Tuesday, December 11, 2001
The Arcata Eye
Around the world, non-stop with Chubritza

By Dan Brett
Eye Correspondent

Tuesday night rehearsal certainly begins in a folksy enough way for local Balkan folk band Chubritza, with beer and fried wontons. Conversation centers around Spanish dialects and Hebrew script as the chronically busy band members straggle in from jobs and music lessons, and settle in for another evening of singin' and tamburitza-pickin'. Tonight is an important rehearsal, because the band will be playing three gigs in the next week, including regular engagements at Sacred Grounds (first Saturday of the month), The Humboldt Folk Dance Club (first Friday), as well as a special show at an upcoming Hanukah party.

Not that Chubritza is likely to be out of practice. In addition to the above gigs, the band also plays monthly at Café Mokka (third Saturdays) and irregularly at other events. On the night they were interviewed, they had just returned from a Balkan Music Festival in San Francisco, where they received a standing ovation from some of the genre's masters. All in a week's work for this busy ethnic dance band.

According to founding member Linnea Mandell, the group gets its name from a spice mixture found widely on Balkan tables. "Whenever you go to Bulgaria, and throughout the Balkans, on all the tables they have these little dishes [with] salt, pepper and chubritza, which is kind of like Spike; a mixture of summer savory and paprika," she said. "So the idea is that we are a mixture of flavors with kind of a Balkan spice." Not a bad description for a band that begins with the already-rich variety of Balkan music and makes occasional forays into Eastern European, American, Russian, Roma and Klezmer styles.

Linnea and her partner Craig Kurumada helped form the band in 1993 as an outgrowth of their interest in folk dancing, something Linnea learned at a young age from her Hungarian-Russian parents.

Personnel changed over the years, but eventually settled into the present roster, which includes Janet Finney, Randy Carrico, Joe Friedman and Deborah Dukes. The members all come' from formal musical backgrounds, and styles range from classical and Celtic to Klezmer and jazz, but they share a love for the haunting melodies and contagious rhythms of Balkan music. They are all multi-instrumentalists as well; something which comes with the musical territory.

Because folk songs -- and the instruments they are played on -- vary widely throughout the mountainous Balkan region, a variety of traditional instruments are required to get an authentic sound. These include large double-headed drums called tupan, gajda (Balkan bagpipes), a plethora of woodwind and percussion instruments and several members from a family of stringed instruments known as tamburas. Throw in a few more recognizable instruments and you have a major baggage issue. "Actually half of the entertainment value of what we do is people watching us bring instruments in," quips Deborah.

Craig explains the profusion of equipment thus: "There are other bands who do this kind of thing, but they do it with one sort of set-up. They don't have all the different instruments. So in a way, for me, anyway, they have kind of a one-dimensional sound."

"Whereas we are multi-dimensional and have bad backs," adds Deborah.

Other challenges peculiar to the genre include singing songs in several obscure languages and dialects and learning to play music' in unusual odd-numbered rhythms (i.e. seven, nine, or 11 beats per measure). "Actually [the rhythms are] an early hump that you get over real fast... once you learn how to break them down," says Craig.

The languages are not so simple. Although they do not necessarily speak all the languages they sing in, the band makes a conscious effort to understand the lyric's, and to pronounce the words right.

With all of this internationality, do some Arcatan/American sensibilities seep into the mix? Yes, particularly in the band's well balanced gender mix (three women, three men), and the roles they play in the group.

Traditionally, women are purely singers in Balkan and Eastern European music, while men play instruments and sing to a much lesser extent. "It is a little bit of a tradition gap, playing for the traditional ethnic communities in the US, because women are not instrumentalists most of the time." says Linnea.

The band attributes the strong local interest in their music to the large folk dance community in Arcata, a lingering legacy of Humboldt State dance teacher Kay Chaffe, who inspired a huge interest in folk dancing here in the '60s and '70s. Exotic rhythms and sounds aside, the main appeal of Chubritza's music seems to be just that: it has a good beat and you can dance to it.

Although they play a few of what they call "listening songs," 90 percent of their repertoire is dance music. That is enough for most people, and even the band admits that having people dance is the greatest rush. "Bottom line," says Janet, "is you are playing in the middle of a room and people are dancing around you in a circle, and there is nothing else like that."