By: Nate Chinen, WBGO
Over the last decade, Oran Etkin has garnered sizeable acclaim as a clarinetist and composer, for music that few would characterize as child’s play.
But Etkin has also made a serious subspecialty out of music for kids — with Timbalooloo, an educational program encompassing classes, workshops, and albums like Finding Friends Far From Home: A Journey with Clara Net, which he’ll celebrate with a concert this Saturday morning at Symphony Space.
As the title implies, Finding Friends Far From Home is a guest-laden travelogue, made over the course of Etkin’s recent visits to China, Zimbabwe, Turkey and the Czech Republic. The album chronicles the adventures of Clara Net, as he calls his instrument, in an extension of Timbalooloo’s guiding principle of making music feel relatable and alive.
Etkin, who was born in Israel but raised in Boston, had his own brush with enlightened musical education in his teens, as a student of both Yusef Lateef and George Garzone. He received a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music, and then began teaching in New York City, where the strategies and precepts of Timbalooloo began to take shape.
The project, which earned the praise of parents in New York, has expanded its reach in recent years, as Etkin took Timbalooloo around the world. He has developed an especially strong program in the Czech Republic, thanks to a good relationship with the Mladí ladí Jazz Festival in Prague. Its organizers encouraged him to focus on the Roma population, which has long been subject to widespread prejudice.
“They wanted to use my Timbalooloo workshops as an opportunity to bring kids of both backgrounds together,” says Etkin. “Many Czech children only hear negative things about Roma kids and don’t interact with them, so bringing them together around music is a great way to break barriers. Once I started, I got more and more interested in learning about the Roma community that I was working with.”
Two years ago, the festival helped Etkin form a band with Roma musicians. He found an almost instant kinship with them, due to similarities between their culture and his own heritage, including some family roots in the region. “At the same time I was working with the Roma kids in the Timbalooloo concerts, so I started bringing in a Roma song, ‘Chaye Shukariye,’ into the Timbalooloo shows,” he says.
Here is a premiere of a video for the song, filmed in Prague with Pavlína Matiová, a Roma singer with conservatory training but a strong connection to folkloric custom.
“I started adding ‘Chaye Shukariye’ to my live shows everywhere I toured,” Etkin adds, “I think a lot of people are not familiar with Roma culture and only hear vaguely about ‘Gypsies,’ so it is great for children to discover the beauty and warmth of Roma culture in this way. Now adding this song to the album with these wonderful Roma musicians with whom I have a personal bond is yet another way of bringing their music to more young listeners around the world.”
The song will surely be a part of his program at Symphony Space, along with themes from Turkey, Russia, Japan and beyond.