Olga Bibor's Peasant Jazz Orchestra and the Proto-Jazz Melting Pot
When a guy like Rob Chalfen says, "do you want to hear the most inexplicable record in my collection?", you are wise not to take it lightly. Rob is one of those uber collectors like the ones documented in Bret Milano's recent book Vinyl Junkies (NPR interview with Milano). He is the kind of guy who can illustrate a lecture on the history of banjo orchestras (??) with selections from 78's of the original recordings. "Um, yeah" i said (as if there was any other possible answer).
Its funny, but in retrospect, I should have known it would have a Jewish theme.
There is a little background you need here. It turns out that Rob and I share a few connections relating to our joint ancestral membership in the tribe of Israel. The first is via my old friend (and fellow Brookline High School Graduate) Dave Geller. Dave and I play together in a group called the Hebeats, which reinterprets the Jewish holiday tradition through improvisational musical compositions.
The Hebeats have performed at the Zeitgeist gallery where Rob is a producer. At one of those concerts, Rob and I connected about records. He noticed my copy of Wax Poetics which got us talking about hip-hop, turntablism, and my interest in the evolution of the breakbeat as a musical meme. When I explained what a "break" was, he said, "Oh, if you like breaks, I've got breaks from the 1890's." My jaw dropped. "What do you mean? Breaks from when?" "1890. You know, rhythmic breaks in old minstrel records and proto-jazz recordings. You should come over sometime." Flabbergasted, I said, "what are you doing right now?" It was about 12:30 AM, but he was game for a late night musical kibitz.
That evening was the first of many conversations over music with Rob that have continued to this day. We have yet to document this "history of the breaks," but we have had many fine diversions along the way.
The second connection is via our joint connection to the National Yiddish Book Center. The last time I had been over, I noticed a copy of their magazine Pakn Trager, on his table. Over a delicious dinner of fried chicken livers (a delicacy I had not eaten since my dad passed away), he told me his grandfather's books had been donated to the book center, thus the magazine. I told him that my dear friend Lou was the vice president of the book center and that it had been the inspiration for the Library of Vinyl Experience. Making the cultural/social/musical connection complete (and somehow mocking it at the same time) he threw me a mischievous grin and proclaimed dismissively that he had a "somewhat interesting collection of Yiddish music himself."
Apparently, this was the night I got to hear it. Thus began a journey documenting the collision of Sousa bands, circus, new york dance bands, klezmer and Eastern European folk musics in the proto-Jazz melting pot of Mr. Chalfen's fathomless collection.
I have been obsessively listening to this Olga Bibor for a week or two now. He meant it when he said it was the most inexplicable record in his collection. As Rob put it a few days later in a phone message to me, "You realize of course that the Olga Bibor record is a fathomless pit of speculation. Thanks for readdicting me to it."