Lara St. John's 'Shiksa'-- Way Beyond 'Czardas'

November 5, 2015, 3:20 PM · You've never heard "Czardas" quite like this....

That track is from Lara St. John's new album, called Shiksa, collection of Jewish, Roma and folk songs, reimagined for Lara and pianist Matt Herskowitz by composers Martin Kennedy, Milica Paranosic, John Kameel Farah, Yuri Boguinia, Serouj Kradjian, David Ludwig, Gene Pritsker and John Psatha -- as well as by Lara and Matt themselves.

Whatever the project, Lara tends to bring her wicked chops and some good irreverent humor to the endeavor. This is no exception. The sources for these tunes range from the violin canon ("Czardas") to: a "scratchy old record from Oltenia," the ubiquitous Hava Nagila, a traditional hammer dulcimer tune, a tune from a klezmer lesson, a tune learned in a bar and more.

Lara is a well-traveled musician with a lot of curiosity and range, who isn't afraid to put a new twist on the well-known -- or to plunge straight into the unknown. Take, for example, Bach. She has made a number of traditional Bach recordings, including the full Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin in 2007. But in more recent years, she's also become a virtuoso video editor and taken to Youtube, creating a series of highly creative Bach videos with dancer Stephanie Cadman in which they dance and play, say, a Bourree all over New York, or the G Minor Presto all over Toronto.

Lara St. John
Lara St. John. © J. Farley Photography.

We've known about her Gypsy side for a long time; as well as her penchant for polkas. How exactly did "Shiksa" evolve? I spoke with her via e-mail to find out:

Laurie: I've seen the video for Czardashian Rhapsody -- first, did you edit it?

Lara: Yes, I did edit it! And produced it, and came up with the idea of a harmonium in a 1949 Chevy pickup, because we had a gift harmonium (?), and that awesome Chevy, so it seemed like a natural thing to do.

Laurie: Speaking of Czardas, it's a piece that many people play. Over the course of your violinistic life, how has your view of this piece evolved? I'm guessing you first played quite young, in a much less elaborate form!

Lara: I've been playing a version or another of this Czardas my whole life, but never in the original form - which is actually a Roma tune an Italian guy named Monti wrote down after visiting Hungary. He didn't compose it. He just wrote it down for the first time and took all the credit.

Laurie: What gave you the idea to put together an album like this? Has it been brewing in your mind for a long time?

Lara: Oh yes - since my first trip to Hungary at 11 years old. I was astonished by all the music everywhere and thought that maybe I had been kidnapped by some Canadian family, because I felt like I belonged there.

Since that time, and especially since my year of living in the Soviet Union when I was 17, I've been fascinated with songs and music from many cultures in, shall we say, that general area. The borders are always changing, but the music is the one thing that folks always respond to and recognize.

Laurie: What does "Shiksa" mean, in the context of this album? And all those other words on the front of the album? ("gadji, külföldi, furešta," words in other alphabets...)

Lara: "Shiksa" is a word in Yiddish for a non-Jewish girl. Some half century or more ago, at the time of Roth's Portnoy and Bellow's Herzog it had a derogatory meaning, but no longer. It basically means the same as Gringa, which I I don't find at all offensive (even when it's followed by 'gigante'). Basically, I am a giant (6' ft) rather pasty Canadian with straight blond hair. I'm a total Shiksa, so I figure I might as well own it.

The other words are all the respective cultures' ways of saying Shiksa - in Roma, in Arabic, in Armenian, in Hungarian, Macedonian, Greek........The Greek one means "She who has no colour." Fair enough.

Laurie: How did a "random Canadian chick," as you've called yourself, get this music so deeply into her blood? It's not like you can just get that feeling by looking at sheet music, or even by taking lessons from a Curtis prof, am I correct? For those who don't know your story, can you talk a little about your travels, learning about the Roma music, Klezmer, etc.?

