Music has always provided a lifeline, linking us to our greater sense of humanity through our darkest days of uncertainty. With its uncanny ability to connect people from vastly different walks of life around common experience, music has the power to strengthen that defiant spirit of perseverance that provides a positive path forward during difficult times. This fact has never been more true than it was in 2020, as the spread of COVID-19 suddenly forced every one of us apart.
By March of that year, the everyday human connections we’d long taken for granted, became a thing of the past and lived on only in our most optimistic hopes for a post-pandemic world. The first half of the year saw an escalating series of restrictions decimate the music industry as the spread of the virus forced performers and patrons alike to stay home. Yet, the second half of the year saw a collective spark of innovation and resilience as musicians and creatives around the world found new ways to connect.
Balder ten Cate & Friends celebrate this tenacity on Lifelines, an eclectic and multicultural collaborative album inspired by traditional music from Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East. Led by SF Bay Area-based cimbalom, accordion, guitar, and cobza player Balder ten Cate, the album is a tribute and testament to the musical friendships and collaborations that have sustained him throughout the pandemic.
“Each track on Lifelines grew out of a different covid-inspired, remote collaboration between myself and different musical partners and friends (some old, others new) who are all dear to my heart and have helped keep my spirits up during some of my most trying times.”
From a very young age, Balder ten Cate has been on his own unique creative trajectory. Born into a musical family, he grew up in the Netherlands, where he was steeped in eastern European music from his earliest years. He recalls performing as a trio with his parents from the age of five, becoming well-versed at the pan flute by nine or ten. Growing up in Holland, the young Balder was lucky to have direct access to study Romanian music with the great cimbalom master Giani Lincan, a mentorship that inspired him to delve headlong into the nuances of that instrument.
Yet Balder’s unique training, tastes, and talents never quite found a home with his peers back then, and as a result, his musical endeavors kind of slipped into an inspirational hiatus as he entered a high school system that began preparing him for a career in the steadily mundane world of the software engineer and computer scientist.
Balder did well in that world, but ironically, it was a resulting academic appointment at UC Santa Cruz (he taught at Stanford for a while, too) and a stint at Google as a software engineer that led him, roundabout and serendipitous, back to his muse. When Balder immigrated to the U.S. and settled in California’s SF Bay Area 13 years ago in 2008, he quickly found himself welcomed into a vibrant multicultural community of international musicians.And the Bay Area has been an amazing place for all the various kinds of music that Balder loves: Balkan, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, Greek, all are represented in the region, resulting in a unique community where diverse musicians connect around a love for music.
“If you travel in those countries, there are so many ethnic conflicts, where each neighboring country has issues with each other,” reflects Balder. “But here in the Bay Area, it seems like there’s a special kind of harmony and you will see triple-billed shows where everybody’s playing all this music together in one evening. So for me, it’s really a beautiful and welcoming place where everybody’s friends with each other and there’s a community centered around the music. I’ve met all my close friends because of that music and I think that’s why this album feels so special to me.”
Inspired by the ethnomusical diversity of his new home, Balder’s arrangements began to combine elements from all the different cultural influences he encountered there. If he’d perhaps struggled for many years to find a musical identity, suddenly the opportunity to work so closely with people from so many different cultures transformed what was once a setback into a distinct creative advantage.
In recent years, Balder has engaged in a deep study of music from the Balkans with his esteemed mentor Rumen Sali Shopov and has regularly performed with various local groups, such as Shasta Power Trio, Yeraz Ensemble, and Orchestra Euphonos, as well as with international groups Trio Dulce Amar and Trio Czinka Panna.These are among the many voices represented on Lifelines.
Says Balder, “I feel like, especially for this kind of ethnic music, it’s very important to be connected to the cultural sources and to pay tribute to, and to respect where this music is coming from. So, I tried to involve these people as much as I could.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Lifelines is that, while the songs themselves are traditional, the arrangements and instrumentation are quite unusual . While humbly asserting that he is neither an aficionado nor a neophyte when it comes to any one of the musical traditions represented on the album, Balder’s flirtations with sounds from outside those traditions make for an adventurous but down-to-earth musical mix that is best appreciated on its own terms.
