Amsterdam: solo travels after the IJMF

After seeing Jon and Pete off to the airport, I took a mostly uneventful train ride out to Meppel, about an hour and a half outside of Amsterdam. My fatal train flaw, however, was not knowing I had to push a button next to the doors to have them open at the stop, so I had a little bit of a round about journey going a stop too far and then backtracking. Anyway, I finally made it to Meppel, where I met up with my mom and distant-relative Marie. We drove back to Marie’s house, which was pretty deep into the countryside (they have a thatched roof and sheep!). Marie gave us a tour of the property and took us on a walk in the woods nearby. My parents ended up going back to Amsterdam that evening, but I stayed the night.

The next day (Wednesday), I made my way back to Amsterdam in the afternoon, stopping off first at my parents’ hotel to pick up my stuff, and then on to the hostel near Vondelpark I was going to stay at for the rest of the week. After unpacking in my much smaller room (only six beds instead of 20…), I set off for dinner at De Bolhoed, a vegetarian restaurant in an old hat shop. I got a huge plate of vegan food before setting off to Zaal100, a small theater on the northwestern part of the city. I had read about an experimental improv show on the internet and was curious to check it out. The crowd was small, but very engaged. The first act consisted of an upright bassist, accordion player, and tenor sax player all improvising and moving around the small stage as a man projected artwork on the wall behind them. The second act was a drummer and another tenor sax player. My favorite act was the final one, which was four women on piano, voice, violin, and alto sax who played a mixture of experimental pop, jazz, and classical original tunes. They had a lot of improvisational elements to their music, but with very strict structures, and engaged the crowd well (though I have no idea what they were saying since it was all in Dutch).

Thursday morning I met the rest of the folks in my hostel room before setting off to send out the 42 postcards Ezekiel’s Wheels had written to our kickstarter backers. The guy helping me at the post office was certainly amused and a little bewildered by the volume of postcards I was sending. Next I set off to check out the Van Gogh exhibit at the Hermitage Museum (the Van Gogh museum was closed for renovations, so the highlights of the collection were at the Hermitage). That evening I trekked all the way out to the Tropentheater, a concert venue specializing in non-Western music, to see Azerbaijani vocalist Gochag Askarov and his ensemble. The guy at the ticket booth was really friendly and only charged me the student rate for admission, which was awesome, and I was really impressed by how talented the musicians were.

Friday the weather was finally beautiful (it had been mostly raining during the time I was there), so I spent most of the day in Vondelpark reading on a bench and wandering around. I met up with a Danish woman from my hostel room named Sara and we dropped in to a classly little bar behind the Concertgebouw. That evening I went to a really experimental art show with four other women from the hostel–we were all super confused by the performances, but had a great time wondering what exactly was going on.

Saturday was spent hanging out with Sara and a woman from South Africa named Frances. We checked out some art exhibits associated with the huge dance event happening in Amsterdam, strolled through some street markets and into a radical bookstore, wound up seeing a movie in a beautiful old theater just so we could see inside, and finished up the evening back at the hostel bar listening to a local Irish band.

Sunday was my last full day in the city. I started the day by going to the Anne Frank House, where Anne Frank and her family were in hiding during World War II. Next, I walked all the way across the city (through a giant carnival that had been erected in Dam Square) over to the Tropenmuseum, the museum affiliated with the Tropentheater. It was interesting for the most part–a bunch of somewhat generic exhibits displaying cultural items from different parts of the world. After wandering through the museum, I took a walk through the nearby Oosterpark, another large city park. I made my way back over to the Brouwerij ‘t IJ (the windmill bar), where I finished up the novel I was reading, and then went over to see the library, which I heard had beautiful views of the city. I hung around there for about an hour before going over to Bimhuis, a concert venue in the harbor that was featuring the Kenny Werner Quintet that evening. It was a really good concert featuring a lot of great players–I could tell that the majority of the audience was made up of Amsterdam Conservatory jazz majors who were throughly analyzing the players and the music during intermission. Afterwards, I made the hour-long walk south back to the hostel.

Monday morning I packed up all my stuff, made my way over to the train station and then on to the airport. My two flights were both pretty chill, I met some interesting characters in my row and watched a bunch of movies. American customs took awhile to get through (every police officer was asking me about my bow case…), but the officer who interviewed me, after finding out I was in Amsterdam performing, asked who I played with and when I responded with “Ezekiel’s Wheels”, he exclaimed, “Oh, I’ve actually heard of them!”, which was neat.

The past week, I’ve been adjusting to being back home and being back on a more regular schedule. Ezekiel’s Wheels has already gotten a bunch of publicity about the festival from the Boston Globe and on Emerson’s WERS 88.9. We’re still working out our next steps as a band, but we’re excited to have so much momentum. Overall, it was a really great trip, and hopefully we’ll get to perform together internationally again soon (though we’re also excited to be back in town playing at farmers markets and other local events).

There’s lots of exciting stuff happening with other bands too, and already I’ve played a number of fun shows since getting home. This weekend I’m headed out of town again, this time to Vermont to start recording on a full-length album for Cold Chocolate. Keep checking back for updates on upcoming shows and other bands’ activities!

