If you have lived in this country for longer than, say, about week, you are presumably all too familiar with the word balagan. In case you are not from these cultural climes, it translates as something like “chaos” or “fiasco.” It does not have any positive connotations unless it is said with a smile, possibly of the wry ilk. But even then, it would be in a darkly humorous context.
However, should you attend any forthcoming concerts by the L’ensemble Balagan troupe, in Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Jerusalem or Zichron Yaakov from April 8-11, you might get a different take on the term yourself.
The largely klezmer-leaning sextet hails from France – most of the members come from the south – and are led by Strasbourg-born and bred violinist Stephane Rougier. He and the rest of the gang are all classically trained and have bulging portfolios across various genres and areas of musical endeavor.
How did balagan get their name?
With such a serious and conventional backdrop to their daytime job, I wondered where Rougier got the disorganized-sounding moniker for the group. It seems it stems from the musicians he mixes with, as much as from the multifarious core of the band’s programs. “A few years back, I had a klezmer band,” the 50-year-old violinist explains. “There was a Jew (Rougier), an Argentinean and an Armenian. It was a bit of a balagan,” he laughs, “but an organized balagan.” That was the Meshouge Klezmer Band, which did brisk business around the world for a decade and a half.
Eventually, Rougier moved on. “I put together another group: L’ensemble Balagan. It is also a balagan but a good one. It is a happy balagan. All the different styles that go into klezmer.”
“I put together another group: L’ensemble Balagan. It is also a balagan but a good one. It is a happy balagan. All the different styles that go into klezmer.”Stephane Rougier
That comes with the genre territory. Many of us have attended a wedding or two where the live musical entertainment hails from the shtetls and villages of eastern Europe. Klezmer is the most expressive of musical idioms, much as Yiddish conveys a wide range of emotions in an inimitable style. There can be the deepest sadness in there, right through to insouciant, mad, merry and unfettered joy.
Rougier says that and much more comes into the repertoire reckoning. As far as he is concerned, it is very much a part and parcel of his DNA. “I was born in Strasbourg and grew up in a very orthodox neighborhood. I heard a lot traditional songs as a child. There were old songs – classical klezmer music – that the people who lived there loved.” Before long, the youngster got in on the act himself. “Those were the songs I wrote myself,” he recalls.
Those early efforts fed off a solid bedrock of musical genes. “My parents are musicians,” he explains. “My father plays cello, my mother is a pianist and my grandfather was a violin maker. Everyone in the family plays music.” Rougier got down to complementing the familial foundations. He headed for the musical hotbed in Paris at the age of 14, graduating from a conservatory there in violin and chamber music. That was followed by advanced training, both on violin and viola, in Germany whereafter he embarked on a career as a chamber musician.
That went pretty well and he took up the prestigious position as concertmaster of the Opéra de Bordeaux, holding the berth for over 10 years. He also performs regularly with various other French ensembles both domestically and globally and does his best to get works out there by current composers, such as 52-year-old compatriot Pierre Thilloy, to devotees of classical music.
WHILE HE was getting on with his classical work, Rougier kept his klezmer embers burning brightly. “Klezmer music doesn’t come from my training,” he notes. “It is a product of my upbringing and my personal culture.”
The sounds and vibes of eastern Europe have been around for centuries. The earliest mention of the genre dates back to Krakow in the late 16th century, although klezmer music may have been played for some time before that. The rise of Hassidic Judaism gave the sector a push and the tradition took on all sorts of strains and subgenres over time. Not all klezmer music was Jewish in origin or even played by Jews, as is the case today, with non-Jewish bands in places such as Sweden and Germany doing the age-old material justice.
As a product of the late 20th to early 21st century, I wondered whether Rougier and his colleagues in Balagan instill the charts with some contemporary spirit. “Each of us in the group brings something special, something personal to the music. We all have high standards of musicianship and virtuosic technique.” Considering the rapid tempi of some klezmer passages that, no doubt, comes in handy.
Having gifted and seasoned partners in musical crime, says the leader, goes a long way to ensuring the quality of the ensemble’s output. It is, he adds, very much a collective effort. “Mostly, you have one player who leads the music and the others support him or her. With us, each of us brings our own technique. That introduces a more modern and unique element to the music.”
In Rougier’s case, his musical interests spread far and wide. “As a kid, I heard, almost exclusively, classical music. But when I got to Paris, I began to hear things like tango. I also traveled to Warsaw and heard their classical music.” Some of that found its way into the Meshouge Klezmer Band repertoire and continues to inform his artistic evolution.
The name of the game is very much keeping his horizons as open and broad as possible. “Music is always changing and developing. You can never play the same thing twice exactly the same way. You have to take ideas and styles from what you hear and create something new and special.”
The ensemble’s name may infer a messy state of affairs but Rougier feels the music he and his pals play can be a balm for the soul and help to induce a healthier and more accepting spirit. Considering the current political and sociopolitical morass, not to mention the events of the past three years and their continuing ramifications, lending an ear and heart to the French group’s eclectic, fun, free-flowing offerings may be just the ticket.
“This music allows us to overcome differences and to join together and enjoy music without boundaries between us,” says Rougier. Sounds good.
For tickets and more information, visit: https://bit.ly/3XUZogn