said. “It’s got tonality that reflects klezmer and eastern-European folk influences, but it’s also got a funky kind of groove.”
Ruckus in Ralja, written by Higgins, was inspired by the band’s night of partying and playing music at a country house in Ralja, a village near Belgrade, during their 2007 European tour, that’s owned by Gajic’s uncles.
Stein said the band thrives on its musical diversity. “I’ve never claimed we play authentic klezmer,” he said. “We mix in other musical styles that are related to the background and heritages of some of the members of the band.”
Two of the band members, Popovic and Gajic, are of Serbian heritage, and they contribute Serbian Gypsy stylings to the band’s sound. Beyond The Pale is “about expressing ourselves and not being too slavish about trying to be authentic to something,” Stein said. “We’re true to the spirit of the music, but not necessarily to the specific characteristics.”
While dance music usually comprises part of a traditional klezmer band’s repertoire, it’s largely absent from a Beyond the Pale show. The band’s repertoire – arrangements of traditional songs and original material – is largely composed of easy listening music. “A real feature of our group is how meticulous we are in the arrangements and how carefully crafted all the dynamics are and all the voicings are between the different instruments,” Stein said. “It’s definitely music that is more to be listened to. It’s not party music.”
Stein, a former bass player, picked up the mandolin in the mid-1990s, through his interest in bluegrass music. While the mandolin is “deeply Jewish,” it’s not part of the klezmer tradition historically, he said.
Despite his affinity for bluegrass, Stein was pulled toward klezmer. “For me, there was something about immersing myself in klezmer music that felt like a personal, significant act, that it was about something that was connecting me to my own heritage, to my grandparents and the world they came from,” he said.
Beyond The Pale’s CD release tour includes shows at the Montreal Folk Festival (June 17), Black Sheep Inn outside of Ottawa (June 18) and at Hugh’s Room in Toronto (June 22). To purchase their CD, visit beyondthepale.net.