Amsterdam: last day at the IJMF

Sunday morning we were all excited to get a chance to sleep in a little bit after the craziness of Saturday’s concert. We took our time getting over to the festival and caught a couple of the workshops being offered by the jury. After the workshops ended, we quickly ran through what we were going to play in the afternoon’s Winner’s Concert. We were given a 20-minute set to close the concert and lead into the all-contestant jam session. Not wanting to completely repeat what we had been playing all week, we decided to open with our “Idol Set” and then go into a set of “Gasn Nign” into “Balkan Freilach”. We also settled on a couple tunes to lead in the jam that we figured everyone would be likely to know.

We didn’t have much time between ending rehearsal and having to be back for the concert (a running theme of our experience at the festival, for sure)–I basically had enough time to run back to the hostel, grab a change of clothes, and head back to the theater to change. The atmosphere in the warm up room was much different than the previous days–it was far more relaxed, but everyone was super exhausted.

The concert opened with Vira Lozinsky and the Emil Aybinder Ensemble, who had won the Grand Prize the previous evening. Following them was Itamar Erez, the guitarist from the guitar/percussion duo appropriately called “Duets”, who, although not appearing in the final round, won many awards from scouts in the audience (the guitarist performed solo on Sunday, as the percussionist was already en route back to Israel). Finally, Ezekiel’s Wheels took the stage for our final performance at the International Jewish Music Festival. We played well, but honestly, it was a bit anti-climatic after the previous evening’s concert. Our energy was good overall, but we could all really feel how tired everyone was (both in the band and in the crowd). Once our set was finished, we invited any contestants who wished to come up and play to make their way to the stage. The onstage jam wasn’t as big a hit as the festival organizers had hoped (only a few folks came and joined us), but after the concert, the jam that ensued out in the lobby was much livelier.

Once we dropped off our instruments and changed, we were mostly excited just to have our first relaxed sit-down meal together out of the whole trip. We made our way back over to De Bekeerde Suster, the cozy bar we stumbled into our first night in town, and proceeded to stay for a few hours eating, drinking, talking about the festival and the future for the band, and just enjoying not having to rush off to play more.

That evening, we finished up all of the postcards we needed to send to our kickstarter backers and went to bed for the last time in our large hostel room. Nat and Abigale were set to leave early the next morning, and we all woke up to eat breakfast in the hostel and see them off. Jon and Pete were planning to leave the next day (while I was still in town for another week), so the three of us set off to actually see some of Amsterdam.

Mostly, we wandered around the city, enjoying the beautiful views of canals and houseboats, and meandering through tiny cobblestoned streets. We made our way over to Vondelpark (the largest park in the city) and out for coffee, tea, and bagels before setting off to return the bass. Bringing the bass back to the bass shop wasn’t nearly as big as an ordeal as getting the bass from the bass shop–we mostly had our navigational bearings and made it across town in about a half hour. Once we got rid of the bass, we ventured over to the nearby Brouwerij ‘t IJ, a brewery and bar located in an old windmill. It was nice to hang out there for a bit, followed by another dinner at De Bekeerde Suster to round out the day. That night we stayed in my parents’ hotel room (they were out visiting relatives in the countryside).

The next morning, we all made our ways to Amsterdam Centraal, the big train station in the northern part of the city. Jon and Pete were headed to the airport to fly back to Boston. I, on the other hand, was headed out to Meppel, to meet up with my parents and to visit some distant relatives who live out there. It was a little bit of a bittersweet departure–just like everyone else, I was exhausted and could have definitely enjoyed spending a night in my own bed, but on the other hand, I was also excited to still have another week in the Netherlands to explore.

(Coming up: my week of hanging out in Amsterdam by myself!)

Amsterdam: the IJMF finals

After a full first day at the International Jewish Music Festival, we were excited to be able to sleep in a little bit. We were all exhausted and starting to get sick (Abigale was affected the worst and hadn’t slept much yet at all). Jon was the first to wake up on Friday, and quickly head over to the festival to catch the second day of preliminary rounds. Nat, Pete, and I met up with Jon just as the festival was breaking for lunch. The four of us meandered around town for awhile looking for food, eventually settling on a sandwich shop called the BroodBar just a couple of blocks from the theater (we quickly became regulars). After lunch, we saw the last several bands of the afternoon. In the meantime, Abigale had checked herself into a nearby hotel, hoping that she’d actually be able to sleep. We met up with her for dinner–I tried to navigate all of us over to the only vegan restaurant in town (which was under a mile away, but we got a little lost so it took a half hour to get there). It turned out to be one of the slowest restaurants in town as well and even though the food was delicious, it was hard to enjoy it while everyone was anxious to get back to the theater for the second semi-final round.

