Hannah Gelman and Jonah Massey
September 1, 2022
Music At and As Home: An Interview with Mamaliga’s Rebecca Mac featuring Mattias Kaufmann
How a quarantine living situation transformed a musical duo into a klezmer quartet
“Hey! So I’m actually in an accordion factory in Italy right now,” Rebecca Mac says at the start of our Tuesday morning Zoom interview. Mac is helping her partner and fellow band member, Mattias Kaufmann, shop for a new instrument. Pausing briefly to accept a glass of slivovitz from the factory owner, Mac, a violinist in the Boston-based klezmer band Mamaliga, is right at home in the keyboard-studded warehouse.
Folk-flavored trips across the Atlantic are nothing new to Mac, who has spent much of her career playing with Hungarian, Romanian, and Transylvanian folk musicians. Mac’s connection to Eastern-European styles translates clearly in her work in the U.S., where she has studied and played in the klezmer music scene for a number of years. Mamaliga, the violinist’s primary musical group, is no exception. Named after the polenta-like Romanian side dish, the Bostononian quartet of 20-somethings “melds the klezmer melodies of old country Yiddishland with new era sensibilities.” When Mac tilted her laptop camera towards Kaufmann so that they could demonstrate the difference between Freygish and Hungarian accordion melodies, we got a good sense of what exactly old-yet-new means.
Mamaliga’s first album, Dos Gildn Bletl, Yiddish for “The Golden Leaf,” was released in 2021, but the group has been around for several years now. Mac and Kaufmann started Mamaliga as a duo project in 2018 after meeting at Yiddish New York the year before. In this iteration of Mamaliga, Mac and Kaufmann studied folk music in Hungary and Romania and worked on klezmer melodies together. The duo became a quartet during the pandemic, when two of the couple’s good friends, Rachel Leader and Raffi Boden, came to live with them. Leader, a klezmer violinist, and Boden, a classical jazz cellist, quickly became the next two members of Mamaliga.
Mac describes Mamaliga’s transition into a quartet and the development of their album as deeply organic. For the four friends and artists, the uninterrupted time and space provided by the pandemic was a creative luxury. They spent their months as housemates fully immersed in learning, brainstorming, experimenting, generating, and practicing. The album’s closing song, Mitvoyner Zkhok, or “The Housemates Dance,” with its love, playfulness, and patience, is perhaps emblematic of this period.
The group also took advantage of the fact that several band members were studying at conservatories — Berklee, Juilliard, and the England Conservatory — remotely, giving them an opportunity to receive feedback from a variety of sources as they worked. Mac spoke with affection about the two-week period leading up to the recording of Dos Gildn Bletl, during which the quartet spent every day working together to test melodies, determine arrangements, and rehearse songs. Intricate, balanced, and joyful, the caring, collaborative nature of the group and their process rings loud and clear in their debut album, and in the conversation we were lucky enough to have with them.
BFNJM: Klezmer music is such a rich component of Ashkenazi and Yiddish social and cultural history, yet your work is undeniably contemporary. How do you navigate the historical-yet-modern nature of your musicianship?
Rebecca Mac: As individuals, we have all sort of done personal study with traditional klezmer styles of music. For me, within the fiddle klezmer repertoire, the repertoire that is violin-centered as opposed to one that is more clarinet-centered (even though I’ve learned a lot from clarinetists), I’ve put a lot of focus into listening to old recordings and transcribing them. I’ve also done a lot of traveling in Eastern Europe and learning what are called co-territorial genres, which are genres that were happening in the same places as klezmer music. So, in Hungary and Romania, there are parallel genres that have influenced klezmer but are really their own.
In the group, we do a lot of our own compositions, and one way we’re bringing the sort of contemporary sensibility to klezmer music is by playing a lot of repertoire that isn’t in the traditional canon. So, while we do play a lot of traditional stuff, what we recorded on our album and what we like to perform as a group tend to be our original compositions. Also, because we don’t have traditional instrumentation in the group, that really lends our sound to something that is not so traditional. And especially the way that our cellist plays is a little more of a contemporary style. He’s not just playing 1-5-1-5 standard bass, he’s playing all kinds of middle voices as well. And we like to take the clarinet repertoire and play it on string instruments, so that sounds different than the original things. So, changing the instrumentation a bit, playing around with the accordion playing trombone lines and the violinists playing these second voices that you’d maybe hear on the saxophone or even the trombone.
