When Alexander Ferdoryka started practicing his violin scales as a 3-year-old and then later as a teen during his studies of strings at the Suzuki School of Music in Japan, he never imaged he'd end up in a touring band that rocked. As an accomplished fiddler with a penchant for sawing through the most complex Celtic, klezmer, bluegrass, and old-time music, the Ukrainian-American probably never thought he'd encounter sarcastic hecklers, either. But a professional musician's life often twists into strange, unexpected directions.
With his raucous Celtic/world combo Scythian (pronounced "sith-ee-yin"), Ferdoryka embraces the musical detours and misadventures with joyful optimism.
Scythian belts out very high-energy stuff. Comprised of classically trained musicians, they formed a few years ago. Fedoryka handles fiddle and mandolin, among other instrumental duties, while his brother, Danylo, plays rhythm guitar and accordion. Josef Crosby switches between violin and bass. Michael Ounallah keeps time on drum set and percussion.
From the start, the quartet's goal was to blend an eclectic mix of worldly music styles — from Irish and Appalachian folk to gypsy fiddle tunes, jazzy klezmer excursions, and old-fashioned bluegrass — into adrenaline-fueled, audience-interactive performances.
"I think people appreciate the different textures," says Ferdoryka. "In general, it seems like the musical palette is a little more forgiving these days. Maybe it's all the kinds with their downloadable music. Coming from such great musical backgrounds, our set ends up becoming something fresh. It does stretch in a good way."
Their fresh and dynamic approach earned the attention of local press last year. The Washington Post wrote, "The band's enthusiasm is contagious, and shows seem to end with everyone dancing, jumping around, or hoisting glasses."
Scythian's latest collection, Live Vol. 2, is an edgy compilation of jigs, ballads, and klezmer jams. The set on the album features a few country numbers, too, including stompin' rendition of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison" and an impressive cover of a Ervin T. Rouse's classic fiddle tune "Orange Blossom Special." Their level of technique seems as high as their hyper-spazzy performance style.
"We've had very little negative feedback from purists or traditionalists," Ferdoryka says of his Washington D.C.-based band's recent national tours. "We do stretch things a bit, though. I remember doing a great show in Wisconsin, and a guy comes right to me afterward and says, 'Thanks for shitting on my heritage.' Maybe he had a little too much to drink. It was funny, though. That was one of the few negative reactions. Many of the old-timers who I'd think would be very stringent actually turned out to be welcoming and embracing.
"We have a pretty diverse set list with so many different genres," Ferdoryka adds. "We do a lot of Irish festivals and several world music and Americana festivals. Having a very wide variety of songs helps. The set list leans more toward Celtic instrumentals with a few recognizable standards, which is a cool way to incorporate the crowd into things. Some tunes we'll do pretty much straight-up. But our drummer is jazz-trained, so he'll throw several rhythms into a song, like going a little samba in an Irish traditional or something."
Coming into the Carolinas, where several tight-knit music scenes are packed with loyal fans of authentic mountain music, Scythian is more than prepared. Between the reels, punked-out bluegrass, and their signature fiddle duels between Ferdoryka and Crosby, they'll rattle local audiences with ease.
If Ferdoryka and his band mates continue to put their training, skills, and open-mindedness to such great use, they could win over even the grumpiest drunks, domestically and beyond.
"Our show is very interactive and enthusiastic," says Ferdoryka. "There's a spirit about it that's very positive, so in a lot of ways, we're able to sneak in through the kitchen window into a lot of places that wouldn't have us through the front door. Whether they love it or hate it, audiences usually end up laughing, despite themselves."