About the Klezmer Revival

The story goes that Henry Sapoznik, one of the founding members of Kapelye, one of the original 'Klezmer Revival" bands, was down south trying to learn some traditional banjo licks from one of the old timey players and was asked, "don't you Jewish people have ethnic music of your own?" Indeed, Jewish musicians by the score emigrated to the United States at the end of the last century and the first decades of this century. Here they found jazz and other world music cultures. For a few decades an American klez style flourished. You could hear the influences of the Greek and Balkan and Eastern European melodies left behind, but this Americanishe version was also influenced by music from America--especially jazz. Parallel to klez was the Yiddish theatre, and the golden age of Jewish Cantors, and the Yiddish folk traditions. Then our parents and grandparents became "good Americans," and by the Sixties, klez was an unimaginative arrangement of "Sunrise, Sunset," played at Jewish weddings and old folks homes.

The klez revival of the Seventies changed that. The first bands were tremendous fun live, and put out horrible, stiff albums. There was irony in the thought and deed, of modern folk musicians reviving a folk pastiche by trying to learn songs note for note from old 78s. Then, in 1980 I encountered two albums that changed my life. The first Klezmer Conservatory Band album, Yiddishe Rennaisance, was brand new, integrating a thundering amount of music and Judy Bresler's voice. This was music that you wanted to, had to dance to. At the same time, almost the same week, an quiet disk (released a couple of years earlier) by former Dawg musician and mandolin/clarinet maven Andy Statman with cymbalom player Ze'ev Feldman made it to the West Coast. This too, was beautiful. It was dawg music transcended, and it was klez.

There are still traditional klezmer musicians. But I am mostly in love with the ways in which this generation of klezmer musicians reblends jazz and punk and the spirit of an entire Yiddish revival into something that sounds familiar. I often think of the Jewish legend which holds that the Creator already knows all of human history, and then I think of her sitting in heaven, noting that it is 1995, and excitedly exclaiming, "At last I can hear it live!"

But, what is klezmer?

Back, a few years ago (1986), I wrote an article about Jewish music and the klezmer bands I loved then. Here's a paragraph describing klezmer:

Klezmer, short for "klei zemer" (musical instruments) refers to the conglomeration of Greek and Central/Eastern European music played at Jewish celebrations. A pure klezmer band has no vocalist--it just turns up the volume and swings the music faster. Unlike rock, or African-influenced music, klez is made for dancing while holding hands, or dancing with a partner. It doesn't bounce, it flows. It swings, it cries. Traditionally, there wouldn't even be a drummer (and, in fact, the difference between a modern "Bar Mitzvah band" and a good band of klezmorim often relies on just that distinction. Bar Mitzvah bands have drummers. Klezmorim create a motion and feel that doesn't fit easily into 4/4, and certainly aren't comfortable with "a one and uh two". It's no accident that when Jewish musicians abandoned the "old world" music and moved into the American idiom, many of them (most notably Benny Goodman) moved into jazz.

That's largely how I would describe what klezmer is, today, except that most bands do have drummers, and the genre has been pushed in so many ways that it is difficult to figure out where to draw lines, or if they should be drawn. I believe that one should try to be specific about what is or what isn't best described as "klezmer," but that it must be understood that this is for purposes of description only. Consider:

All of this leads to Ari's Corollary: "Not all Jewish musicians play klezmer, not all Jewish music is klezmer, and not all klezmorim are Jewish." It is also important to remember Levy's paraphrase (from the Levy's Rye Bread ads of the '60s: "You don't have to be Jewish to love klezmer!"

"Klezmer," as a name to describe Jewish music, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Older musicians will talk about how being called a "klezmer" was derogatory. And the music was just "music"--the stuff you played that the audience wanted to hear--until the klezmer revival. This is true of most world folk music, I suspect--it was named only when it needed to be marketed, just as the names appended to many early klezmer recordings were "in the studio" puns and jokes (e.g., "When there are two, Naftule is the third"--the late Naftule Brandwein having been both the master at great klez song titles, as well as of his music) designed to attach a label to a specific record.