Anyway, we made it back to the show and only ended up missing the first band (who we had seen in the afternoon, anyway). The rest of the show, though, we were all amazed by how talented the other bands were. Some favorites included Mor Karbasi, who had an amazing voice and huge presence, backed by a jazz trio, and Kleztory, a tight Canadian klezmer band. After the show, we nervously waited around in the lobby for an hour while the judges deliberated. After seeing the Friday night semi-final, we didn’t really think we had much of a chance to get into the final concert, so we mostly reassured eachother that we played well and if we didn’t make it in, we’d atleast have some more time to sightsee.

Finally, the judges came out to the lobby to announce the finalists in the order that they’d be playing in the concert. First would be the Zimba Ensemble, which was actually comprised of just one percussionist playing a wide assortment of xylophones, drums, and smaller instruments. Next would be Alila, our friends from Israel who played a mixture of Middle Eastern music and funk. Third to be announced was Capella de Ministreres, a Sephardic early music ensemble. Fourth was Mor Karbasi, which was certainly expected, though at this point we were pretty certain that we weren’t going to be announced. However, much to our surprise, Ezekiel’s Wheels was announced fifth! We were all so shocked we barely even heard the last band to be announced, Vira Lozinsky and the Emil Aybinder Ensemble, featuring one of the world’s best known Yiddish singers backed by one of Israel’s best accordion players and his band.

We were still in disbelief when Nat followed the judges and other band representatives back to the deliberating room to get more instructions. We congratulated eachother, and resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to end up seeing much of Amsterdam all together after all. We also noted that the judges must have arranged for the final round to show a wide variety of music, since the final show was what was getting the most press for the festival. We noticed that we were not just the only klezmer band, but also the only young band, and were excited to be the representatives for both.

Once Nat returned, we eventually all made it out of the theater and back to Abigale’s hotel room, to figure out what we were going to play. After a long meeting and puzzling over how to merge the highlights of our prepared sets, we decided on playing a similar set to the Thursday semi-final: open with “La Rosa”, figuring it’d be a nice palate cleanser for the audience and a way to warm up to the crowd, then launch into “Moldovan Wedding” into “Alexi’s Tune”. We were a little stumped, though, about whether to include “Smooth Criminal” again to close out, since it was well-recieved, but also kind of a joke and didn’t want it to fall flat if played a second time. We decided to segue into Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” instead, as a new surprise, and to also show that these klezmer pop covers are actually pretty ingrained into our sets. Finally, we made an itinerary for ourselves for the next day, to ensure we’d have time to warm up, rehearse, relax, and eat without getting too stressed out, and Nat, Pete, Jon, and I made our way back to the hostel.

Saturday morning we all woke up excited and a little nervous. Abigale emailed us saying she still couldn’t sleep and that she booked the hotel room again for that evening, with a desire to try to rest most of the day. The rest of us made our way back over the BroodBar for some food, and then warmed up a bit in the basement of the hostel. Abigale joined us and we had another quiet rehearsal (we were scared of the cleaning staff after our last encounter with them) to run though everything a couple times. After practice, we split up–Abigale went back to her hotel, the boys went up to the room at the hostel, and I went to visit my parents at their nearby hotel room.

An hour later, we all reconvened in the hostel lobby to find out that Nat had received a message from the festival organizers saying we couldn’t rehearse there, as scheduled, because the sound bled too much into the soundchecks. We went over to the theater, just to check in and see what was going on, and found out that not only were they canceling rehearsals there, they were also running really late on sound checks. So set off for Abigale’s hotel, hoping we could find a place to rehearse there. After Abigale talked with some folks at the front desk (who were a little confused, but mostly amused by our “rather unusual request”), we were brought to a conference room and told we could play there. We played a little more (at normal volume), and then relaxed for a little bit before making our way back to the festival.

When we arrived again, it turned out the sound check had been pushed back even more, but Becky (the friendly American festival organizer) took us on a tour of the theater, which had completely transformed from the days before. The stage was now circular and elevated, there were huge posters hanging from the ceiling, 8 TV cameras (2 on cranes!), lights, and even smoke machines. Becky told us that the Dutch government was spending €80,000 on the concert (!!) and that there were even two famous Dutch television personalities who would be hosting the show. We were stunned–after all, we are used to playing in the subway and at farmers markets. After our tour, we ran out to pick up some quick dinner (so much for our plan to have a calm, sit-down meal) and then hung around the lobby of the theater until it was time for our soundcheck.

We didn’t end up getting much of a soundcheck because they were running so late (at this point it was about a half hour until the show started), but we were happy with the balance on stage. We were required to be backstage an hour before playing. Since we were second-to-last, we didn’t want to be sitting quietly backstage for the whole show, so we left to go take our time getting changed and ready in Abigale’s hotel room. We were all so exhausted at this point, drinking tea and eating cough drops to try to prevent from coming down with more severe colds. Finally, it was time to head back to the theater.

Once we got there, we made our way backstage and were greeted by several performers who had already played. They told us about how there had been some sound and technical issues, and to make sure everything was working and in place before starting. We spent most of the time before intermission stretching and pacing around the green room, figuring we’d be able to actually make some noise during the pause between halves. Sure enough, we were able to tune and play a little bit during the break. Once the show started back up, though, we were quickly ushered out of the room and down to the stage to wait while the band before us played.