Lara: I went to Curtis as a child (at 13) and left to Moscow a few years later (at 16). By that time, I had already come into contact with a lot of folk musicians - my own Canadian/French Canadian background had taught me about fiddling. But for those few years I studied hard and learned a lot from Felix Galimir, about Schoenberg, for example. I still kick myself for not learning more from him. He was an incredible musician and person.

In the Moscow year, I traveled around the former Soviet Union; to the Caucasus and Central Asia and to then-Yugoslavia, listened and learned - about life, and also lots of songs.

I still occasionally take klessons from Alicia Svigals. You can never have enough klessons (klezmer lessons).

Laurie: I noticed that, for a few of these tunes, you have descriptions like "Kolo comes from an old tune Lara once learned from an old guy in a bar..." So, do you usually take your fiddle to bars, or was it a song you sang..? How about the tune off the scratchy record? I guess I'm asking you to speak to the idea of culture, of letting it grow on you, however it gets to you. How do you nurture this kind of zest for continual learning?

Lara:Well, that Kolo you can't quite was after a concert in Belgrade and I had my fiddle with me and we went to a Kafana (a resto/bar which has music). I'm not sure how exact it is, but it's what I took away from the evening, so I figured I'd record it myself as a sort of violin troubadour tribute. Some tunes I know from old LPs I found in some street sale, junk shop or similar.....I have a collection of thousands of them.

I have a weird memory, and a love of music in every guise - it's all so intertwined.

Laurie: You have a lot of collaborators on this, how did you pick them? And how did you decide which one would work on which tune? And did you and Matt wind up riffing a little bit on these arrangements?

Lara: Matt and I basically created a few of them out of charts - there are some with no arranger because they're improvisational, so different every time. As for the composers, I started out giving folks lots of cross-cultural tunes - and noticed they always went with their respective backgrounds; at which point, I figured, fair enough. Folks are going to choose what resonates best. The exception is Martin Kennedy, who is obviously not Hungarian, but that Czardashian of his is a badly needed new violin showpiece, and very witty. It brings the house down every time.

Laurie: What's it like to work with Matt Herskowitz? How did you first meet and how did you wind up doing this collaboration?

Lara:Matt is a ridonkulous pianist. He is mostly known as a jazz great, but he also does classical fabulously and I don't imagine there is anything he can't do.

We met as kids in Philadelphia, but neither of us really remember each other too well from then. I played on his Jerusalem Trilogy album (of originals) some six years ago, and from then on we have been partners in many projects, from Jazz to Gypsy to Yiddish to Bach.

Laurie: This is a little bit of an aside, but I watched your version of Anaconda as well as Nicki Minaj's (warning: rather twerky). So somehow you were able to translate this booty-song rap to the fiddle. Was that different for you, translating a rap onto the violin?

Lara: You know, that was really not easy. I had to work for a few days on how to put it in my memory bank at first....because there are no actual notes.

In the end, I just did drawings. Of how she enunciated and spoke - my score for that - just to put it in for my memory - is hilarious - it looks like piles of worms on a staff. I called it 'PlayStimme".

Schoenberg is likely rolling in his grave.

* * *

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz do some Romanian honky-tonk accompanied by hot dancers and cheating card players. From the album Shiksa:

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November 6, 2015 at 09:28 PM · I'm delighted to see this. I've been a fan of Lara since my 7-year old granddaughter, Sylvia, and I went to see her promote her first Bach CD at the local Borders store in 1996. I bought her CD for my granddaughter and were so happy to get it signed. The intimacy of the event was most special. It helped Sylvia begin her identification with adult violinists and continue her lessons with me for 10 years. I still try to acquire every one of Lara's CDs as they are issued. And Sylvia still treasures that memory - and still plays the violin.

November 7, 2015 at 06:14 PM · I had an opportunity to see Lara perform a piece from this album back in was awesome. I've ordered the album!

November 7, 2015 at 10:43 PM · Interestingly, the Hungarian composer who was considered the "father of the Czardas" was a Jew named Mordecai Rosenthal (later changed to Márk Rózsavölgyi).

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