The Veretski Pass, a rugged route through the eastern Carpathian mountains, served as the transit point for Jews returning to Hungary after an expulsion in the early 16th century. Once part of Czechoslovakia and now in Ukraine, the pass also brought Gypsies, Ruthenians and Czechs to the region where Berkeley violinist Cookie Segelstein’s father was born. In exploring the music of this lost community, she created Veretski Pass, a chamber klezmer trio that performs Thursday Oct. 18 at the Starry Plough on a triple bill with La Pêche and Balkalicious Fire Drive as part of the pub’s monthly Berkeley Balkan Bachanal series.
Featuring Joshua Horowitz on tsimbl (hammered dulcimer) and button accordion, and Stuart Brotman on bass, baraban (drum), and Carpathian flute, the group reflects Segelstein’s late-blooming fascination with the music imposed on her as a child in Kansas City, Missouri, where her parents, both Holocaust survivors, seemed to have one foot still planted in the Old Country.
“I had a love/hate relationship with this music until I had my own kids,” says Segelstein, who was often pressed to perform klezmer tunes for her parents’ friends gathered at weekly card games. “It felt like someone had lifted the shtetl and dropped it on this street in Kansas City. I wanted to become a Baptist so I could fit in.”
On becoming a parent herself, Segelstein started to reexamine the music that tormented her as a youth. Uncooperative at first, her father tried to disuade her from investigating klezmer. With a masters degree in viola from the Yale School of Music, and a thriving career as principal violist in Orchestra New England and assistant principal in the New Haven Symphony Orchestra “what do you want that music for, the music of thieves and Gypsies, you have an education,” he asked.
“I told him I would go ask the rival tailor, Tzucker. ‘Tsucker’s an idiot!’ So he started showing me tunes,” recalls Segelstein, who also owns and operates the Apple tech support service The Macmama. “He would sing something to me and I’d play it. After a while I got a sense of the style of his town. I did field work on my own dad.”
Grounded in the sounds of her father’s village, Segelstein went on to hone a vast repertoire of traditional Eastern European material. Veretski Pass came together a decade ago and the group released its lavishly praised epomymous 2004 debut on Golden Horn Records. Rather than developing a new take on klezmer, the secular celebratory music of Ashkenazi Jewry, Veretski Pass recovers songs, melodies and musical practices almost entirely wiped out by the Holocaust. Like an early music ensemble, the trio has honed a highly distinctive sound by paying particular attention to period instruments.
Her Veretski Pass bandmates Horowitz and Brotman are long-time Berkeleyans who have played leading roles in the klezmer revival sparked by the Berkeley band Klezmorim in the mid-1970s. Horowitz, to whom Segelstein is married, has also gained attention with his ensemble Budowitz, named after the 19th Century master accordion builder whose instruments, constructed out of bone, wood, goat leather and brass, are noted for their rich, reedy tone.
A versatile musician who’s toured and recorded with Canned Heat, Kaleidoscope and Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Brotman is best known for his extensive contributions to Jewish music through his work with Brave Old World, Andy Statman, Davka, and the San Francisco Klezmer Experience. An early member of the Klezmorim, he produced the band’s Grammy Award-nominated 1981 album “Metropolis” (Flying Fish Records).
Tomorrow’s program puts the dance music of Veretski Pass in a wider Eastern European context. Booked by David Murray, who plays bouzouki in the Greek rebetiko band Disciples of Markos, the Berkeley Balkan Bacchanal started in January and has quickly become an essential part of the Bay Area’s active Balkan music scene. Recently launched by members of the sprawling Gypsy-style brass band Inspector Gadje, La Pêche plays a mix of interrelated Jewish, Gypsy and Balkan traditions. And Balkalicious Fire Drive is a new quartet featuring Leslie Bonnett, formerly of Kitka, on vocals and violin, Shea Comfort on clarinet, duduk, kaval, zourna and laouto, Dennis Demakos on laouto and vocals, and Haig Kassabian on percussion.
“One idea behind the series is to give these players a chance to try new things,” says Murray. “I wanted to work at Starry Plough because it’s a small place and you can fill it up. When you get 70 people in the room, you really get a lot of energy.”
Veretski Pass plays Starry Plough on Thursday Oct. 18. They will also be playing at the sixth annual Art of Living fundraising gala to celebrate 135 years of service of the Jewish Family & Children’s Services in the East Bay. That takes place on Sunday, Oct. 28, at the Oakland Museum of California at 5:30 pm, and includes performances by playwright/actor Charlie Varon; director/actress Naomi Newman; contemporary gospel singer Danny Dyson; and actress Jeri Lynn Cohen. Visit the JFCS East Bay website for details.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.