“I decided long ago that I’m never going to be as good as the traditional cimbalom players in Romania, for example, because they grew up studying and I learned at a later age. Instead, I try in my own work to move creatively in other directions. For instance, I’ll play Middle Eastern music on the cimbalom, which nobody else does. That way, I can present something that is unique, and not a weak copy of something else. For me, there’s a balance between the two. I want to feel rooted in those source traditions, and at the same time, to include cross-cultural aspects to take the listeners somewhere else.”
For example, the album’s first track “Lulu Bi Lulu” represents an experimentation with Balder’s longer term goal of diving more intently into his passion for Middle Eastern music. The Syrian traditional love song features Yeraz Ensemble, which is a cross-cultural collaboration that explores traditional and popular music from Armenia and the Levant, adding layers of texture through its distinct instrumentation.
Similarly, the third track on the album “Radu Mamii” represents a fairly radical reinterpretation of a traditional Romanian song about a worried mother whose son is a little lost in life. Here, Balder playfully reimagines the song as a Bossa Nova with the help of Asaf Ophir, a versatile woodwind player based in the San Francisco bay area, featured here on the sax.
While the first three tracks on Lifelines resemble a more traditional instrumentation with Balder playing guitar, tracks 4 and 5 see him moving on to play the Moldovan (fretted) cobza, an instrument that is almost unknown here in the US. On “A Pünkösdi Rózsa,” the cobza’s unique tones accompany the vocal stylings of Lily Storm as she sings a Hungarian folk song about unrequited love. And track 5 “Silviana” is a Romanian hora composed by the legendary Romanian accordionist Vasile Pandelescu. That song features Marco Ghezzo, a violinist who grew up in the foothills of the Italian alps and lived and studied music in Transylvania.(feat. Marco Ghezzo).
“This track was really fun and quirky,” reflects Balder, “because the violin is restrung using octave strings, so it sounds an octave lower, almost like a cello. And this is paired with the cobza, which already has a very kind of gritty village sound. It’s almost like a mandolin, but also tuned an octave down from a normal mandolin. The combination of these two instruments was a spontaneous decision that resulted in a really crazy and unique sound.”
The second half of the CD, including tracks 6 to 11, is composed of collaborations in which Balder plays the cimbalom, another Eastern European instrument that is not exactly mainstream in the U.S. A traditional instrument in Hungary, Romania and Moldova (and neighboring countries), it is a large hammered dulcimer. Played with mallets, it has a distinct percussive sound, while at the same time offering a wonderfully rich and deep tone.
Of those tracks featuring cimbolom, number 8 “Nostalgiya” is of special significance to Balder because it features Trio Czinka Panna, which also happens to be the oldest musical collaboration featured on this album. Based in the Netherlands, the violin-accordion-cimbalom ensemble consists of Balder and his parents, and as a bonus, the track includes a short fragment from an old recording of from when Balder was just13 years old.
Yet, the album’s most unifying resonance comes across perhaps most clearly with the palpable multicultural energy behind the final track “Cocek-Breaza”. A mash-up of Macedonian and Romanian traditional melodies, this track was the result of an energetic cimbalom-driven collaboration that Balder and his Shasta Power Trio did with Melez Band, a stellar, four-piece, Seattle based band that plays Macedonian style Roma Pop.
While the tracks on Lifelines make no attempt to pass any traditionalist’s purity test, only the most jaded listener could fail to appreciate the degree to which a tradition-inspired artistry informs the distinct collective voice that results from the album’s various instrumental combinations. In fact, Balder sees Lifelines as an educational opportunity to showcase and teach about obscure Eastern European instruments like the cobza, cimbalom, or pan flutes, just as much as it is an opportunity to highlight himself as a player of them.
Says Balder, “The album didn’t really arise out of any preset intention, but because of the pandemic, making remote collaboration videos with different friends became a way of staying united, keeping in touch, and creating things together. Then, a couple months later, I realized that I had all this great material. So, I got a good mixing engineer and a mastering engineer, did some overdubs, and that basically just became the album. And because every track is the result of a unique and meaningful collaboration, the album feels like a kind of a celebration of my friendships made through music.”