Łowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble from San Francisco will perform at the Support Ukraine Benefit Concert.
Łowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble from San Francisco will perform at the Support Ukraine Benefit Concert.

Local klezmer and European folk groups team up for Ukraine benefit concert

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Ever since the first bombs fell, Paul Alexander had been horrified by Russia’s war on Ukraine. The Petaluma resident had desperately wanted to do something to aid the Ukrainian people, so he chose the best weapon available to him: his clarinet.

Alexander, a member of the Jubilee Klezmer Ensemble, has organized a benefit concert to raise funds for charities helping Ukrainian refugees. Taking place May 7 at the First Presbyterian Church in Petaluma, the concert will feature Alexander’s ensemble, the popular Berkeley-based Old World klezmer band Veretski Pass, a Polish folk dance troupe, Ukrainian violinist Igor Veligan accompanied by his wife, pianist Mira Veligan, and the Kolyada Ukrainian Folk Choir.

“So often we feel helpless,” Alexander said. “The idea of gathering the community together and pooling our resources to do something more powerful than we can as individuals makes me feel like I’m doing what I can.”

Beneficiaries of the funds raised by the concert will include the International Rescue Committee, GlobalGiving’s Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund and World Central Kitchen (the charity founded by celebrity chef José Andrés that is on the ground in Poland feeding thousands of refugees).

Putting the lineup together involved a decent amount of research — and a bit of serendipity.

Alexander has collaborated with Veretski Pass frequently over the years. But for a concert like this, he knew he had to expand beyond the boundaries of klezmer.

Kolyada Ukrainian Folk Choir
Kolyada Ukrainian Folk Choir

Because Poland has taken in more than 2 million refugees, Alexander thought it would be a nice show of solidarity to invite the Łowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble to take part. The leader of that group suggested the Kolyada Ukrainian Folk Choir participate, as well. That request was made easier when Alexander learned his dentist, a Ukrainian American, is a member of the choir.

Andriy Kryshtafovych, a research scientist at UC Davis’ Genome Center and the director of the Ukrainian Folk Choir, is grateful to Alexander for putting the concert together. But these are not happy times for him.

“Our families, relatives and friends are living through the horrible brutalities of war,” he said. “It is hard to believe what we are witnessing these days. Thousands of innocent people have died and many more are injured or displaced. All my Ukrainian friends in California are like one big family now.”

Mixing Jewish klezmer with Polish and Ukrainian music traditions is not a stretch. Klezmer was born in those regions of Eastern Europe, and owes much to the musical aesthetic found there.

“Ukraine is the seat of both Hasidic music as well as much of the klezmer music we hear today,” said Josh Horowitz, the accordionist of Veretski Pass and a scholar of Jewish musical history. “The Baal Shem Tov [founder of Hasidism] was born in Medzhybizh, Ukraine, and Uman is still the locale for the Breslover Hasidic pilgrimages of Rabbi Nachman, where he died.”

Veretski Pass
Veretski Pass

Alexander is delighted that the concert has already raised more that $2,500 (tickets require a minimum $50 donation).

He said the assistance can’t come soon enough.

“All wars are wrong,” he said, “but there’s something about this war, where we have a man who is deranged and sick in a place of great power, and is intent upon causing suffering as much as he can. It’s not just two ideologies fighting over principles. [Putin] is a man striking out in pain to cause pain. He has no moral compass.”

The war is also personal to Horowitz, a musicologist who has taught around the world.

“We have dear friends and music students who are from Ukraine,” he noted. “In the end, though, we don’t need to know people in order to feel the urgency to help them. All Ukrainians are in peril right now, and we don’t need to make distinctions of closeness or affiliation to help anyone at all. It’s a humanitarian imperative.”

Alexander said his ensemble’s set will feature several kolomeikes, which are klezmer dance tunes that trace their origins to Jewish shtetls in Ukraine.

Playing music, giving audiences joy and raising money to assist traumatized Ukrainians — these are the steps he knows he can take to repair, if only a little, that war-torn part of the world.

“There has to be a way we can learn to communicate and touch the hearts of people who have different views from us,” he said, “and try to establish a way to bring us closer together while allowing for our differences.”

Added Kryshtafovych: “Participating in [this] fundraiser makes us feel grateful for the support of the Ukrainian cause by our friends here in California. Members of our singing ensemble Kolyada are scientists, doctors, IT professionals in their ordinary lives. But during these times, we push our limits and do whatever we can to help our motherland.”

Support Ukraine Benefit Concert

7 p.m. Saturday, May 7 at First Presbyterian Church, 939 B Street, Petaluma. $50 minimum donation. Proof of vaccination and masks required. (707) 217-6780

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.