The setting is a wedding in their hometown of Toronto. It is an interesting wedding between two fine-looking young people; a Jewish man and his adoring Jamaican fiancee.
As the YouTube video starts, a rabbi, or cantor, I am not sure which, speaks extemporaneously in Yiddish about the wedding, the couple, and the respective cultures from which they come. A reggae band begins playing as the Jamaicans, on one side of the auditorium, eye the Jewish family, on the other side, who warily eyes them back. You know what happens next. The reggae band plays, a Jewish band on a nearby stage joins in, a Jewish guy and his partner do an athletic duo, and, eventually, everyone dances up a storm while the cantor looks on, ending the video with words of wisdom.
Did it happen in real life? Could it happen in real life?
“Absolutely,” says Eric Stein, a co-founder of Beyond the Pale, which combines rock, folk, Jewish klezmer, and Balkan forms from Serbia, Romania, and beyond into a fascinatingly eclectic style of pop music. Beyond the Pale will be appearing at the Robert Solley Theater at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, on Wednesday, June 17.
“In Toronto, we have played lots of mixed weddings like that. Those kind of interethnic fusions within marriages are really common, and certainly Jewish people have been intermarrying for years. It’s really great to see people sharing their cultures like that.”
Beyond the Pale uses Romanian, Balkan, and klezmer music “as a departure point for our own creations,” says Stein. The band has a diversity of membership in terms of ethnic and musical origins. Violinist and percussionist Bogdan Djukic is of Serbian origin, as are accordionist Milos Popovic and Aleksander Gajic, another violinist. Stein, who plays mandolin and the Hungarian cimbalom, is a second-generation Canadian Jew whose grandparents emigrated from Poland to Toronto. Clarinetist Martin van de Ven is from the Netherlands, and bassist Bret Higgins is Canadian born and bred.
“The original vision of the band was a little more eclectic than we ended up being,” says Stein. “It was sort of everything but the kitchen sink. Within the first year or so we figured out what we wanted to focus on, and that was klezmer and Eastern European folk music, but we wanted always to maintain an eclectic vision and an adventurous vision. We’re not too slavish about worrying whether we’re making the klezmer police happy.”
The band’s name, Beyond the Pale, has a double meaning, according to Stein. “To say something is ‘beyond the pale’ means that it’s outside of expectations or breaking barriers. But the origin of the expression is very much related to Jewish history. It was in the 19th century, when a giant area of Eastern Europe, which at that time was part of czarist Russia, was known as the ‘pale’ area of settlements. Jews were prohibited from traveling or settling outside that area without specific permission from the authorities. So, if you are beyond the pale, you are actually breaking the rules.”
If Beyond the Pale is a klezmer group, Stein considers it third- or fourth-generation in reference to the revival that began in the 1970s. “I have a great respect and understanding for the tradition, and I love playing traditional klezmer music in a lot of different contexts. With Beyond the Pale, we try to be respectful and intelligent about what we are pulling in but we don’t put any hard and fast rules on what we do. We try not to take an academic approach.”
Toronto is, at least according to many Torontonians, the most diverse city on Earth, and Canada is one of the few countries that actively promotes diversity. Could Beyond the Pale have happened anywhere but Toronto? “Canada is rather unique in the sense that there is an official subscription to that notion. It’s even in our Constitution, which is pretty astounding when you think about it,” says Stein. “I mean, how did one Jew, a Dutch guy, a non-Jewish Canadian, and three Serbian guys end up playing music together? We happened to be in Toronto. That meeting of our personalities is unique to this community and to its cultural and social context.”
His association with the Serbian musicians is one of the unique aspects of that context, says Stein. Serbs’ affinity for certain styles of music — certain song forms, scales and emotional motifs — jives perfectly with Stein’s affinity for Eastern European Jewish music. “The Serbians, as a musical breed, have an amazing ability to combine folk stuff with the classical pedigree. The guys we work with are all guys who studied in conservatory and have master’s degrees in performance. They are coming to the music with less of a sense of barriers between the styles. It wasn’t a conscious decision to go out and get some Serbs because they’re comfortable with this. It was sort of an accidental discovery.”
That accident came when Djukic came in for one gig as a substitute, “and from the beginning it was clear that he understood” what Stein wanted, Stein says.
Being in Canada has also benefited Beyond the Pale in terms of being able to create their art with some governmental support. The national, provincial, and local governments have always given support to musicians, says Stein, at a level that typically far exceeds that which is available for U.S. musicians and bands. “We have been funded over the years by the arts councils, all of those organizations have within their mandates multiculturalism as a priority and cross-cultural creation, so we’re happy to embrace that and feel free to do what we do.” Stein does say, however, that the competition for the funding is fierce north of the border and that this makes musicians and other artists hone their skills. “The cream really does rise to the top,” he says.
Stein was born and raised in North York, an expansive Toronto suburb, the son of a travel agent mom and a father who made and customized limousines. His home was not a religious home, but his family did have connections to their ancestral Ashkenazic Jewish culture. “I wasn’t raised with much association to my Judaism. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I began to get clued in to the klezmer revival. It was something that was inspiring and made me feel that I was coming home. Before this, my concept of Jewish music was that it was something that was really not that interesting.”
After graduating from McGill University in Montreal with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history — he was planning to be a history professor, Stein, who played bass and guitar in folk and rock ensembles, began to explore and play Jewish music. In 1997 he finished his M.A., took a year off, picked up mandolin, and his life changed. “Until then, being a rock bass player, I had no illusions about being able to make a career out of this,” he says. “For every one that actually makes it, there are a thousand struggling rock bands.”
Beyond the Pale, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. Wednesday, June 17, 8 p.m. Beyond the Pale, based in Toronto, presents acoustic concert inspired by Canadian and European folk music, as well as bluegrass, jazz, reggae, and funk. Guest appearances by several members of the Klez Dispensers based in Princeton. $15. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.