For all of that, there is a "klezmer sound." For a non-musician like me to describe it, is difficult. The repertoire is relatively traditional, although a modern American klezmer band will not only have a drummer (and this can certainly be okay, despite what I wrote ten years ago. I am older and wiser now.), but perhaps a vocalist to sing audience favorites for the simcha, or audience Jewish music favorites at a public concert. Public klezmer concerts are also a new phenomenon, since the revival, and are themselves both demonstrations of the broadness of a band's chops, and teach-ins about a Jewish past that is foreign to most of the audience--including those who happen to be Jewish.

There are klezmer modalities and ways of dealing with improvisation that help the ear notice what is klezmer, and what has merely read some klezmer sheet music and applied it elsewhere. A major element is the prevalence of minor keys, and the "krechts," that soulful burst of intensity that the lead musician, often a clarinet, will play, almost like an instrumental complaint. Charlie Berg, the first drummer for the Klezmer Conservatory Band, describes some of the drumming issues, in his article from years ago, and that might help understand, in the face of my lack of ability to be more specific.

So, you have "klezmer music," which might be taken as "music that feels like, and sounds like music that American klezmorim were playing in the 1920s, and the modern klezmer band, which could be musicians playing all manner of Jewish and popular music, but generally recording traditional, or traditional-inspired tunes, with some Jewish Yiddish and Judesmo folk, Yiddish theatre, religious, and Israeli tunes as the fancy hits them. Sometimes, as in the case with the Original Klezmer Jazz Band or the Jerusalem Jazz Band you have Jewish melodies applied to jazz, or jazz applied to Jewish ideas. Not klez at all, but fun!

The tricky part comes when you have the bands pushing the envelope, like Brave Old World or the Klezmatics, where the repertoire isn't necessarily traditional, and often feels quite untraditional even when the songs, themselves, are. But, somehow, there is also a feeling that this, too, is an extension of the genre.

What makes the Klezmatics a klezmer band, but Hasidic New Wave or Davka or Kol Simkha, clearly in need of new terms to define themselves? To some degree, familiarity and danceability are factors--one needs the feeling that the band could play a Jewish wedding--that's what the original klezmorim did for a living! But there is a lot of stuff that the Klezmatics play, that clearly goes beyond that narrow a definition. I'd say that some of the essence lies in Lorin Sklamberg's vocal style, but that's a hard sell into a genre that doesn't acknowledge vocals to begin with. And some of it lies with an approach to playing that I still don't know how to describe, but includes a lot of Central- and Eastern-European riffs and that mysterious "krechts" (From the Budowitz / Mother Tongue liner notes:

Ornamentation seems to be extremely important to klezmer music. Is there a relationship to, say, Baroque ornamentation? "If there isn't, there should be. The entire gamut of improvisational and ornamental gestures of the Baroque exists in klezmer music, sometimes called dreydlekh and shleyfer. The only thing missing is a treatise on the subject which would validate it, but because we're dealing with a style--or styles--which are predominatly "aurally" transmitted, there has never been a need to codify the whole system.

And, of course, if klezmer is Jewish wedding music, and the music Jews dance to at weddings is always changing, klezmer is a moving target, at best. All this helps explain why writing about klezmer is so much fun for me. It is an ongoing process of discovery and insight--sometimes into the music, and sometimes into what it means to be a Jewish person of Ashkenazic roots in American towards the end of the twentieth century.

As I wrote in 1986, I would be happy to include on these pages other people's thoughts on the subject--and there are a growing number of other folks writing about klez. Some of that writing is referenced on the "articles" page, here. Yossi Kurland, has written online guides to Jewish music at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs at the web pages for his band, Wholesale Klezmer. The liner notes for the previously mentioned Budowitz / Mother Tongue, are superb (bandleader Josh Horowitz' writing being just the beginning of the pleasure), and there are often good notes for many of the klezmer compilation albums. In the meantime, I stumble forward, writing, mostly about klezmer, and sometimes, about good music that happens to feel like something else.

I should also conclude by noting that for many people, the introduction to playing klezmer, is Henry Sapoznik's "The Compleat Klezmer," published by Tara Productions, and available from Tara, House of Musical Traditions, and finer music stores, everywhere. Or immerse yourself at klezcamp--E-mail "Living Traditions" to find out more.

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