Before entering the theater, we were placed in front of a TV crew just outside the entrance to do a pre-show interview. They basically just asked us a little about ourselves and about how we were feeling going into the final round. We all agreed that it had been a pretty surreal experience so far, and that we expected the feeling to continue on stage. When we were brought into the theater, we got to catch the end of the previous set, as well as take in the packed house, all of the lights, the host sitting off to the side of the stage–it was definitely the fanciest and most professional show we’d ever taken part in as a band.

We waited in the back of the theater as the host made some jokes and introduced us. We filed on stage, being powered at this point mostly by adrenaline. Even though we were all nervous starting out, we quickly settled into playing together and ended up having a wonderful time performing our set. The energy in the crowd was great, the judges were receptive, and most importantly, we were all totally engaged with our instruments and eachother. We finished our set to warm applause and made our way back through the crowd the way we came in, extremely pleased and excited by how we played. The TV crew outside of the theater was ready and waiting for a follow-up interview, which consisted of a lot of high fives and giggling on our end. Classic. We also noticed that canisters with each bands’ name had been laid out just outside of the theater–each audience member would be given a token to vote for their favorite band, and the band with the most votes would win the Audience Prize.

We packed up our instruments back in the warm up room and buzzed around excitedly for a few minutes before making our way back to the lobby. We got back just as the concert was finishing up, and helped ourselves to the first round of free drinks. We chatted a bit with audience members as they came out of the theater to vote and stretch. It was already getting pretty late, and by the time the judges were finished with their conference, it was almost midnight.

Once the jury returned, everyone was ushered back into the theater and the bands were instructed to sit together, so they’d be easier to find if they won. The evening turned into quite the elaborate awards show, with something like 25 prizes being given out, mostly by representatives of various festivals, venues, and record labels. We sat anxiously to the left of the stage, listening as prize after prize (many of which we weren’t even sure what was being given away) was awarded.

The final six prizes were presented by members of the jury. We hadn’t won anything yet and were getting a little nervous. Finally, Hankus Netsky (judge and professor here in Boston at the New England Conservatory) got up to announce the City Winery Prize for the best klezmer ensemble, which ended up being awarded to Ezekiel’s Wheels! Hankus gave a little speech, praising us for a number of things (including our “true musical democracy” and my bass playing, which was exciting), as well as poking fun at our affinity for musical jokes… The prize came along with bookings at the City Winery klezmer brunch series in New York City and Chicago (which we haven’t booked quite yet, but we will).

The jury awarded several more prizes to deserving bands (for things such as the best Yiddish or best Ladino or best arrangement of the required piece). And then it came down to the two big prizes: the Audience Prize (voted on by the crowd) and the Grand Prize (voted on by the jury). They announced the Audience Prize first, and we were delighted and surprised when it turned out that the crowd had voted us as their favorites! This prize came with €1,000 (as well as the satisfaction of being the people’s pick). The Grand Prize ended up being awarded to Vira Lozinsky and the Emil Aybinder Ensemble.

Even though we were ecstatic to have won what we did, we were a little overwhelmed by the request to play in the Winners Concert the next day. It was exciting to have the opportunity for sure; we were just so exhausted by this point, we hadn’t yet had a relaxed sit-down meal, and we certainly hadn’t seen much outside of the three blocks of the city we were confined to for the festival. In any event, we decided to hold off til the next day to figure out what we were going to perform and instead, we had a great time hanging out with our new friends in The Balcony Players.

(Coming up: the last day of the IJMF, as well as a summary from my week of exploring after the festival.)

Amsterdam: the IJMF semi-finals

We woke up on Thursday, October 11th in a state of nervous excitement. We knew we were only guaranteed one 15-minute set during the first morning of the festival, and that we’d have to play extremely well to be invited to play more.

The basic plan for the festival was something like this: from the 24 bands who were invited to play at the festival, 22 were able to make it. These bands were divided up into two groups of 11 bands each between the first two days of the festival. The mornings and afternoons of that Thursday and Friday were preliminary rounds–the 11 bands all got 15-minute sets in front of a live audience and panel of judges, then the judges went off to deliberate to decide upon the six bands to play in the semi-final rounds on Thursday and Friday nights, respectively. So after the first two days, 22 bands would be narrowed down to 12. From those 12 semi-finalists, six would be chosen to play in the highly advertised Grand Finale concert on Saturday evening. The winners from Saturday’s concert would then play a final concert on Sunday afternoon to close out the festival.

We roughly knew all of this information going into the first day of the competition, but we were mostly just focusing on our first morning performance. Nat was the first one over to the theater to check in and drop off our handmade three-track CDs (which looked a little funny, albeit endearing, sitting next to an assortment of full-length professionally recorded, produced, and shrink-wrapped CDs from every other band). The rest of us made it over soon after, and were herded into the “warm up room”, in which we had to be as close to silent as possible, since it was right next to the stage. We unpacked and met some of the other groups who were playing in the same morning round as us. We were quick to realize that along with being the only band from the United States, we were also among the youngest. We also met Becky, a delightful and extremely patient festival organizer and fellow American who we quickly befriended and proceeded to look for every time we had questions about what were were supposed to be doing over the next several days, which, as it turned out, was often.

