What, Dawn Already? 

Go ahead, wear out the floor at Ashkenaz' Balkan New Year's Eve. We dare you.

George Chittenden whips out his gaida to point out that while you can't see the fur, yes, it is made out of a goat's skin turned inside out. That's the traditional Balkan way to make a gaida, better known here as bagpipes. The chanter sticks out where the neck was, and a drone pipe is sewn into one of the leg holes. The whole bag is indeed a goat hide, and if you peek through a hole, the inside is fur-lined. It's about as far away as one can get from a manufactured instrument, and about as close to real rural life and music as it has been done for countless generations in the Balkans.

Chittenden has played the wildest dance rhythms on his gaida in Balkan concerts, dances, camps, and gatherings from Cape Cod to New Orleans for years, and even in Japan, where his band Edessa (featuring his wife, singer-accordionist-santouri-player Lise Liepman) has performed the past three years. "We were the first live band, but they knew the music," he says of the Japanese. "And now they've got their own musicians who have learned to play it."

Closer to his home on the Albany-Berkeley border, Chittenden will play with Edessa, joined by three other acts -- Anoush, Zabava! Izvorno, and Joe Finn with Leslie Bonnett -- tonight at Ashkenaz for the community center's Balkan New Year's Eve concert, at 1317 San Pablo Ave. (call 510-525-5054). "Other kinds of music have been discussed by the Ashkenaz board, but this is what the club was started on, and to my memory New Year's Eve has always been Balkan," says Lise Liepman. As always, kids are welcome because it's an all-ages club. She remembers her youth: "I was an unhappy teenager. When I discovered Balkan dancing, I felt like I'd come home."

And so it has felt like coming home to those attending Ashkenaz New Year's Eves for the past thirty years. "It's such an improvisatory music," Chittenden says, "that when a musician really gets into something, the dancers follow. But it's also true that when we're playing and a dancer or group finds its own inspiration, we will watch and follow them with the music. And, unlike a lot of dance music, in Balkan dancing everyone faces into the circle, so you see and feel the group you're part of. It's a real community."

This is the music that inspired the late David Nadel to open Ashkenaz as a place where everyone, regardless of background or beliefs, could come together on the dance floor in peace and harmony. "David arrived here from a trip to Cuba and was so disenchanted by everything," Chittenden recalls. "Then he went to a Greek restaurant that was then just down the street, and discovered Balkan music and dancing. The only problem was it ended at midnight, and he wanted a place where people could dance as long as they wanted. So he opened Ashkenaz."

Tonight's music begins at 8 p.m., and could run late. "In the early years we always went until 5:30 in the morning at least," Chittenden recalls. During the club's thirtieth anniversary celebration last March, the Balkan night featured 22 bands and did indeed go until sunrise.


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