Harmonia's Walt Mahovlich leads the Cleveland influx of Eastern European musicians.

East Meets West 

Harmonia's Walt Mahovlich leads the Cleveland influx of Eastern European musicians.

Walt Mahovlich, Cleveland's musical ambassador to Eastern Europe.
  • Walt Mahovlich, Cleveland's musical ambassador to Eastern Europe.
The Greater Cleveland population is composed of people from a wide variety of ethnic origins -- Slavs (i.e., Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Bulgarians, and Ukrainians) and non-Slavs (Hungarians, Romanians, and Greeks). Sadly, many people don't know or care about their own backgrounds, let alone the backgrounds of others, and identify only one form of music with Eastern Europe -- the polka. They know nothing about the czardas, doina, invartita, sirba, or kolomyjka.

Fortunately, we have musicians among us who continue to perform music drawn from this rich and varied repertoire. Among the most notable is Walt Mahovlich, who has been playing clarinet, accordion, and even bagpipes for decades with many groups here -- sometimes as a leader and sometimes as a sideman. Currently, Mahovlich is involved with Harmonia, a band of world-class musicians that blends various Central and Eastern European music. Harmonia already has cut a couple of CDs: Harmonia: Music From the Heart of Europe and Ciganska Krcma: Marko and Harmonia, which features the band's violinist, Marko Dreher, and is represented by a track on Balkans Without Borders, a benefit album done for an organization called Doctors Without Borders. Mahovlich has also been working with painter/art dealer Thomas Stanchak to bring a world music series to his Tremont gallery, Inside.

Mahovlich's attachment to the music and zeal for promoting it is hard to overestimate. He's played not only locally, but also in venues in other large American cities (including the Knitting Factory in Manhattan) and in Europe. An engineer by training, he's chosen to play the music of his choice full-time. Mahovlich's father is of Croatian descent, his mother Hungarian. Both were born in the U.S., but, as Mahovlich explains, "only learned English when they went to grade school. It was the typical experience of growing up in a traditional ethnic community."

After the Second World War, they moved from West Virginia to Cleveland -- where Mahovlich was born -- living for a time in a Croatian community on St. Clair, then the near West Side. Mahovlich's father worked in factories for a time, then became a partner in a roadside market business in Bedford. Mahovlich learned a little Croatian and Hungarian.

"As a kid, they took me to the Croatian community in Benwood, West Virginia," he recalls. "My dad taught me to sing Croatian songs when I was four. My mom used to take me down to the Hungarian community on Buckeye Road. She had tons of Hungarian records that she wore out while doing the housework. I grew up listening to the likes of Imre Magyari and John Brenkacz -- very popular Hungarian artists -- and the Croatian singer Edo Lubich. My mom loved all sorts of music -- classical, pop, and all sorts of ethnic stuff. I absorbed it by osmosis, but since most of the people I knew in Bedford were connected with the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, it seemed normal. And we had a Greek friend who used to take us to clubs down on Bolivar, so I was familiar with that scene, too."

Mahovlich didn't really feel out of place until he went to college in Holland, Michigan, a center of Calvinism, and missed the food, tradition, and music of home. "When I was in Bedford, I could simply turn on the radio to WXEN or WZAK and listen to ethnic music all day long." Though he'd learned some piano and clarinet as a boy, Mahovlich really pursued performing after returning from Michigan in 1971.

"While attending CWRU and living in the University Circle area, I met other Croatian kids at school," he says. "I used to go down to St. Clair Avenue every weekend for years. I got a tamburica, a mandolin-like instrument played by Serbs and Croatians, about the same time I met up with some Macedonian friends who needed a clarinetist for their band. The next thing I knew, I was playing Macedonian weddings. I was also involved in the Croatian Junior Tamburitzans, a folklore ensemble. I used to go to ethnic dances and clubs -- especially the Two Cro's Lounge on East 185th, which featured tamburitza music -- and hung out with Romanians, Serbians, and Hungarians every chance I got."

Despite the ethnic bitterness and rivalry that has made life in Central and Eastern Europe so difficult, Mahovlich has a respect for and interest in all the cultures there. "In the 1970s, I was playing for Serbs, Macedonians, Croatians, Bulgarians, and Albanians -- and having a blast doing it," he says. "I never had any problems with anybody. In 1976, I was selected by a Smithsonian scout to play music on the mall for the Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life in Washington."