Before heading out to play, we were asked to pose on camera for a Dutch television crew who was filming the entire festival, with the eventual goal of putting together a documentary about the competition. I don’t remember much from posing for them, but considering the whole band was tired and nervous, I’m sure the results were hilarious. Afterwards, we found out that luckily there was a long break for the judges right before our set, which allowed for us to warm up and sound check on stage. Entering the theater, I was surprised by how many people were in the crowd midmorning on a Thursday, including my parents (who came straight from the airport) and some distant relatives (who my parents and I were meeting for the first time, though that’s another crazy side story). The band tuned together offstage, and then went to set up. The stage crew was quick and the sound check went smoothly, and we had some extra time to play through the beginning of a couple tunes. After a few minutes we were asked to leave the stage again so we could be announced and have a big entrance. With just enough time for a quick group hug and short pep talk, we found ourselves onstage again, starting to play. We opened with our Idol Set (which can be found on our EP, and was what we played for the Boston Jewish Music Festival’s Klezmer Idol). Even though we took it a little fast (we were nervous…), it was tight and spot on, and we were clearly all energized by how well we were playing. After the Idol Set, we launched into “La Rosa”, which had been somewhat of a wild card for us in preparing for the festival, but it went smoothly and we were excited and proud of our first performance. Coming off stage we were interviewed by the Dutch TV crew about how we felt we did, and I’m sure what was captured on tape was a bunch of excited and giddy laughter, hugging, and high fives.

After putting our instruments away, we headed back to the theater to catch the final couple acts of the morning round, before everyone took a break for lunch. After lunch, we sat through the rest of the day’s set of ensembles, marveling at the diversity and overall performance level of the music and musicians. It was exhausting to sit though a string of 15-minute sets broken up by 10-minute set changes, and then to wait around in the lobby for an hour while the judges deliberated. Around 5 pm, everyone gathered in the lobby of the theater as they announced the groups moving on to the evening’s semi-final round. We were delighted to hear them announce Ezekiel’s Wheels as one of the six! (Abigale even screamed and jumped up and down, which was adorable.) Nat went off to meet with the judges and the representatives from the other semi-finalists, and the rest of us stayed in the lounge congratulating ourselves on having something exciting to report to our kickstarter backers, and chatting with the other musicians. Nat returned 20 minutes later to tell us that they wanted to hear a different set, but they requested for us to play “La Rosa” again in the evening.

With only couple hours before the evening’s concert, we rushed up to the warm up room to organize and rehearse our second set. We were very excited to get the opportunity to play both of the sets we had worked extensively to prepare, and to get to play to the full evening audience. Since we had to play “La Rosa” again, we had to alter our second set slightly to accommodate the required tune and still remain within the 15-minute time limit. We decided to open with “La Rosa”, and then go into a set of “Moldovan Wedding” into “Alexi’s Tune” and ending with our arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”.

After rehearsal, we ventured out for a quick dinner before having to return to the theater’s warm up room. We had a great time warming up before the show–our friends from Alila, who also made the finals, joined us backstage in a pre-concert impromptu jam with lots of percussion and dancing. After a few minutes, though, we were told we had to stop because the concert was starting. It was difficult to wait around in the green room to play. At this point we were exhausted from such a long day, and we were nervous, but still excited. We were closing out the first half of the show and finally, it was our turn to play, so we once again rode the elevator down to the stage, tuned backstage, had another classic group hug/pep talk, and then were announced and made our way onstage.

This evening’s concert was far better attended than the day’s preliminary rounds. We began with “La Rosa”, which went well, though we were definitely starting to show some of the day’s exhaustion. We powered through “Moldovan Wedding”, a groovy song in 7, and into “Alexi’s Tune”, which is also opened with a bowed bass solo before gradually speeding up. The crowd was friendly and loved to participate, clapping along during our build in “Alexi’s”, which certainly helped us build our energy back up. We hit the surprise transition into “Smooth Criminal” and were spot on, complete with Michael Jackson poses. The audience (and the judges) went nuts when they realized what we were playing, clapping and smiling, and we were all dancing and laughing on stage. We finished to a huge roar from the audience, leading into intermission.

During the break, we did a fair amount of networking with a number of scouts from the audience who represented festivals, venues, and recording labels, before heading back into the theater to catch the second half of the concert. All of the bands were very strong (and again, very diverse). After the concert, we found out that we wouldn’t know who was going on to the finals until Friday evening (there was still a whole second day of semi-finals, after all), but on the upside, the Israeli embassy was hosting a party in the lobby, so we ventured out for free wine and to chat more with the crowd. I was really amazed not only how much attention we were getting from the audience, but also by how friendly the other musicians were. We had a great time meeting folks, and it was nice to unwind a little bit after a long day.

