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“Oy, Mamelige!”: Mamaliga’s Dos Gildn Bletl

Max Friedman

Boston’s Yiddish music scene has long been a center for klezmer virtuosity, enriched by the Klezmer Conservatory Band’s decades of activity and the more recent emergence of younger ensembles, such as Ezekiel’s Wheels. In November 2021, local band Mamaliga released their debut quartet album, Dos Gildn Bletl (“the little golden leaf”). I highly recommend this exciting, subtle, and intricate addition to the local klezmer offerings.

Mamaliga is a modified string quartet of performer-composers. The band began as a duo of fiddler Rebecca Mac and accordionist Mattias Kaufmann and expanded in 2020 to include fiddler Rachel Leader and cellist Raffi Boden. In Dos Gildn Bletl as well as their live performances, Mamaliga communicates seamlessly, passing the spotlight among themselves and shifting textures with ease. Their sound is a high energy and finely woven representation of eastern European folk aesthetics. It is also the result of high-level instrumental training (the band members’ schooling includes local conservatories Berklee and NEC, as well as Brooklyn Conservatory and The Juilliard School), an imaginative and historically informed collaborative compositional process, years of cultural organizing experience, and extensive travels and folk music study by Mac and Kaufmann in Romania, Hungary, and Serbia. I have had the pleasure of meeting the members of Mamaliga twice in the past year, first virtually at 2021’s online KlezKanada, then in person at their late summer concert, which featured local singer/songwriter of Yiddish music Adah Hetko and violinist/violist/vocalist/composer Lysander Jaffe. Mamaliga also regularly hosts free, level-inclusive klezmer jams at the Boston Synagogue.

Mamaliga has an affinity for shifts in melodic lead playing, complex backing textures, and adventurous chord progressions. Every repeat of the tune features new ornamentations, a new riff, or a reharmonization. These characteristics reflect the band’s intensive group composition process, involving repeated experiments and self-critique.

In Dos Gildn Bletl, Mamaliga avoids clear distinctions between adapted tracks and their original compositions, preferring to present their work as a cohesive whole. Their original tunes rely on forms, melodic and harmonic tendencies, and stylizations characteristic of old-world klezmer. “Pearl’s Ascent” begins with a tried and true doyna (a winding solo over atmospheric chordal background), drawing heavily from Naftule Brandwein’s famous recording of a Romanian doyna. “Beryoze Khosidl,” true to the comically stumbling traditional dance, features a deliciously off-the-beat melody, interwoven with contrasting versions of itself, set against a strictly regular beat. The effect is an intoxicating momentary cacophony before the music snaps back into focus at the most opportune time. And “Rafele’s Bulgar,” composed by and featuring the band’s own Raffi Boden, calls back to old-world bands’ tendency to champion original tunes affectionately named after their own members.

When I began listening to the album, I worried that the string-quartet-like ensemble sound might preclude the wild sonic variety that mixed klezmer bands are able to achieve. Mamaliga more than compensates through a wide palette of timbres and textures within these instrumental limitations – precise riffs that build and transform on repeats, active roles for the cello and accordion (all too often relegated to accompaniment roles), rougher bowing timbres, and pizzicato (plucked) and col legno (with the wood of the bow) techniques. They take full advantage of the form of most klezmer and klezmer-adjacent dances: the characteristic cyclic repetition of two to four melodic sections encourages a great deal of freedom in differentiating each section from its previous iterations. The title track, “Dos Gildn Bletl,” an original by Mattias Kaufmann, shows particularly well how Mamaliga’s music goes beyond the proverbial notes on the page.

The title track in concert.

“Dos Gildn Bletl” keeps the listener engaged through the band’s characteristic textural adventurousness, which they achieve by switching lead instruments and bowing techniques. The track begins with accordion on melody and cello (col legno, producing a muted, slightly percussive sound), later joined by one fiddle, on a rhythmic accompaniment. But when the same familiar theme returns [3:38], we hear an entirely different orchestration. The two fiddles (playing sul ponticello, emphasizing the strings’ upper harmonic partials and producing a wavering, wispy tone) share the melody in octaves. Meanwhile, the accordion reinforces the harmony with well-timed accented chords, and cello reprises its earlier rhythmic accompaniment, this time plucked. Similarly, the theme first presented in the cello’s high register, supported by pizzicato fiddle [1:37], reappears later in the fiddle, this time bowed normally [4:38]. The cello, while once again relegated to an accompaniment role, heightens this section’s rhythmic intensity with double-time col legno arpeggiations. This variation prepares the listener for the forthcoming end of the track while reminding us of its beginnings. Similar re-orchestrations can be found throughout “Dos Gildn Bletl” and throughout the album.

Mamaliga is a virtuosic and vibrant ensemble that successfully transports old-world sensibilities across time and space to new audiences. They claim their rootedness in klezmer traditions through their high level of musicianship, training in traditional practice, and reflection of historical klezmer resonances in their ensemble presentation. And they unmistakably argue in favor of the transmissibility of old-world aesthetics, in the midst of a moment in which “Yiddish music” encompasses an incredibly wide range of popular, classical, folk, and hybridized modes of musicking. Whether you choose to bask in the sounds of Yiddishland, or you would rather get up and dance along, their music provides the right vibe. Dos Gildn Bletl is now available on Mamaliga’s bandcamp page, both as a CD for purchase and as a downloadable online album.

MLA STYLE
Friedman, Max. ““Oy, Mamelige!”: Mamaliga’s Dos Gildn Bletl.” In geveb, February 2022: https://ingeveb.org/blog/oy-mamelige.
CHICAGO STYLE
Friedman, Max. ““Oy, Mamelige!”: Mamaliga’s Dos Gildn Bletl.” In geveb (February 2022): Accessed Jun 16, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Max Friedman

Max Friedman (he/him) is a Boston-based composer, trumpet player, and aspiring Yiddishist.