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Strung out at Berklee

Posted by Joel Brown  October 28, 2010 05:53 PM

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There seems to be no end to the annoyingly talented, ambitious and diverse young musicians who come to town to study at Berklee College of Music, but even so, Jakub Trasak is a little unusual. Trasak, who has organized the school's first String Showcase on Nov. 4, is a bluegrass fiddler ... wait for it ... from Prague.

Jakub Trasak - 3 - CR Vojtek Vik "My dad, he was a fiddler in the Czech Republic. He had a band in the '70s and '80s," Trasak says matter-of-factly. "When I was, like, 4 or 5 years old I was playing with the bands around, just super-simple stuff, nothing virtuosic."

Turns out that the then-Czechoslovakia was a hotbed of American roots music fans. Who knew? Trasak, 25, said it was commonplace for people from the 1960s onward to spend the weekend in the countryside, jammin' on some bluegrass tunes around the old campfire. While the Cold War was still on, "They tried their best to get tapes from abroad, and it just spread - of course it was under the table." He says American musicians were surprised at the scope of the scene when they visited - including banjo ace Tony Trischka, who in 1989 invited the 4-year-old Trasak on stage with him at a festival in Plzen in front of 30,000 people.

Trasak first came to the States just a few years later, when he began attending fiddler Mark O'Connor's music camp in Nashville. He became moderately well known at home through things like appaearances on the Czech equivalent of "America's Got Talent," he said. And he studied classical and contemporary styles at the Conservatory of Jaroslav Jezek in Prague, receiving a diploma in violin and vocal performance. But for a long time he had his sights set on Berklee, because "a school in Boston that I can go to experience something different from a music point of view. Czech scene is nice, but I didn't understand multicultural environment, blend of young people from all over the world trying to do something great together."

Which brings us to the real purpose of today's item. In his final year at Berklee, Trasak is not content just mastering his instrument, of course not. He's also organized the school's first ever String Showcase, to be held at the Berklee Performance Center on Nov. 4 at 8:15 p.m. Trasak came up with the idea after performing in a variety of other Berklee departments' showcase concerts, figuring the 150-member string department deserved its turn.

"We have amazing creative string players playing swing music, jazz music and fusion music. It's quite impressive. That's why I'm trying to put this show together, to kind of send the message to the string community and to other musicians that violin playing is heading to a new era," says Trasak.

The event will feature a series of performances by nearly 50 string students in small ensembles with musicians from other departments. They'll play bluegrass, Americana, Irish music, jazz, r&b, Latin and swing on violins, violas, cellos, mandolins, banjos, and harps. (Guitars are a department unto themselves.) He even cooked up a deal with Johnson String and Yamaha to give away a free electric violin to one audience member during the concert.

Berklee created a focused area of study in American Roots Music as reported here last December. Trasak is not in that specific program but studies with Matt Glaser, who runs it. He cites a long list of other players and teachers at the school who've influenced him, including Alain Mallet, Jamey Haddad, Eugene Friesen, Jeff Galindo, Christian Howes, Walter Beasley. But he doesn't want to describe his own style of playing, which he says is still changing.

"That's the most difficult question because I'm still in the melting pot of the school environment, and everybody's trying to find their own voice, especially in the very creative and challenging classes I attend here at Berklee," he says. "So it will have to sort of sink in, and then I will come up with my voice."

Tickets, $10 full price, are at Ticketmaster or the box office, 617-747-2261. (Photo by Vojtek Vik via Berklee.)

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Joel Brown is a regular contributor to The Boston Globe and writes the blog. Catch his tweets between posts at More »

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