Once the party at the theater wound down, we set off to try yet another local bar along with a huge stack of free postcards from the theater–one of the rewards for contributing towards our kickstarter campaign was to receive a postcard from Amsterdam, and as such, we ended up with roughly 40 postcards that we had to write. We found a quiet bar and plowed through as many postcards as we could before the bar closed, and then we sleepily ventured back to the hostel, happy that we could sleep in the next morning.

(Coming up: the rest of the IJMF!)

Amsterdam: arrival and preparing for the IJMF

So to pick up where I left off, on the evening of October 8th, Ezekiel’s Wheels met up at Logan Airport to fly to Europe. It was a pretty uneventful couple of flights, and we were able to sleep for the most part. We had a layover in Iceland in the middle of the night, where we had absolutely no concept for the value of the krona and how much our sandwiches actually cost, and then we almost missed boarding our flight to Amsterdam since there were no announcements regarding when flights were boarding or taking off.

We landed in Amsterdam in the early afternoon on the 9th and quickly found a large cab that could transport all five of us plus luggage and instruments. Due to some miscommunication between myself and the bass shop I was renting an instrument from, as well as a general oversight in common sense, we took the cab all the way across the city to the bass shop, as opposed to straight to the hostel. It was a pretty expensive ride, but our driver was friendly enough and pointed out some of the sights from the highway. We were sure to give him a free CD. So all five of us (plus luggage) arrived at the tiny bass shop in the outskirts of the city. I rang the doorbell and the Dutch man who answered was extremely confused as to who we were, why we were there with so much stuff, and how we were all going to fit into a two-floor studio already packed with basses in various states of repair, tools, workbenches, lots of sawdust, and a few men whose only job appeared to be eating lots and lots of cheese.

I was shown three different instruments to try and proceeded to compare them all while everyone else waited out on the sidewalk. None of the instruments that we could afford to rent were perfect–they were all set up more for jazz than bow playing (which, to be fair, is what I asked for, but I was looking for an instrument that also sounded nice when bowed up high). The one I ultimately decided upon was a small instrument with a string length similar to my main bass, and had a bright, clear tone. It wasn’t as warm as some of the others, but it would atleast cut through on the high solos. The bridge was pretty flat, so adjusting to that and not playing two strings at once was a little tricky, and the action was higher than I am used to, but not impossible.

Anyway, I decided upon an instrument and requested a wheel to use to transport it around. He unfortunately didn’t have a wheel I could use, but he had a heavy duty case with backpack straps that he gave me, and so I proceeded to carry the bass around on my back for the rest of the week (which really gave me a new perspective on how large the upright bass actually is, as well as some insights on the life of a turtle). We quickly realized that we couldn’t carry all of our luggage plus the upright bass with us back to the hostel, which was about a half hour walk from the bass shop. Since the shop was also on a quiet street and we weren’t quite sure how to catch cabs, we decided to leave the bass, walk our stuff to the hostel, and then come back for the bass on our way to rehearsal at the Amsterdam Conservatory.

Walking a mile and a half across a foreign city after about 16 hours of traveling, not much sleep, and with lots of heavy stuff is no small feat. But we made it to our hostel over near Nieuwmarkt, and just right across the canal from Het Compagnietheater, where the majority of the festival would be taking place. We checked into our room–a huge 20-person dorm of small metal bunkbeds–and stored our stuff away in the extremely deep lockers in the hallway. We ventured out to find an ATM, and then parted ways to simultaneously complete two separate missions: Nat and I would head back to the bass shop to get the instrument; Jon, Pete, and Abigale would find us some food, and then we’d all meet over at the Amsterdam Conservatory for our scheduled rehearsal at 6 pm.

Nat and I got a cab back to the bass shop, where we settled up for the week’s rental (for less than originally quoted, and with insurance!), and then set back out (on foot) to the conservatory, which we were assured was a mere 15-minute walk away. The alleged 15-minute walk turned out to be closer to 40 (so many long walks carrying heavy objects!), though to be fair, we did get a little lost. To our surprise and delight, along the way we ran into some huge posters advertising the festival. The faces of a number of musicians playing were integrated into the poster’s design and we quickly found the floating heads of Pete, Nat, Abigale, and myself among them (we later found out that only one band member per group was supposed to be included, but we managed to get four). We also meandered down a lovely street next to a canal that was filled with houseboats before figuring out how to traverse a series of bridges that lead us to the conservatory.

Jon, Pete, and Abigale had beaten us there (and apparently had a difficult time convincing the man at the front desk that we actually had practice space reserved for us), and we met them up on the fourth floor. The current conservatory building is relatively new, so everything is shiny and bright and there were huge windows along one side of the room that looked over the city. For the next couple hours, we alternated between rehearsing and napping in the bass case. I also learned that “duwen” means “push” and not “ladies’ room”, but the Dutch are remarkably progressive, so no harm done.

