Klezmer, Ukrainian Party Music Takes Center Stage At The Cedar

Sarah Larsson is inviting just about everyone to come to her wedding.

Well, ok, maybe not the wedding ceremony itself. But the Jewish community is definitely invited to the after-party: a night of Ukrainian and Jewish music at the Cedar Cultural Center on June 2 featuring klezmer fiddler Jake Shulman-Ment, the Ukrainian Village Band, and Di Bayke, Larsson’s klezmer band.

“We’re a newer group,” Larsson said. “We’re the opener for the show. But I’m, in many ways, hosting it and bringing the bands together. You’ll probably see me a handful of times throughout the night.”

Larsson’s wedding had been originally scheduled for 2020 but was delayed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And it just so happens that, as a musician and event organizer who sings with The Nightingale Trio and performs with Di Bayke, Larsson is drawing top talent to the concert.

Jake Shulman-Ment is considered one of the best klezmer violin performers in the world and has spent several years traveling Eastern Europe and the Balkans to collect old klezmer melodies. But coming to Minneapolis, and meeting Larsson, was a more recent happy accident.

“Last summer, I was touring solo, doing concerts in all kinds of different places across the country,” Shulman-Ment said. “Mostly outside: people’s yards, community spaces…as well as a community garden that used to be just an abandoned lot that was taken over during the Black Lives Matter protests.

“And there was a really special, really special energy there. So then I connected with Sarah Larsson, who was sort of the person who set this show up.”

As for how Shulman-Ment ended up participating in Larsson’s after-party, it’s a simple answer: He was already going to be in town for the wedding. So why not play a little?

The mix of klezmer and Ukrainian music “makes so much sense historically,” he said. “Ukraine is one of the main places where klezmer music came to exist.”

While the concert was planned before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the war has given new meaning to the event, Larsson said. There’s a constant tension between the joy of music and the sadness of the times.

“It’s tempting to be like, ‘Oh, because I can’t do enough I should be sad all the time,’ but also, we have an obligation to keep it together for the people who are…in the conflict as well,” she said. “So I think there will be some dancing and smiling and loving each other up with music.”

For Shulman-Ment, the mix of pain and joy is a normal part of exploring Yiddish and folk music. The music always holds a question of “what it means to celebrate a culture that’s been [decimated] and murdered,” he said. Mixing Ukrainian and Jewish music also brings internal conflict for some Jews.

“I encounter questions a lot from Jews…about celebrating links of Jewish culture to other ethnicities like Romanians and Poles and Ukrainians…who, on some level or other, at some time or other, participated in the genocide of Jews,” Shulman-Ment said.

“Focusing only on the brutality of events can be counterproductive,” he said. “And I think music is a really important way to remind us of what it means to be human in a more gentle way and loving way.”

The musical traditions that will be on display at the Cedar Cultural Center are also poignant for Larsson because they represent her Jewish journey.

“I grew up in the Twin Cities, I’m from a mixed family. So my mom is Jewish, my dad is not,” Larsson said. “We weren’t part of any kind of congregational life or Jewish community life. And I originally found a path to connecting with that part of my family history through music.”

Specifically, Eastern European history and music. For a high school project on a European country, Larsson chose to write her report on Poland. And when she first heard Bulgarian folk music on the radio, she felt an instant connection.

“I had an intention towards that part of the world,” Larsson said. “Because I was looking for that kind of [Jewish] connection that I didn’t feel like I had.”

Exploring Eastern European music has brought Larsson to befriend a diverse Minneapolis community, which she hopes to share during the Cedar concert.

“I really encourage people to come out to other events and get connected to the Ukrainian community in a wider way as well,” she said. “Not just because there’s work to do, but also because it’s the best. They’re so fun.”

The concert at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis is all ages. A standing show on an open floor, you can buy tickets for $22 in advance or $25 on the day of the show. Some proceeds will be donated to help Ukraine.