Meet Paul de Jong: This musician is living his father's dream in The Berkshires
ACCENTS: SPONSORED BY GREYLOCK FEDERAL CREDIT UNION
NORTH ADAMS — Had Paul de Jong’s Holocaust-surviving father decided to accept the job offer in New York, this immigrant’s tale would not have been told.
Vrin de Jong, a schoolmate of Anne Frank in Amsterdam, survived the murderous Nazi occupation of The Netherlands, where most Dutch Jews did not. On his first trip to the United States, by boat, in 1951, “He traveled to the promised land,” tells his son in the large North Adams house he and his wife, Carin, are renovating.
“I have the photobooks from my father and he had a fantastic time. He felt welcomed, he felt understood and unjudged as a Jew. As opposed to The Netherlands, where, when he came back from the war, people basically looked at him and said, ‘Well, we didn’t expect to see YOU again.’ ”
A medical student at the time, the elder De Jong got offered a hospital position in New York. He didn’t take it. He returned home instead to become a physician in Holland.
“But ever since, he always had this hankering for the United States,” says his son. “So to a certain extent I am living my father’s dream.”
Born in 1964 and raised in Rotterdam by Vrin and Els de Jong in a musical, art-minded household, Paul became a cellist and a collector of recorded audio cassettes and other “found sounds.” After conservatory in The Netherlands, a post-graduate year (and an American girlfriend) brought him to the University of Illinois in 1992. When his cello teacher there moved to New York City, De Jong followed him.
“New York being what it is, it gave me plenty of reasons to stay.”
A new neighbor in his Manhattan apartment building was Williams College graduate Nick Zammuto, who shared De Jong’s musical proclivities. They started their band The Books. Their hard to classify, if not unique, sound with cello, guitar, vocals and lots of digital samples from De Jong’s eclectic audio archive brought them critical acclaim.
Zammuto by that time had moved back to the Berkshires. Tiring of the long Peter Pan bus commutes to his bandmate’s place in North Adams, De Jong, too, realized that he could afford a lot of living and recording space there. The Berkshires became this Dutch musician’s home almost 15 years ago.
A collection of cellos and the grand piano from his parental home in Rotterdam are part of the furnishings in his three-story house up the hill on Cherry Street.
“I remember lying underneath that piano, 6 years old, reading Tintin comic books while my brother practiced playing,” says De Jong. “I have these associations where I read a Tintin now with my kids and I hear that particular piece of music that my brother would be playing.”
He and Carin have three children: 9-year-old Vera and 5-year-old twins Casper and Rufus.
The Books is now a defunct band. Cello music from De Jong’s solo album, "If" from 2015, is part of the Accents podcast at tinyurl.com/accentspodcast. His new album comes out early next year. The full title cannot be printed in the newspaper.
“Just call it YFS,” De Jong suggests, a glint in his eye. “I identify now more than ever with the punk movement of my teens. It is in-your-face music.”
He pauses and then laughs, “But respectfully so … .”
His father’s and Europe’s World War II history are still clearly present in De Jong’s worldview and art. After 25 years in the United States, why not complete his father’s dream, file the paperwork, pay the $725 in fees and become an American citizen?
“It has nothing to do with unwillingness; it’s always on top of my list,” he says. “But it is always the last 1,000 bucks I have in my account that I suddenly have to spend on something else.
“I am always not getting quite to it. But it will happen soon enough.”
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