This is the story of how serendipity—in the form of a flakey accordionist, a flattened violin, and a ninja luthier—helped two musicians taken with the sounds of the Eastern Mediterranean find their voices. The duo, known as Teslim, extracts resonant song from a menagerie of instruments and orphan violins. Classically-trained violinist and Jewish music innovator Kaila Flexer and self-taught musician and carpenter Gari Hegedus bring a new vibrancy to Sephardic and original music, utilizing the modes and unique time signatures that echo throughout the Balkans, Greece, and Turkey on their new self-titled album.
The two musicians hailed from radically different worlds: Flexer had explored classical, Celtic, and klezmer before turning passionately to Balkan and Sephardic music, while Hegedus—whose last name fatefully means “fiddler” in Hungarian—discovered his great love for music as a young man experimenting with various instruments, learning to play them by ear from recordings or simply by tinkering. Both had struggled with musically fallow periods.
Their journeys intersected in San Francisco, when an accordion player canceled on a gig and Flexer asked Gari to step in as a last-minute replacement. The result has been an ongoing, intensive collaboration to bring out their true voices, as well as the voices of the stray instruments they take in.
“Gari saved my musical life,” Flexer reflects. "I had played music all my life, and had been composing for a good fifteen years, but listening to Gari play and experiencing his profound ability to listen to himself and to me, was a revelation. It was suddenly not about conquering the instrument or compositional cleverness. What mattered was listening on a very deep level and playing with a transparency of heart that is very hard to teach, but you sure know it when you hear it. Having a witness is a very powerful thing—it has changed my playing, my composing, my teaching, and my experience of music completely.”
One source of inspiration for Teslim’s compositions and soulful renditions of traditional Sephardic tunes is the instruments Hegedus has restored, collected, modified, and brought to life. These special instruments take what was once vocal music into whole new territory. “Stone’s Throw” features not only the Swedish nykelharpa, thanks to Olov Johansson of Väsen, but also a 200-year-old violin with a checkered past. “Johnny Cunningham, the well-known Scottish fiddler was at a party, put his fiddle on the couch, and went to get another beer. When he came back, he sat on it, and it was decimated. He had to put the whole thing in a bag,” Flexer recounts.
Cunningham brought this sack of shattered violin bits into Hegedus’s instrument shop, where the fiddle sat for a decade. “After I sold the shop, my friend and fellow instrument maker Ken White found it in the back, pulled it out, and decided to fix it up,” Hegedus explains. “But it still did not sound right, so I had it for years in my closet.” White had to take the violin apart and reassemble it three times, but it finally came to life, especially when tuned low, as violins once were when the instrument had originally been built over two centuries ago.
To make instruments like Cunningham’s crushed fiddle speak, Hegedus may intuitively carve a new bridge, or add a resonating drone string or a sound post. Meanwhile Flexer finds new violin tunings that bring out fresh sides of old instruments. “When you take an instrument you’ve played your whole life and tune it differently, your instincts don’t work. You find new things,” Flexer smiles. “You go for one thing, and it ends up taking you somewhere completely unexpected. It’s like a little stairway suddenly appears in a familiar hallway and you if you follow it, you can go to some amazing new places.”
Other instruments—a family of Turkish sazes, a viola rescued from the dumpster—invoke their own novel tunings, timbres, and starting points for improvisation, their own brands of serendipity. Though sometimes instruments seem to take on minds of their own, like at a recent Teslim performance when the duo launched into “For A 5/Karsilamás for Sara.” “Gari plays a pennywhistle on this song, and something had gotten stuck on the G hole. Gari tried to avoid that note, but the piece is in G,” Flexer chuckles, “which meant we really had to fly by the seat of our pants.”
At the heart of much of Teslim’s musical exploration lies maqam, the Turkish musical system that includes microtonal intervals falling between the notes in standard Western scales. Maqam, for Flexer and Hedegus, is a whole new palette of possibilities, compelling shades between the primary colors. "Beethoven did amazing things with our twelve notes, but think what he could have done if he would have had maqam!" Flexer laughs. “The shades of sound add melancholy, grit, mischief, and a whole range of emotion.
While Teslim brings instruments to life, the duo also translates friendships into song. The evening before Hegedus underwent successful surgery to correct a hearing problem, his friend's four-year-old daughter Camila insisted she had something to tell him and unknowingly whispered a blessing into his troubled ear, inspiring “Camila’s Song.” Needless to say, Hegedus’ hearing returned.
“Timarxou Street Dojo” is a tribute to Hegedus’ Greek luthier friend and aspiring ninja, who shares both his passion for instrument building and traditional Japanese culture. “I just got an oud from him in April that is amazing. He inlayed this samurai crest on the pick guard, out of ivory, a way of sharing our love of old Japanese craftsmanship,” Hegedus laughs. “There is a certain magic to all of it--that’s what keeps me hooked. It’s hard to define and pin it down in concrete terms.”
Flexer agrees: “As our name implies, you can’t surrender until you commit and vice versa. There is so much respect and trust between us that musically, anything can happen. Mainly, we try to stay open to mystery and let it happen.”
“The twin stringed chemistry and virtuosic interplay is extraordinary as Kaila and Gari forge a fresh musical idiom inspired by the cross-pollinating currents of Turkish, Sephardic, and Cretan/Greek music,” says Dore Stein, host of Tangents Radio on KALW, San Francisco. “Imagine musical siblings separated at birth, and by luck and magic reunite in each other's inner voice.”