The following year, Mahovlich studied ethnomusicology at the University of Sarajevo in Bosnia and traveled throughout Yugoslavia with his musical colleagues and relatives. When he got back from Yugoslavia, he was recruited by the Greater Cleveland Ethnographic Museum to do field work collecting oral history, and he got involved in a project on music of the South Slavs in this area, which resulted in the UNESCO prize-winning album, Novo Domovina: Balkan Music From the Industrial Midwest.

Because of his love for music and his lack of financial resources, Mahovlich dropped in and out of CWRU, finally graduating with a degree in chemistry in 1980. "I began working as a chemist, but still played with a number of bands, including Krajani, a tamburica orchestra that included Alex Machaskee's son. Now the Plain Dealer publisher, the older Machaskee was and still is an avid professional tamburica player. Also during the early '80s, I was hired to do field work. I located local musicians and staged a festival of tamburica music in the Cuyahoga Valley [National] Recreation Area."

In 1982, Mahovlich moved to Akron, where he studied polymer science in graduate school, and in 1984, he worked as a polymer engineer at Union Carbide in the New York City area. "I immediately hooked up with the Balkan musicians there and was playing Romanian bands in Philadelphia, Macedonian bands in New Jersey," he says. "There was a vibrant musical scene everywhere from Philly to Boston. I was jamming with everyone: Gypsies, Greeks, Armenians, Albanians, Bulgarians -- excellent musicians, some of whom had just come over from Europe. And I met a number of non-Eastern Europeans who loved and played the music. There were non-ethnic audiences who listened to it and related to it as if it were classical music. Previously, I'd played to ethnic audiences."

At this time, "world music" was catching on, and Mahovlich spent another month in the Balkans, mostly hanging out with musicians in Sofia, Bulgaria. In 1988, Mahovlich, homesick for Cleveland, got a job in Avon Lake with B.F. Goodrich. After a time, he was laid off and decided not to go back. "I wanted to find another way to make a living which I would enjoy," he says. "I kept going back and forth to New York City, playing Macedonian, Serbian, Croatian, and Jewish stuff."

At this time, Harmonia started taking shape. The nucleus was Mahovlich and Steve Greenman, a violinist with an M.A. from the Cleveland Institute of Music, who had had a lot of experience playing klezmer music and later worked with Mahovlich in the klezmer band Yiddishe Cup. Mahovlich and Greenman had a common interest in Hungarian and Romanian music as well. They toured in Europe during the mid-'90s with a band called Budowitz. Greenman and Mahovlich both appeared in Tony Kushner's off-Broadway adaptation of The Dybbuk and were heard on the Budowitz CD Budowitz: Mother Tongue. Greenman recently left Harmonia and plans to pursue a klezmer career in New York.

As the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed, some excellent musicians immigrated to Cleveland from there. Among them was Gheorghe Trambitas, a virtuoso on the taragot, a wooden wind instrument with a sound like a soprano sax. Bassist Jozsef Varga, from Oradea Mare, Romania, has a classical background, but played popular music for Jewish, Hungarian, and Romanian audiences in Oradea. His father was a noted Gypsy violinist. Mahovlich met Trambitas and Varga when they settled in Cleveland, and they joined Harmonia.

Harmonia also features two Ukrainian natives: Andrei Pidkivka, who received an M.M. in flute performance at Youngstown State, is also a master of folk flutes, including the panpipes and the end-blown sopika; World-class cimbalom player Alexander Fedoriouk was a star soloist in the Ukraine before coming to Cleveland, where he is doing graduate work at CSU. The most experimentally oriented Harmonia member, he's often performed at the Knitting Factory and recently appeared on jazz cellist Erik Friedlander's CD Skin. Fedoriouk is interested in electronic music, genre blending, and improvisation, and is in the process of demonstrating, by his appearance in various ensembles, that the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer, can be employed in any musical setting.

Violinist Marko Dreher, whose father is a traditional Croatian musician and mother is a Cherokee Indian, came here from St. Louis to study at Oberlin. He performs in folk and classical settings. At Inside, Mahovlich and Stanchak have already presented groups such as Slavic Soul Party, Moscow Nights, and the Kalman Balogh Ensemble from Budapest. The next series of performances begins on Saturday with Balkanski Glasove, featuring the Kolev family from Bulgaria. There will be workshops in the afternoon, and ethnic food will be served at the evening concert.

Future concerts at Inside will feature Romanian music from Transylvania and South Indian (Karnatic) music. Harmonia also appears next week at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Hungarian House on March 3, and as part of a Balkan music series at the Den, a Greenwich Village café, on March 4, and plans to perform at Inside this spring.

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