As a little girl, I was enamored with the stories of an exotic Perú told by my mother and father — exotic, dangerous, appalling, funny... The music that my mother brought with her to the States upon leaving Perú and marrying Dad only enhanced my attraction to her culture. It spoke volumes to me with its quena flutes, zampoña panpipes, drums, and mandolin-like charango guitars, and as a classically-trained composer and pianist today, I incorporate its influences into my own music.
But, I’m not Peruvian. Or, I should say — I’m not a pure-blooded Peruvian, born in the mother country. As a child growing up in Berkeley, CA, I was but one of many mixed-blood children, a gringo-born mestiza. And while I represented the exotic gringo wing of the family to my maternal relatives, I was equally exotic to — and loved by — my paternal relatives. They still claimed, with great pride, their Jewish-Lithuanian heritage and I would see the musical evidence of such at weddings when Eastern European-derived klezmer songs would be performed.
The idea to write music that drew on both of my heritages came to me a few years ago one Christmas morning in the family home. After witnessing my efforts in studying Latin American music here and abroad for some time, my father gave me a stack of Jewish music CDs with the note: “Because I have to compete!” I remember laughing long and hard at that, but an inspiration was born then: The idea to write a piece of music painting scenes from the experiences of the Jewish-American closest to me, my father, in Perú. The result is Khazn’s Recitative: Elu D’vorim
In the preparation for this piece, Dad and I held conversations that I recorded about the Peace Corps junket in the early sixties that took him to South America, and to my mother. We also discussed in detail his upbringing and training in Judaism in a post-World War II Bronx neighborhood. Contrary to my expectations, perhaps formed over the years from my exposure to the aforementioned family weddings I had attended, klezmer music did not loom large in my father’s heart. Rather, he spoke of being moved by the many renowned Jewish cantors (“khazn”) that would sing in New York synagogues at the time. To him, they sounded like grown men crying, and crying without embarrassment or inhibition in front of the congregation.
In our recorded conversations, I played historic recordings of different cantors for Dad, and those that my father identified as sounding “right” to him belonged to Moshe Koussevitzky (1899-1966), a cantor who came from the same country as my father’s ancestors, Lithuania, and who sang in temples in the Bronx and Brooklyn during my father’s boyhood. Perceiving this to be no accident, this piece is in the style of Koussevitzky’s singing and utilizes Elu D’vorim (which he was famous for), sung on Shabbat. It is for solo violin only, as traditional cantor singing is done without accompaniment. On a personal note, what struck me about Koussevitzky’s singing was that his voice reminded me of Dad’s, a startling realization! The deep feeling, the rise and fall of the lines, the lingering for emphasis are hallmarks of Dad to me.
Gabriela Lena Frank