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Interview with Yaeko Miranda Elmaleh
November 3, 2021
Yaeko Miranda Elmaleh is one of the most versatile and consistently delightful musicians on the local scene. She’s played with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Bernadette Peters to Itzhak Perlman, and everywhere from Avery Fisher Hall to A Prairie Home Companion. I’ve looked up to her musically ever since I started playing klezmer and lately have come to call her for advice on parenting while gigging - perhaps a topic for another blog post later in the season!
Yaeko and I found time between her many performances last week to chat about her upcoming concert at the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music, what she's been listening to lately, and more. Here’s a bit of that interview, lightly edited for grammar, clarity, and me not sounding like an idiot when asking questions.
Nat: Hey Yaeko! How are you?
Yaeko: Good. Can you hear me okay?
Nat: I can hear you perfectly. Can you hear me okay?
Yaeko: I can hear you great!
Nat: Awesome. Well, I'm going to ask you a couple of questions about your upcoming concert. I think some of the people who are coming are going to have known you for a long time; some are going to be super fans who know every facet of your Wikipedia page; but some people may have never heard of you before. I'd love it if you could tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey from being a young person who presumably loved the violin to someone who's a professional musician and has been able to play in all of these really cool places and write your own music and do all of the things that people think musicians should do.
Yaeko: Okay, so I grew up in Boston - in Cambridge - and started violin at the age of three. Classical, you know, Suzuki. I had that kind of upbringing. But one thing is that I came from a very artistic family. Everyone's an artist. So I grew up with a lot of music in my home.
My father being from El Salvador, I listened to a lot of music from Latin America, not just from Central America, but from South America. And my dad was also a really big jazz fan - like tons of jazz, he had a huge record collection.
My mother being from France we listened to a lot of French music and singers - actually she really loved a lot of jazz, too.
Both my mother and my father's fathers were guitar players. Frankly, we're just all artists, that's what I'm trying to say.
So I started with classical music. And I was trained that way but I had all this other stuff brewing in me, other things happening. And we were always just a little different as a family. I was multicultural, is what I'm saying. I don't know if that's a PC term anymore. We were very diverse, you know, just having two parents from different countries and being an American.
It's funny because lately I've been listening to, again, what I was listening to then. Fritz Kreisler every night before I would go to sleep, that's what my mother would put on. Itzhak Perlman plays Fritz Kreisler, that was on my cassette tape. And lately I've been playing that for my kids, like deep asleep and all that. All that stuff, you know, Meditation from Thaïs, and Fritz Kreisler playing them as well. So there was like that real soulfulness in the violin, that flavor, a kind of old world sound, that I always loved and that's really what I love about the violin.
Fast forward: I did NEC prep school, I did tons and tons of concerto competitions - you have no idea - and orchestras, and by the time I got to NEC, I was like, I don't want to do this. Being in an orchestra, god bless those people who want to do it, but I can't. There's so much more inside me than that. I just kind of had an itch and it was at that point that I heard Hankus with the Jewish Music Ensemble. And I was like, “Ooh, this is so interesting.”
And so I joined it, and I felt like it gave me an opportunity to be a little bit more flexible with the violin than I could in the classical world. I played every Mozart like a klezmer song anyway, I was just too emotional and passionate. I love all kinds of music: folk rock, jazz, everything. And so it gave me an opportunity to kind of loosen up and become more flexible and then join Third Stream, which allowed me to try different ensembles, to get out there a little bit more and become more flexible and more confident.
I think a lot of classical musicians have a hard time playing when they don't have music in front of them. You just freeze. And so it was really nice, I would call it a really good training for the real world.
My real, real learning came from just gigging, gigging with all kinds of people. And getting the gig with the Klezmer Conservatory Band right out of college. That was the best music lesson, just getting thrown in it and getting hired right away after just doing one gig. And being the violinist and learning to read certain music, learning the style, just getting a feeling for it.
From there, I've just been evolving. Because I come from a Sephardic background, the Eastern European stuff is beautiful, but I felt like it wasn't me. I love Arabic music and that sound and Turkish music, so I wanted to add the percussion, hand drums and Middle Eastern percussion. So I wanted to start blending that, and I know that's really not traditional. What can I say? I'm not a traditional girl; everyone tells me it's wrong and I just do it anyway! But it works for me.
And then I just ended up gigging so much and being a crossover violinist. I've had the opportunity to start dipping my toes into other styles: a little jazz, some blues. You know, last year I got together with my good friend Sonya (Rae Taylor) and started singing. Who knew I’d be singing? I'll be doing one or two vocals actually at this gig.
Lately, I've gotten together with Sonny Barbato. He's a keyboard player, a really great jazz player, and accordion player. I'm not like you know, just playing with him: he pushes me. We've tried playing a jazz standard and, you know, getting me out of my comfort zone and pushing me to learn the melody and the changes for it.
This is how I learned, by just playing with people and having fun. For me, it works.
