A musical mix from Hungary: Cimbalom at Union Station

September 22, 2017
Union Station in Los Angeles. Photo from Wikipedia

Union Station has long been a repository of emotional memory and civic history. 

Many generations of displaced Easterners got off the train there to begin their new lives.  Multitudes of military personnel moved through America’s last great urban train station, which opened in 1939. And any movie buff can look around that stately tiled annex and summon a flood of movie and TV memories.

On Sept. 22, a free drive-time performance by The Cory Beers Cimbalom Band in the historic ticketing hall will give Union Station commuters a taste of Old World soul. It’s part of the Metro Art Presents, a music-weighted series that brings poetry, movies and other events to the city’s train stops.

It’s likely that many people have never seen or heard a cimbalom, Hungarian for a mallet instrument, introduced in the 1870s, that looks like a cross between a large dulcimer and the guts of a piano.  With warm, soothing tones that conjure Eastern European cafés, the Hungarian Gypsy instrument found its way into classical music: Stravinsky and Lizst wrote it into their “Renard” and “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 91,” respectively.

Cimbalom, formed in 2014, plays traditional music from various Eastern European regions as an outgrowth of Romanian folk music, crossed with jazz and klezmer. Though the band uses violin and accordion, Beers will be joined by trumpeter Charles De Castro, guitarist Alex Novice and bassist Dave Tranchina.   

“What we do jibes pretty well with the music of that region,” Beers said.

Beers, 33, grew up in Norfolk, Mass., near Boston.  A lifelong drummer, he was playing tympani in junior high school. After his family moved to Santa Barbara before he was out of high school, he found his way to Cal Arts for its unparalleled music resources, celebrated pedagogy and percussion studies.

 “Experimentation and exploration are the main things there,” he said. “I learned a lot of things there you can’t learn elsewhere.”     

Boobears, a percussion group that uses dryer drums and plates as part of its instrumentation, was formed at Cal Arts and still convenes. Beers studied in Moldova for two years, beginning in 2012. 

“I went to the Conservatory of Music in Kishinev,” he said.  “I lived there just to learn the cimbalom.”

The music of Romania holds special fascination for Beers. “It’s difficult to point to what drew me,” he said, “except that it has to do with the rhythms and the scales and the harmonies and how they all fit together.  You can hear far-out rhythms and harmonies elsewhere, of course, but you won’t hear the soul and the melancholy.”

Heidi Zeller of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is behind the Union Station booking. 

“We started this four years ago,” she said, “and saw it as a chance to reflect L.A.’s wide cultural array of different media, genres and different ethnic communities. We see the free series as a chance to experiment by bringing different bands, soloists and unusual instruments to the public.”

With a background in arts presentation, Zeller formerly programmed for the Craft and Folk-Art Museum and contributed to shaping the Freeways series.  She’s been with the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority for six years.  “I’ve always been interested in exposing people to art in public places,” she said. “We tried a video program on the busses. It didn’t go over so well because people spend so much time looking at their hand-held devices. I saw the Metro program, in particular, as a chance to leverage the relationships we had with all of the incredible talents living here.”        

One of Zeller’s presentations was Sk Kakraba from Ghana.  He plays gyil, a xylophone with its own resonating gourds.  “Sometimes the performers we have are playing beautiful, one-of-a-kind objects d’art,” she said. “He builds his own instruments, and I noticed these white spots on the gourds.  I thought they were paint but they were actually spider webs; apparently they help create the sound.”   

“We’re attempting to integrate art into the transit experience,” Zeller said. “Beautiful music at the end of you day is a nice respite from the working day.  We like to think we send people home with something special.”

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