After rehearsal, we found our way back to the hostel and put our instruments away (my rental bass spent a large portion of that week occupying most of the small office at the hostel). Jon and Abigale were exhausted and passed out in the room, but Pete, Nat, Nat’s friend Mark (who was able to come hang out in Amsterdam with us for most of the week), and I all went out to explore the neighborhood, fight off jetlag, and try some Dutch beer.

We stumbled into De Bekeerde Suster, which claimed to brew three beers on site (though the equipment looked far too clean and new for that to be possible), and fell in love with their trippels. On the way back to the hostel, we explored the area a little more, stumbling upon Dam Square and watching Nat try to speak Arabic while buying french fries.

The next morning, Jon, Pete, and I ventured out for breakfast and ended up exploring a nearby street market. We met up with Nat and Abigale at In de Waag, a restaurant inside of a large castle in Nieuwmarkt. On the way back to the hostel to rehearse, we dropped in at Het Compagnietheater to check out the venue. The receptionist was very nice and gave us a quick tour–we got to see the backstage crew setting up lights and the stage for the following morning.

We were able to rehearse a little bit in the hostel’s TV room, but were quickly yelled at by the cleaning lady for being too loud. After running through our sets a couple times as quietly as possible, we decided to go out and busk, so we could actually play at our regular volume. After meandering around Dam Square for a little while, avoiding the Roma musicians who clearly controlled the street music presence in the area and then getting drafted to hold orange balloons and pose in a group picture with some random Dutch man, we found a little area to set up and play. We played through our sets (and some extra pop covers) and quickly drew a small crowd. We didn’t end up doing quite as well as the morning rush hour on the red line in Boston, but we atleast collected a fair amount of small change, which is far easier to use around the city than the large bills dispensed by the bank.

After busking, we put our instruments away at the hostel, acquired some snacks (including a large bundle of carrots and other veggies, fruit, and nuts), and headed to the opening concert for the International Jewish Music Festival at the Portuguese Synagogue.

The Portuguese Synagogue is in the Jewish quarter of the city and is long and cavernous. Upon arrival, we were first ushered into an underground dimly lit cave-like room to register, get our official IJMF badges (almost as good as the Klezmer Idol medals), sign publicity wavers, obtain an assortment of maps and information about the city, and got briefed in the order of events for the next couple days. While waiting to get into the concert, we met some of the other musicians, including Gilad, the extremely friendly oud player from the Israeli band Alila, who we would hang out with often throughout the following four days.

The concert itself was a nice introduction to the festival. The synagogue was covered in lit candles as the only light source to highlight the performers. Opening the concert was Gerard Edery, guitarist, vocalist, and one of the judges for the festival. Following him was Mames Babegenush, a Danish brass-led klezmer band and the Audience Choice Award winners from the 2010 competition.

After the concert, we mingled for a little while before venturing out into the city to find some dinner (cheap falafel) and then to bar for a couple drinks before bed.

(Up next: a full report from playing at the festival!)

Amsterdam: a prologue

Over the next few days I’ll be posting about my trip to Amsterdam in installments, but before I dive into all of the details from the past couple weeks, here’s some backstory on how I ended up there.

I’ve been playing with Ezekiel’s Wheels pretty much since moving to Boston back in the fall of 2009. It was the first non-Oberlin affiliated band I joined after moving to the area, and there were some funny circumstances leading to my involvement, which are actually remarkably in line with the DIY/riding-a-sequence-of-coincidences personality of the band. I basically ran into an accordion player that I had met two years before up at KlezKanada (a week-long klezmer festival held just north of Montreal every August) on the street at Honk! (a weekend-long activist street band festival held in Davis Square every October) when I first arrived in Boston. He mentioned playing with a klezmer band in need of a bassist, so I offered my services. However, before all five of us could play together, he moved out of town. I joined the band anyway, not really knowing what to expect, and have been happily playing house shows, farmers markets, and in the subway with them ever since. Fast forward to this past fall, when we added Abigale, another fiddle player, to appease our fiddler Jon, who wanted more flexibility in taking gigs (or not), marking our first (and only) lineup change in the past 3 years.

Anyway, we used to play in the T pretty regularly (as in, weekly during the morning rush hour) along the north side of the red line. We developed a pretty good following doing that and often came away with a decent haul (monetarily and gig-offer-wise) for what was basically an hour-long rehearsal. Through playing in the subway, we met Margery, who was probably the first person (ourselves included) to actually take us seriously as a band. She’s pretty well connected in the Boston Jewish music world, and contacted several venues and local organizations on our behalf. One such organization was the Boston Jewish Music Festival. Around the time she contacted them (earlier this year), they were busy putting together their annual festival. As a new addition this year, they were organizing the so-called Klezmer Idol competition to close the festival, in which several local klezmer bands were participating for a chance to win prizes and klezmer glory. Margery worked her magic and suddenly Ezekiel’s Wheels was added to the list of competitors.