BFNJM: What was influencing you, or what were you thinking about, when you were writing Dos Gildn Bletl?
Rebecca Mac: A lot of the compositions were written by Mattias, or collaboratively between us. We got a lot of melodic inspiration from Hungarian motifs, and we were listening to a lot of Romanian music. Often we’d take little ideas fom klezmer tunes we knew, like sort of doing a model composition type of thing but maybe just making a model phrase and building on it. Oh, Mattias, do you want to say something?
Mattias Kaufmann: Yeah, so I was still in school online during the pandemic, and I had a lot of time to just talk with my teachers about compositions and bring ideas to them. For one of my classes, I had this little journal called a harmonic workbook, and every day I composed these little melodies over different progressions and a lot of times I would experiment with things for Mamaliga. A lot of ideas just came from bringing stuff to my teachers and talking about it.
Rebecca Mac: And, also on that note, during our intensive period before recording the album, we asked a lot of our teachers and mentors to meet with us on Zoom as a group. We would play them a song and say, ‘What do you think? Can you give us some advice?’ We reached out to a lot of different people, like Hankus Netsky and David Harris, and even Raffi’s professors, and Raffi was at a classical conservatory so that was really interesting to hear.
Mattias Kaufmann: Carla Kihlstedt, who is one of my teachers, when I brought her our tunes, one of the biggest impacts she had was getting us to think about different textures. Raffi developed this technique where he hits his cello, which imitates this Romanian instrument that’s like a cymbal. So, with lots of things like expanding our texture, it was helpful to brainstorm with others.
BFNJM: Why do you think it’s important to play klezmer today? Why does it matter to you to be playing this music right now?
Rebecca Mac: I think klezmer is so important for many reasons. I think, being Jewish in America, there’s been so many generations of assimilation that have erased what diasporic culture is. Being an Ashekanzi Jew, as a kid, I had no idea what the culture of my grandparents and my grandparents was like – what music they heard, what sounds they heard – I had no connection to that, going to a synagogue that had just kind of erased that from its identity. And I think that because it’s so rich and beautiful, not just to bring back something that’s dead, but because Ashkenazi folk music and music from every Jewish diaspora is such rich music, I feel it deserves to live on and continue in its musical life.
And I think that, as Jews, so many people are so disconnected from what Judaism is culturally. I think it’s really hard for people to connect to the Judaism in synagogues that is so tied up with new Israeli culture, with Zionism, and with these things that don’t resonate with everyone. And I think being able to connect to a type of Judaism that would resonate with your grandmother or your great grandmother, something that isn’t new and that hasn't been created within the past 80 or 60 years, is something that is really important and special. I think klezmer is bigger than itself in that way.
BFNJM: If there is one thing you want people to take away from you and your music, either for yourself or on behalf of your group, what would it be?
Rebecca Mac: Oh, I don’t know! Mattias, do you have an idea?
Mattias Kaufmann: Maybe, yeah. I feel like there is so much about relationships with other people that is important in making music together, and I think one of the things that is so special about Mamaliga is the time we put into our relationships with each other. So I think there are things that are extra-musical.
Rebecca Mac: Yeah, Mamaliga is what it is because of the people in the group. And, as individuals, we bring so much to the group that changing out one member would really change the group in a big way. You know, one sort of dream that I have for Mamaliga, even though we’re rooted as a klezmer band, is that I want us to be appreciated by people who don’t know what klezmer is, for them to find the sound interesting and be interested in Mamaliga, too. Because, why not?
First, join Mamaliga on Sunday, September 11th at 3pm for their concert at the Boston Synagogue. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/mamaliga-the-boston-festival-of-new-jewish-music-emerging-artists-tickets-412889673127?aff=blog
Then, buy their albums at https://mamaliga.bandcamp.com/.