Harmonia. Hidden Legacy
Harmonia and Folk Sounds Records, 2012.
Founded by Walt Mahovlich, Harmonia is based in Cleveland but members call a diverse range of geographic areas “home.” This brilliant Eastern European-themed group compiles music from Hungarian, Croatian, Slovak, gypsy, and other former Soviet-bloc cultures, with a prominent klezmer musician thrown in for giggles. The band not only features full-bodied Eastern European music, but is also fluent in the culture and traditions of Eastern Europe, through personal experience here and abroad and more academic study. What shines through their music the most, to me at least, is the combination of performance and love that goes into each piece. The musicians in Harmonia are not simply playing music, but recreating a sense of homeland using music, dance, clothing, and history. This cultural richness both sets them apart from many groups while also making them right at home in the northeast Ohio-northwest Pennsylvania area, with its strong eastern European communities.
Harmonia’s sound is rich and complex, with plenty of sounds that many Americans won’t be used to. Most tunes are very danceable in a moderate, hip-shaking, belly-dancing way, and a few cross into bouncy upbeat tunes that get anyone moving. The unusual-to-us instrumentation is a treat, especially the klezmer pieces with the strong accordion and violin usage. The Roma selections have you seeing bangle bracelets, hip-shawls, and campfires easily, and can even make dinner a workout as you shimmy around the kitchen (preferably while frying things). The lush sound isn’t just for those of us who already appreciate WCPN’s Slovak hour and other cultural programming, but nearly anyone who likes to enjoy life and indulge in simple hedonism once in a while.
Reeling right into the swing of things, Romanian Ritual Dances grabs your attention and lets you know that this is not going to be a standard American folk CD. Instrumental, punctuated by shouts in a foreign language, the sound is something that could have come from any number of nationalities. In the High Pasture is a flowing pastoral work highlighting Beata’s vocals and Andrei’s wind skills. Anyone who’s familiar with Slavic Village area of Cleveland and the churches there will recognize a good polka, and Ukrainian Polka is solid without being stereotypical so even non-polka fans can enjoy the piece. Songs from Vojvodina begins grand and sweeping with cimbalom and vocals, and then winds into a rousing vocally driven section. This pattern repeats through the song, and reminds me of a song fit for a cabaret show. Hora from Bucovina has wonderful accordion and violin parts that let the listener focus on the interplay of the players and less on the individual instruments. The beginning of Slovak Shepherd Song is a bit disconcerting with what sounds like a didgeridoo starting out, until you Google “Slovak didgeridoo” and find out that there is in fact a Slovak didgeridoo called the fujara. And then the song is over and you have to go back because you missed the beauty that is a Slovak Shepherd Song. Seven Step Hora is one of the most danceable tunes and should not be played in a confined space unless you’re far more coordinated than I am. Mother’s Lament lets you recover from all the twirling while listening to more heady woodwinds. Moldavian Stomp has the sounds of dancing to go along with the dancing rhythm. Weary feet drag at the beginning of the Roads of the Roma, like weary travelers driven from every home they’ve known, but as the music continues, spirits lift, as they are wont to do when there’s good music to be enjoyed. Sunrise Song from Transylvania is brief but sweet, and a nice lead up to Hungarian Dances from Transylvania. Sounding almost out of tune, the cimbalom in Forgive Me, Mother plays in Beata in a gentle, downcast tune. This leads into Hungarian Suite in Gypsy Style, which builds over the course of the song into a faster pace, which slows down again at the start of Ukrainian Mountain Music, only to crescendo quickly again before the album is finished.
In March, Harmonia is mostly doing workshops instead of touring, they do have Hidden Legacy available on CD Baby, their own website, and streaming on the web. A quick search turns up plenty of ways to hear them in whole or the individual members, so you can grab a quick fix. They also bring their cultural workshops to schools and other venues, which might be interesting if you wanted to delve deeper into Eastern European heritage. Give them a try, and let a little culture into your life.
Personnel: Walt Mahovlich (Accordion), Alexander Fedoriouk (Cimbalom), Beata Begeniova (Vocals), Steven Greenman (Violin), Jozef Janis (Violin), Andrei Pidkivka (Panflute/Nai, Sopilka/folk flute), Branislav Brinarsky (Bass), Fujara, Gajdice (Vocals), Ken Javor (Bass).
Tracks: Romanian Ritual Dances, In the High Pasture, Ukrainian Polka, Songs from Vojvodina, Hora from Bucovina, Slovak Shepherd’s Song, Seven Step Hora, The Mother’s Lament, Moldavian Stomp, Roads of the Roma, Sunrise Song from Transylvania, Hungarian Dances from Transylvania, Forgive Me Mother, Hungarian Suite in Gypsy Style, Ukrainian Mountain Music