When Ethel Raim sings she opens more than her throat. She becomes a transmitter, relaying the music of one culture to another. She opens worlds.
Perhaps best known as director of and a singer with the Pennywhistlers, a seven-woman vocal ensemble that performed and recorded Balkan, Slavic and Yiddish songs in the 1960s and '70s, Raim's longtime interest in the songs and singing styles of Eastern Europe, coupled with her Yiddish-speaking background, have made her a leading performer of these traditions. But she prefers to be called an interpreter.
"I have to re-create a kind of community," she says, "as opposed to someone who didn't have to pick out models because the sound was all around them." The sounds Raim heard as a child growing up in the Bronx "and more consciously as an adult," she says, have given her "a comfort with the musical vocabulary," but "weren't as specific as that."
"What's difficult in terms of Yiddish singing," she explains, "is that it's so far behind us. It's an amalgam from the Ukraine to the West." But, she adds, "there is also a greater range of expression and vocal color because there were so many locales."
Raim sings in a style "outside of western classical tradition," using a direct, "uncovered sound" for years cultivated in Eastern Europe but not explored here. "It's a very varied sound," she says. The intent, too, is different from that of classical singing, she says. "The song governs everything. The melody and the style predominate. It is also extremely expressive without the dramatics and predictable expressive vocabulary of traditional classical singing."
Twenty years ago, Raim and Martin Koenig founded the Balkan Arts Center, now the Ethnic Folk Arts Center, in New York City to help immigrant communities retain their musical heritage. "Their traditions are no longer part of the life styles that birthed them," she says. "They need to be supported. Validated. They don't see themselves on the tube."
To encourage perpetuation of the traditions, she says, "we identify strong carriers of the tradition among community people and do presentations inside the community as well as for the general public."
"With any cultural adaptation," Raim says, "the loss people experience of their cultural forms is deeper than the loss of the culture. They have no form to participate in the culture. There are no other ways to do it." As a result, she says, "the appeal of traditional music is a way for people to reclaim that."
Raim extended her research to Washington when, from 1967 to 1974, she and Koenig codirected a program for the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. "We put together their model program of 'Old Ways in the New World' and brought 49 people here from Balkan and Croatian countries," she says.
She performed here last summer at "Sisterfire," the two-day annual festival featuring women performers held in Takoma Park, and Saturday night she will share a concert with two Jewish men from Central Asia. Mordekhai Rakhminov, a cantor from Bukhara in Uzbekistan, performs traditional folk music of the Tajik, Uzbek and Tatar people. He specializes in a music called "maqam," a complex and highly demanding form indigenous to the Uzbek cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, and accompanies himself on the "tar," a plucked, long-necked lute with three strings. Shumiel Kuyenov, a percussionist from Tashkent, plays the "doira," a drum/tambourine.
Raim, Rakhminov and Kuyenov, sponsored by the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, will perform at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church at 8:30 p.m.