From ‘the old country,’ with love

Local monthly showcase celebrates ‘music of the diaspora’

Photo courtesy Tung Pham

The sounds filling Denver’s Mercury Café at the end of each month may come from Colorado musicians, but the traditions behind them traveled a long way to get here. That’s the idea driving Festo Festo, a regular showcase of mostly traditional European folk music and dance, connecting local communities whose paths to the Front Range began at scattered points across the globe.

“I think of it as music of the diaspora,” says Denver trumpeter Tung Pham, co-founder of Festo Festo and longtime member of 10-piece brass band Gora Gora Orkestar. “The goal of Festo was to bring communities together: people who are in the Jewish community, people who are in the Balkan community, people who are in the folk-dance community, and musicians. We originally thought, ‘Let’s get these groups together [to] share ideas … and dance together.’”

This month’s featured artist is the Boulder Klezmer Consort, whose musical lineage traces back to the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Festo Festo is usually held on the last Thursday of each month, but since that falls on the Jewish high holiday of Shavuot this time around, the upcoming edition will happen on Tuesday, May 23. But regardless of when they take the stage, bandleader Sheldon Sands — who met Festo Festo co-organizer Eitan Kantor in Boulder a few years ago — says he jumped at the opportunity to take part in the showcase spearheaded by a collaborator he admires. 

“We’ve had numerous chances to share a stage — he has an awesome voice, musicality and presence,” Sands says. “I guess you can say we belong to a mutual admiration society.”

Sands first got into Klezmer music — whose name comes from a Yiddish contraction of the Hebrew words kley (“instrument”) and zemer (“song”) —  as a student at Naropa University in the 1980s. Traditionally featuring instruments like violin, accordion, tuba and hammered dulcimer, he says he found the genre “fun and expressive, also sometimes downright hokey.” But after 20 more years of immersion in various genres of international music, Sands found a passion.

“I get particular joy playing this music and sharing it with our greater community, who regardless of background have been incredibly receptive,” he says. “While I didn’t grow up on it, all four of my grandparents were born in the late 19th century in the shtetles — the small towns with Jewish populations — of Eastern Europe. This was the music played at weddings and other simchas (happy events). I sometimes feel while performing like we’re embodying the spirit of those times and places, and encouraging, as my ancestors did, the impulse to find joy and laughter in the midst of all life’s challenges, which they certainly had their fair share [of], and we do as well.”

‘This is my Judaism’

Before he became music director for the Hebrew Educational Alliance and fiddler-vocalist for local groups like Upsherin and Hadgaba, Festo Festo co-organizer Kantor grew up with traditional music. He remembers being blown away by Itzhak Perlman in the film In the Fiddler’s House as a kid.

“I didn’t take that out much into the non-synagogue world until I was in Hadgaba, when I started to learn that there were both Jews and non-Jews who were excited to dance to this music and learn [it] outside of the synagogue context,” Kantor says. “I was one of those guys.”

One of Kantor’s missions with Klezmer music is to teach people that it’s not an Israeli or even simply a Jewish artform, but rather a musical melting pot representing the forced migration of communities across the map. 

“This music is very much European, with some influences from places like Turkey,” he says. “I don’t relate to this as Israeli music, and my family isn’t from Israel. I’m excited to learn about where my family is from and not necessarily be playing Israeli music.”

Kantor’s fellow co-organizer Pham, who grew up in Boston, took a different path to the world of traditional European folk music: joining the circus.

“We started to get into Balkan and Klezmer music, and sort of circus-music fusion. When I moved to Colorado for graduate school, I started my own band and zeroed in on the Balkan and Klezmer idiom for our brass band, and met co-conspirators in Boulder who were so welcoming in the folk-music community,” Pham says. “It’s just what I’ve been doing for a long time now … 14 to 15 years.”

As for your average Festo Festo, which really got going in July of last year, visitors can expect two house bands (Gora and Upsherin) and then the featured act, culminating in a 30-minute jam session involving musicians and dancers that include both the scheduled artists and the audience.

“There are a lot of unaffiliated young Jewish people for whom this is one of their main forms of connection to Jewish life and Jewish culture,” Kantor says. “Somebody even said to me, ‘I don’t go to synagogue, so this is my Judaism.’” 

ON THE BILL: Festo Festo feat. Boulder Klezmer Consort. 7-9:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 23, Mercury Café (Jungle Room), 2199 California St., Denver. $5+ suggested donation

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Festo Festo co-organizer Eitan Kantor as a music teacher with Denver Public Schools. Kantor is music director for the Hebrew Educational Alliance.