Pitt student ensemble explores Eastern European culture and music

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Adriana Helbig is a musical Indiana Jones. As an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh who arrived last year to bolster the School of Music's ethnomusicology roster, she brings not only knowledge of her subject, but also personal journeys, to the Intro to World Music class she teaches to 200 undergrads.

As Helbig tells it, she was spending a year abroad at the Vienna Conservatory, intent on a career in classical piano and scholarship, when an entirely different type of music piqued her curiosity. "A lot of people were moving into Vienna because of a migration from the conflict in the Balkans. When I started hearing the music in Europe, I switched tracks and got interested in Gypsy music."

This was no passing fancy for Helbig -- graduating from Columbia in 2005, she completed her dissertation by traveling around the Ukraine. "[I focused on] people using music to draw attention to broader political and economic issues. With the end of the Soviet Union and then the economic collapse, Gypsies fell through the cracks. No one represented them in the political framework, so they used the old 'all gypsies are musicians' stereotype to draw attention to their issues."

World Music Day

Where: 423 Bellefield Hall, University of Pittsburgh, Oakland.

When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

Admission: Free; 412-624-4126.

Slavic Dance Party

Where: William Pitt Union Assembly Room.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Admission: Free.

According to Helbig, the problems of the Gypsies (properly referred to as Roma) include lack of education, endemic poverty, discrimination, unemployment, no representation in city councils, and medical ailments such as tuberculosis. "Their living situation is the worst in Eastern Europe. They're not allowed to settle in the cities, so they live on the outskirts. The governments take no responsibility for building roads, access to clean water and education, so the kids have no chance of making it. The gypsy settlements are like this black spot on the history of Eastern Europe, especially in the Carpathian region. There's no one really working on behalf of these people -- it's gotten a bit better since some have been involved in local politics, but it's still a very serious problem."

Central in raising awareness of the plight of the Gypsies has been the burgeoning fanbase for their music ("gypsy genres vary from country to country, then there's urban variations and more traditional ones"). Part of Helbig's job description was a push at the School of Music to emphasize not just learning music in theory, but also performing it.

Hence, the birth of Pitt's own Carpathian Ensemble.

"[The music school] said I could start whatever ensemble I wanted. I looked at what I knew, and what would fit with Pittsburgh -- there are so many Eastern European immigrants in this area -- and instead of going country by country, I decided to choose the name 'Carpathian' which is regional. It includes Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine and Poland, so I can focus on ethnicities from that region."

As the Ensemble congealed, however, Helbig realized that there's already a strong Balkan music scene in Pittsburgh, so now they play music from that area of Europe as well. "We seem to have developed a genre that people like. Instead of doing it traditionally like you'd hear it in a village, we play the instruments in our own interpretative way, like a fusion approach."

The Ensemble's arsenal of ethnically specific instruments includes some sopilkas (flutes), the tapan and dombek (drums), a bouzouki and a tsymbaly (hammered dulcimer). "The university owns these instruments -- some we bought, and some the students just wanted to learn, so we incorporated them."

Although Helbig directs the Ensemble, the results are almost entirely based on student initiative, as can be witnessed from the Carpathian Ensemble's bounty of videos on Youtube. She cites the example of bouzouki player Jonathan Withers. "He's specializing in Turkish music and wants to go into a graduate program in ethnomusicology. We used the opportunity to buy this [bouzouki] and allow him to play it. He also plays the ney [Turkish flute] and incorporates the sound into our group."

Meanwhile, the hammered dulcimer was languishing in a storage room and brought to life by Evan Zajdel. "It belonged to the university, but no one ever used it. It's not the typical one used for Eastern European music, but [Evan] researched the tunings, retuned it, and taught himself to play it."

Student contributions also pervade much of the group's repertoire. "Some of the kids don't have any background in this music and come to the class not knowing anything, but there are two or three that know it, because gypsy and Balkan are popular world music genres that people listen to on their iPods. One student, Nathan Oravetz, brought in a lot of gypsy music and uploaded it onto my computer. Another student, Kenneth Haney, really loves klezmer [Eastern European Jewish music], so he does all the research on the klezmer repertoire, brings it in, and then we work on it."

In performances, the Carpathian Ensemble divides the program according to country. "We have a couple songs from Slovakia, Ukraine, Poland, Macedonia and Bulgaria. On Saturday, because it's a Slavic dance party, we're going to be very interactive. My colleague Emilia Zankina [associate director of the Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies] is a former Tamburitzan from Bulgaria. She comes in a few times and teaches us basic dance steps. So the students are going to be showing the audience some of these dances."

"That's what so great about this ensemble," continues Helbig, "because it teaches the students confidence and new ways to present things. I work with them on developing arrangements, but it's essentially their own ideas. As we practice, we might change something because of comments from the students who say 'this will work better.' They're singing in many languages -- Slovak and Macedonian and Romany -- and when they present the songs, each has done research and then leads the ensemble."

The Carpathian Ensemble and the world music class are merely one facet of Helbig's work at Pitt -- she also teaches a unique course on global hip-hop ("on the genre's development in the U.S. and how its influences spread throughout the world"), as well as leading a graduate seminar on music, culture and technology. In the spring, she'll helm another advanced course on the relationship between music, war and nationalism in the Balkans.

Similarly, her ensemble is also only one aspect of Pitt's ethno-musical programming, which is being showcased on Saturday at World Music Day, when four other groups (gamelan, African drumming, Indian tabla, and a newly established Japanese taiko drumming club) join the Carpathians for an afternoon concert. Then the Carpathians strike out on their own for the Slavic dance party that evening, replete with ethnic food and refreshments.

The popularity of the Carpathian Ensemble's format has also led them to play "outside" gigs. They've been invited for perform at the Ellis School in January, and will appear in Carnegie with the Kyiv Ukrainian Dance Ensemble in February. "Our big show is on March 26," adds Helbig.

"That's when we play our full repertoire, as opposed to music that's appropriate for the dance setting."

"In terms of heritage, some of the students do have an Eastern European background, but most don't," she continues. "They do get credit for their work, but I feel that since I've been able to retain [these players] from the beginning, the ensemble works very well. This is really their night to shine."

Manny Theiner is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.


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