Sonya was great because actually Sonya is Jewish, and we both come from a Sephardic background, so it was kind of interesting because she's half Jewish half Italian and I'm half Jewish half Salvadoran. And we did that “Miserlou,” which I thought, you know, how many times are we gonna play “Miserlou?” I'm so over it! But actually, when we did that version of it with the words, everything was so cool. I was like, I could listen to this all the time!
Nat: That's actually a really good segue to my next question, because this is something we're asking everyone. When you write a new piece, how do you get from there being nothing to all of a sudden there's something that you can play in a concert? Where does the music come from and what's your process for creating it?
Yaeko: Literally, I'll be truthful, I had an ex-boyfriend, who told me I wasn't a real musician because I did not write music, and so I was like: fuck you, I'm gonna write a song. He's an ex-boyfriend. And I was like, fuck you in my brain, and that's when I sat down, I was like, you're gonna write a song.
No, it's true, right. So I actually just really sat down, and the thing is I always sing. And I didn't know that I could do something with it. It just never occurred to me because I was like, “I play the violin, what else do you want”, but then I was like, “Okay, what's this melody I'm hearing? How can I develop it?”
That's how I wrote those. I wrote a tango and I wrote a waltz. I literally just sang stuff, and then put it away and then came back and added. The influences in there are definitely from what I've been doing in the last 20 years. I mean it definitely has that sad, Jewish music sound to everything I do. There's that sadness in me. So that's where it comes from, it's literally just sitting down and singing, and then I come up with arrangements. You know I'm not gonna sit down with a pen and a paper and come up with like all the parts written out like a complete orchestral piece, but I will have an idea in my mind about how I want to structure it. It's really organic, the song just comes out. I know how I wanted to start, I know how I wanted to end. I know where I wanted to go. I would go in the float tank, and I would just kind of come up with arrangements that way. I know it sounds crazy, but I would just stare in the darkness and then, like, “Oh, next section.”
This is why we as artists need endless hours to stare at the trees, the hummingbirds, and be inspired. That's what I need at least. It's just so unfortunate that we live in a culture that doesn't seem to understand that about musicians. I love it when people go “well can't you just write something in the morning between like nine and ten?” I'm like, what? I'm trying to come down from making lunchboxes and all stressed out. You can't be forced and we unfortunately live in a society that just doesn't understand, or they just think it's a waste of time or money. They don't understand how people need to create and how it could take me eight hours just to come up with one idea of inspiration, but that's what I need.
Nat: So tell us more about this specific music that you're going to be playing in November.
Yaeko: Okay, so I think that you will be getting a combination of some of my compositions that I have written. I'm also adding vocals for the first time, which I’ve never done with Michael and Grant before, and mandolin playing, which is a new thing for me. And a couple of my interpretations with the mandolin and the violin other songs. I won’t tell you the names right now!
And I'm going to rap as well. No, I'm just joking. I don't think I should try that. I have never really rapped before so I don't know how good it would be. Maybe that's the next concert, all rapping, all spoken word. Yes.
Nat: Other than your music do you have things that you've been listening to lately, that you love, that might just like blow my mind that I haven't heard before?
Yaeko: Oh man, oh gosh, wow, you're asking me this. Lately, I've been listening to a lot of Beyonce with Naava, I'm not joking, because she really likes her, and so that's the truth.
But what am I listening to at home - this is not going to blow your mind - I stepped away from listening to classical music for so long.I kind of had an aversion to it for a long time just because of the my years of doing it. And I've been coming back to listening to Mozart, and I told you I've been recently putting on the Kreisler again, listening to the old violinists like David Oistrakh, Heifetz, Menuhin, listening to the old recordings.
I started listening to a lot of blues artists, too, because I've been interested in that. And then early jazz because I've been working with Sonny, some of those older tunes like “I Got Rhythm,” “ Ain't Got Rhythm,” Billie Holiday stuff. I mean I have my playlist here, Lightnin’ Hopkins, I'm kind of being all over the place right now, but I'm just being truthful and listening.
I'm going back to early stuff, like early blues. I know people don't consider Django “jazz,” but you know that French early jazz. And then just exploring whatever singers I can listen to. I actually have a singer that I love that no one seems to know. She's one of my favorite songwriters. Her name is Lhasa de Sela, and I'm listening to her a lot.
I'm evolving in a different direction - I don't know where it's gonna go. I’m literally going with wherever I'm interested. I'm going with it and I'm not trying to stay limited or in a container of any kind of style or genre.
And I don't know if this helps, too, but to kind of give a bigger picture, I've read tarot cards - I actually really do do. I love astrology now, I've really gotten into that and studying about it on my own. So that’s a part of me, too. I’ve got to go with the flow of everything.
First, join Yaeko on Wednesday, November 17th at 7pm for her free concert with the BFNJM, live at the Boston Synagogue and streaming everywhere. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-boston-festival-of-new-jewish-music-12-yaeko-miranda-elmaleh-tickets-169804777661
Then, check follow her on YouTube and Instagram and subscribe to her mailing list at http://www.yaekoplaysviolin.com/.