- Harmonia: Giving world music a new definition.
Three and a half years ago, local accordion and clarinet player Walt Mahovlich played a show in a loft space next to Spaces, an art gallery near the West Bank of the Flats. There, he befriended Thomas Stanchak, an art student with an interest in Eastern European music. Mahovlich took Stanchak with his group, Harmonia, when it played a show at Tonic, a New York performance space run by John Zorn, a well-known avant-garde jazz musician. The next night, Mahovlich and Stanchak went out and "got gloriously plastered" and started making the kinds of plans that are usually forgotten by the time the morning hangover hits.
"Tom said to me, 'I think we could do a better job with this,' and he came up with the gallery/performance idea," Mahovlich recalls, as he sips a cup of coffee at a Starbucks near his West Cleveland home. "I couldn't imagine that there would be a space to do it. But sure enough, a few months later, he located a space, and we tried it, initially, as a Harmonia concert. We got such a good response that I said, 'OK, I'm game. Let's try having a series of world-music concerts.'"
That gallery/performance space was Inside, a small venue located in Tremont. In the time that Mahovlich has been booking bands there, he's developed an audience for Eastern European music by bringing in acts from Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Hungary, and Russia. Recently, Mahovlich also started booking avant-garde jazz acts at Inside and has booked acts of Ukrainian, South Indian, and Jewish descent. But because Stanchak is closing the gallery to concentrate on finishing his degree, the series of shows at Inside will come to an end with Harmonia's performances there on April 26 and 27. The dates will coincide with the release of Alexander Fedoriouk's Cimbalom Traditions, an album featuring all the members of Harmonia backing Fedoriouk. Mahovlich, searching for a new performance space so that he can continue to build upon his success with Inside, has started hosting a night of gypsy music on Wednesdays at Touch Supper Club.
"For so long, world music didn't mean anything," says Mahovlich. "Then it came to mean the African Diaspora and Celtic music -- which are both great. But there is more. There is all of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It's a different tradition, and one that deserves to be heard. It's amazing what's happened in Cleveland. I didn't imagine that the stuff I had heard mostly in church basements would ever get to be heard elsewhere."
Mahovlich was born in Cleveland and grew up listening to mostly Croatian and Hungarian folk music ("It seemed normal to me that everyone had a foreign-speaking grandmother," he says). His family moved to Bedford, and Mahovlich eventually ended up at Case Western Reserve, where he studied polymer science ("One word for the future -- plastics"). After receiving a graduate degree, he moved to New Jersey to work for Union Carbide and researched ways of making material that would prevent landfills from contaminating ground soil. At that time, he also started making contacts at the Ethnic Folk Arts Center in New York, a place he says was "a mid-'80s hang for people into Eastern European music." In 1989, he moved back to Cleveland to take a job at B.F. Goodrich, where he designed plastics.
"I was making things that people didn't need," Mahovlich says of the short-lived gig.
Laid off by Goodrich in 1992, he started teaching English as a second language at Valley Forge High School in Parma and working part-time as a polymer science consultant. The change allowed him to dedicate more time to Harmonia, which he started in the early '90s. Initially, the group was just a duo -- Mahovlich and violinist Steve Greenman. But after meeting a local musician named Joe Varga, who was a "conservatory-trained, irascible old guy" from Romania, Mahovlich realized he needed to form a larger group, in order to properly play the Hungarian and Slavic folk music that he liked so much. Mahovlich spent some time performing in Budapest, and, upon returning to Cleveland, started finding musicians with similar interests. It wasn't until he met Fedoriouk at a performance in Pittsburgh that the band's lineup really solidified.
"From that moment, everything changed, because I realized that he was an absolute virtuoso and was looking to play," Mahovlich says of Fedoriouk. "I told him that I had some friends at Cleveland State University -- the late Dr. Thomas Tuttle was a very good friend of mine, and I knew he had a strong interest in world music. I arranged for a concert, to have Alexander come up and play with Harmonia. He and Tuttle hit it off, and Alex enrolled -- and is still writing his thesis toward his master's."
With a lineup that, in addition to Mahovlich and Fedoriouk, includes violinist Marko Dreher, sopilka player Andrei Pidkivka, saxophonist Gheorghe Trambitas, bassist Adam Good, and singer Beata Begeniova Salak, Harmonia has played not just in Cleveland, but at prestigious venues such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Even without Inside as a venue, Harmonia will still be active. Yet finding a good venue for the out-of-town acts Mahovlich likes to book is another matter, especially since the eclectic audience he's attracted won't fit at just any concert hall.
"What amazes me is the mix of people we are able to get in Cleveland to our shows," Mahovlich says. "I've said it before and it's getting to be a clich´, but it's everything from grandmas in babushkas to guys in leather jackets with long hair. It's really a remarkable thing. I grew up at a time when American culture at large put down the culture of the Eastern European immigrant.
"My God, how many Polack jokes did I hear?" Mahovlich continues, shaking his head. "They didn't even know what I was. But I heard that stuff, and I knew it was aimed at me. But we always knew it was cool. I loved going to the Croatian picnic. I loved going to Buckeye Road and hearing the gypsies playing in the cellar. Now it's nice to see that people who have maybe been separated from their roots, or don't have a direct connection to it, come to the shows. Their ears are open, and they really love it."