We didn’t really take Klezmer Idol super seriously to begin with–we saw it as kind of gimmicky and silly, but we recognized that there would be a lot of people attending it, and that it would be great to get on the Boston Jewish Music Festival’s radar. So we arranged a 12-minute set of tunes from our repertoire, as well as the Britney Spears tune “Crazy” (we felt that we needed to represent our klezmer-infused pop covers, as it is an important part of our identity as a band, hilariously enough). We showed up at Klezmer Idol not really knowing what to expect, or really what we were even competing for, but we were instantly excited by the medals inscribed with “Klezmer Idol” that every participant received, and checked the whole night off as a win even before starting to play.

Even at the Klezmer Idol competition we were up against bands more established than ourselves, bands who regularly played weddings and other events in the area, who actually had CDs and other merch. But between being one of the youngest (and most energetic) bands to play, and having a really polished set, we ended up winning the title of Klezmer Idol, as well as (more importantly) some free studio time to record what would become our first EP. Joey Baron, one of the organizers of the BJMF, also recommended that we check out the International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam and apply to their competition, a suggestion that only our clarinetist Nat took seriously.

So Nat sent in our newly finished EP and an application on our behalf to the IJMF over the summer and told all of us to block out the dates in our calendars just in case–a request that all of us basically ignored, figuring there was no way we were actually going to end up there. But sure enough, at the end of the summer we got an email from the festival inviting us to come play, which was the first big shocker of the whole Amsterdam experience.

We quickly got organized to figure out the details for our trip. We only had about two months to prepare ourselves musically and financially to go abroad. The festival had invited 24 bands from all over the world (meaning mostly Europe and Israel) to come play, but couldn’t offer us much in terms of financial assistance. So we did what any creative project in need of money does: we put together a kickstarter campaign. Thanks to a super homemade video and the support of family, friends, as well as complete strangers, we were able to raise over $6,000 for airfare, lodging, food, an upright bass rental, and other expenses.

We were also busy figuring out what we wanted to play for the festival. Our instructions were to prepare two 15-minute sets, and to be prepared to play a 45-minute set, in case we won. The way we were told the festival was going to work was that we’d play our first 15-minute set in the semi-final round, and if we were selected to move to the finals, we’d also get to play our other 15-minute set, and if we won, we’d get a full 45-minute set at the winners concert. These details changed several times leading up the festival, most notably with the introduction of a required tune that every band would have to perform. So not only did we have to put together and polish two separate sets that showed off the range of stuff we can do as a band, raise all of the money for our trip, and clear our schedules for the time we’d be away, we also had to figure out how to arrange the Ladino tune “La Rosa Enflorence” and be able to perform it in under 4 minutes, so we wouldn’t go over our 15-minute time limit.

After listening to all of the different bands on the IJMF website we came to the conclusion that they introduced the required tune because all of the ensembles were so musically diverse, they had to have some sort of litmus test to help judge between them. Even though the tune itself is relatively simple, coming up with a collective arrangement was extremely difficult. We sort of got bogged down with overanalyzing what the judges might be looking for from the arrangement and trying to do things that the other bands might not think to do. We wanted to show off many different elements of what we can do both technically and musically, which resulted in many frustrating hours of trying out different keys, different time signatures, as well as adding new sections. After each rehearsal we would go home tired and annoyed about not making any real progress on it.

Two weeks before leaving, we still didn’t have an arrangement that we all could agree upon, so we had a really long afternoon rehearsal complete with chalkboard to keep track of ideas and finally came up with a form that atleast everyone could live with, that more or less went along with the story of the song. We decided to open with a short doina-esque bowed bass solo, which lead into the rhythmless first statement of the melody (this was something I really fought for, wanting to showcase some kind of melodic bow work during our first set in the contest). From there, the meter came in and Pete came up with a trombone interlude that wove itself between reiterations of the melody to both break up the tune and provide space to show off improvisation within the band. Abigale took the second time through the melody on violin, which lead to Nat playing the tune on clarinet and double timing the tempo. At the climax of the arrangement, Pete comes in with drawn out statement of the melody over top of everyone, which gets cut off by the bowed bass again with some improvised statements to first convey anger, and then softens to longing.

Abstract summaries aside, I do really appreciate that the arrangement demonstrates how roles get tossed around within the band–we’re constantly trading between playing melodies and more supportive parts. Additionally, even though we have a set structure to our arrangements, there is still a huge amount of improvisation that happens within the form, and nothing really gets played the same way twice.

The couple weeks leading up to departure, we were all super busy and getting together literally every time our schedules all lined up, even if just for an hour in various parts of the city. We played for as many friends would listen to us (with special shout outs to Jeff, Ariel, and all of my housemates for open ears and critical suggestions). Nat and I hand-stamped and -stickered roughly 80 new CDs to bring to Europe and to use as thank yous for kickstarter backers. We were all rushing around to get odds and ends in order before leaving. Personally, this meant a crazy week of rehearsals for gigs happening immediately after returning, a recording session, squeezing in a few students as to not miss too many lessons, and making sure all of my home co-op chores were covered in my absence. But it all came together, and around 6:30 pm on October 8th, all nervous and excited, we made our way to Logan Airport.

(Tales from Ezekiel’s Wheels at the International Jewish Music Festival coming soon!)