Jewish and African-American folk music traditions to entwine at the Brooklyn Fiddle Summit


(New York Jewish Week) – Two folk music traditions that developed on opposite sides of the world from one another will come together for a one-night-only performance in New York City. 

The Brooklyn Fiddle Summit, which will take place on Thursday at Brooklyn venue Littlefield, will showcase violinist Zoë Aqua’s klezmer virtuosity as well as the old-time Americana of the Ebony Hillbillies, a seven-piece string band that celebrates African-American folk music. The shared bill is meant to explore the common themes of the seemingly disparate genres.

“In terms of the way these musics are represented in New York City, they’re both folk revivals,” Jeremiah Lockwood, the Brooklyn-based Jewish musician and ethnomusicologist who curated the concert, told the New York Jewish Week. “Their music is from the past and people use it in the present day to try to fill some kind of a need, whether that be political, emotional or spiritual — and usually it’s some combination of the three.”

Klezmer and Black Americana music are not just bonded by instruments in common. Both Aqua and the Ebony Hillbillies revive the music of people who have been marginalized —  Eastern European Jews and African-Americans. What’s more, by drawing on generations of history, both acts aim to help audiences celebrate their histories and reexamine their roots. 

“There’s an aspect of fiddle music all over the world that finds really interesting parallels,” said Aqua, who spent two years studying Transylvanian folk music and klezmer in Cluj, Romania. “I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while — comparing and contrasting different fiddle styles because the fiddle is such an important part of so many different folk styles.”

The Ebony Hillbillies, who describe themselves as the “last African-American string band in America” formed more than 40 years ago, busking on the subways and street corners in New York City. Since then, they’ve consistently drawn attention to the undersung story of Black participation in American folk music traditions — something that megastar Beyonce has honed in on with her new country album, “Cowboy Carter.” Though the Ebony Hillbillies haven’t sold out stadiums — yet — they have released four albums and performed all over the country, including at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.

It’s “serendipitous,” said Lockwood, that the Fiddle Summit was scheduled in the wake of the release of “Cowboy Carter,” which debuted March 29 and earned Beyonce the top spot on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart.

“I’m really psyched for the energy that’s getting focused on Black Country music right now,” said Lockwood, who has been performing with the Ebony Hillbillies over the past 10 months and is no stranger to revitalizing nearly lost musical genres, having recently staged a concert to showcase the forgotten history of Jewish women cantors. “I’m really hopeful that some of that glory will reflect onto the Ebony Hillbillies because they’re serious pioneers in that genre.”

As the band’s website states: “One of the fascinating ironies about String Band music is that while the music is born of deprivation, disenfranchisement and disappointment, it’s still leaping with joy even if it’s just as often weeping with melancholy.”

“Old-time music predates and influences all kinds of music, from jazz to blues to bluegrass,” AB Walker, who plays bass for the Ebony Hillbillies, told the New York Jewish Week. “This music that we try to get into comes from things that they would have played on the plantation — depending on who the master was, they would find out whatever it they liked and they would learn it. They had to appease everyone — their job was to play music and lift spirits.”

Walker said the Ebony Hillbillies are reclaiming that history through their music. “It’s bringing up a past that maybe most people don’t want to hear and be reminded of, and we choose to celebrate our history,” he said. 

Aqua, who came out with the album “In Vald Arayn” (Into the Forest) in 2022, likewise feels that her interest in klezmer and Transylvanian folk music is a way of exploring her Jewish identity. “A big reason why I wanted to go to Transylvania and get into the music there is because I do feel like it’s reclaiming a bit of what is ours,” said Aqua, who on Thursday will be joined on stage by accordionist Ira Temple and bassist Zoe Guigeno.

“As an American Jew, I do want to be invested in what’s going on in Eastern Europe and bring some life back into some unused synagogue spaces,” said Aqua, who will be touring the Transylvania region this summer to play in disused synagogues. “To me, connecting with Eastern Europe is really important right now — to understand that the experience of being Jewish can be about a lot of things.”

The concert is hosted by The Neighborhood, a Jewish arts, culture and events organization that hosts all-ages events around Brooklyn. “In a moment where it can feel like we’re far away from other cultures, it is exciting to explore our commonalities particularly through music, which has such a powerful place in many cultures, ” founding director Rebecca Guber said. “These are traditions that have long histories and play important spiritual roles. I just really love that we can take this moment to come together and appreciate both of them.”

Lockwood, for his part, had one final piece of wisdom to impart: “Bring your dancing shoes,” he said. 

The Brooklyn Fiddle Summit will take place on Thursday, April 11 at 8 p.m. at Littlefield (635 Sackett St., Brooklyn). Get tickets here.