Ethel Raim

By Ellen Harold

Ethel Raim is Artistic Director of New York's Center for Traditional Music and Dance (CTMD), one of the nation's preeminent traditional arts organizations, and has researched ethnic music and worked closely with community-based traditional for almost five decades.

Raim has also had a distinguished career as a performer, recording artist, music editor, and singing teacher. In 1963 she co-founded and was musical director of the Pennywhistlers, who were among the first to bring traditional Balkan and Russian Jewish singing traditions to the folk music world. In the early sixties, The Pennywhistlers shared the bill with artists such as Theodore Bikel, Leonard Cohen, Reverend Gary Davis, Bob Dylan, and Jean Ritchie. Their LPs: The Pennywhistlers (Folkways Records FW-8773, 1963), The Pennywhistlers: A Cool Day and Crooked Corn (Nonesuch H-72024, 1965), and Songs of the Earth (with Theodore Bikel) (Elektra), helped inspire dozens of women's vocal ensembles.

From 1965 to 1975 Raim was music editor of Sing Out! magazine and its publishing imprint, Oak Press. Among the books for which she edited the music were Guy and Candie Carawan and Julius Lester's, We Shall Overcome: Songs of the Southern Freedom Movement (1963); Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Songs of the Freedom Movement (1966); the Carawans' Ain't I Got a Right to the Tree of Life (1968 with Bob Yellin); and Peggy Seeger's Folk Songs of Peggy Seeger: 88 Traditional Ballads and Songs (1964).

In 1968, as a researcher on Slavic Cultures for the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival. Raim and Martin Koenig conducted field research in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Music from that trip was included in the highly regarded Village Music of Bulgaria, a two-LP set that Raim and Koenig produced in the early '70s for Nonesuch Records (twenty-five years before the CD Le Mystère des voix bulgares, became an international breakout best seller). Alan Lomax, Carl Sagan, and Ann Druyan chose "Izlel e Delyu Haydutin" by Valya Balkanska (accompanied by bagpipe players Lazar Kanevski and Stephan Zahmanov) from this collection for inclusion in the Voyager Golden Record that was sent into outer space in 1977.

In 1975 Raim joined Koenig as Co-Director of the Balkan Folk Arts Center. In addition to sponsoring festivals, tours, and activities, the center produced numerous recordings of Greek, Serbian, and Bulgarian singers, and a film, The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago. In 1981, as its mission broadened to include the diverse immigrant communities of the New York City area, it was renamed the Ethnic Folk Arts Center and in 1998 it became the Center for Traditional Music and Dance.

As Director of the CTMD, Raim has curated and overseen the production of hundreds of artistic presentations and has developed many of the innovative program models for which CTMD is best known, including their Community Cultural Initiatives - designed to establish and nurture community-based documentation, presentation, education, and cultural preservation in New York's immigrant communities. Under her leadership, the Center has become one of America's leading proponents of what Alan Lomax called "cultural equity," the right of every community or ethnic group to express and sustain its distinctive cultural heritage.

Numerous performers associated with the Center have been recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award, the nation's highest award for traditional arts, among them: Adam Popovich, Serbian Tamburitza musician, 1982; Dave Tarras, Jewish klezmer clarinetist (1984); Martin Mulvihill, Irish fiddler, 1994; Pericles Haklias, Epirot Greek clarinetist, 1985; Ilias Kementzides, Pontic Greek lyra player, 1989; Giuseppe and Raffaela DeFranco, traditional Calabrian musicians, 1990; Jack Coen, Irish flute player, 1991; Fatima Kuinova, Bukharan (Central Asian) Jewish singer, 1992; Simon Shaheen, Palestinian violinist and oud player, 1994; Liz Carroll, Irish Fiddler, 1994; Donny Golden, Irish stepdancer, 1995; Juan Gutierrez, Puerto Rican bomba and plena musician, 1996; Mick Moloney, Irish musician, 1999 Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, Yiddish poet, songwriter and folk singer, 2005; Sidiki Conde, Guinean dancer and musician, 2007; and Sue Yeon Park, Korean dancer, 2008.

The CTMD is currently conducting Community Cultural Initiatives in New York's Peruvian, Chinese, Ukrainian and Jewish communities and initiating a new Initiative in the Colombian community.

Beginning in 2010, Raim, along with ethnographer Itzik Gottesman, and klezmer singer Michael Alpert, has led an advanced summer workshop in Weimar, Germany, on the tradition of unaccompanied Yiddish singing, an older style of singing Yiddish, particularly among women at Yiddish Summer Weimar (YSW).

On April 23, 2012 Raim emceed the Half the Sky Festival: The Sweetest Song: Women's Traditional Song Sampler, presented jointly by the CTMD and the Brooklyn Arts Festival, an a cappella vocal concert with outstanding singers, including Eva Primack (Balkan), and Irka Mateo (Dominican), held at the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.

See also Ethel Raim's Yiddish Song of the Week selections archived online on the CTMD website.

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