Kleztival, Brazil's Great Jewish Music Event

by Richard Simas

Richard Simas is a freelance journalist living in Montreal, Canada. This piece was written in November 2012.

Mix traditional Eastern European Klezmer tunes such as bulgars, freylaks, horas, and nigunim with strains of samba, salsa, and tango, and you have Jewish music, South American style. Add Berber sounds from the deserts, new-jazz inflected original compositions from Israel and Brooklyn, a cumbia style dance-band, and Brazilian choirs and you are hearing Kleztival 2012, São Paulo’s third annual Klezmer music event.

For a foreigner, Brazil evokes rich tropical hardwoods, suave melodies, and Afro-percussion. You sense magic the moment you say the word. Though full of enchantment, Kleztival is no whimsy or wild idea. Now in its third and most expansive annual edition, it is the delicious and ripe fruit of two dedicated Paulistanos, Edy and Nicole Borger who also lead São Paulo’s Jewish Music Institute. Assisting them as festival musical director is New Yorker Frank London, the omnipresent and brilliant kingpin of all things world-Klezmer; trumpet player, composer, bandleader, and arranger. This year’s 9-day (October 12 to 21) marathon of concerts, workshops, conferences, and free, evening rush-hour subway station shows was performed by a diverse roster of 34 musicians from 15 different countries with an emphasis on South America. Here for the listener is a Klez-logue travel bag filled with impressions and sounds, a voyager’s collection of observations, anecdotes, conversations, all Kleztival treasures discovered in São Paulo.

Mirroring the mobility of its populations, Jewish music has proved aesthetically flexible enough to mix with whatever it meets: swing, jazz, tango, ska, punk, rock, electro, reggae, rap, and a variety of Latin styles. This is exactly what is on display in such a gathering as Kleztival where the very notion of Klezmer is a synonym for celebration, variety, and sharing, a constantly renewing work in progress where notions of traditional purity are of lesser importance. Klezmer’s “instruments of song” provide its players a seemingly infinite source to adapt, revisit, arrange, and embroider repertory, a life pulse that renders this music uniquely alive and immediate.

This is where Kleztival begins in its brilliant initiative that allows musicians from Canada, the United States, England, and Israel to perform alongside players from Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, and of course Brazil. São Paulo, the most populous urban center in South America and the region’s economic and cultural center with a rich history of Jewish culture is the perfect and elegant host for the event.

Sé subway station, downtown São Paulo

The scene is a vast hall inside the bustling city center subway during evening rush hour. Estação Sé in Brazil’s business capital is the underground transit heart where thousands hustle up and down stairs and scurry through tunnels to intersecting blue and red train lines stretching across the city. Thanks to Kleztival, instead of the typical transit race, at 6pm Estação Sé is transformed into an improvised dance party with a Latin-Klezmer pulse. Streams of travelers trickle to a near halt, kidnapped by the sounds of the irresistible Orquesta Kef from Buenos Aires. Complete strangers who normally avoid the slightest glance are holding hands and turning in festive circles and groups of four. Experienced dancers show the simple steps to anyone willing to try as the choreographic chain begins snaking through the crowd. Miraculously, at during the busiest moment of the day, travelers take time for a dance or to listen, clap hands, tap feet, or swing in place. A semi-circle of spectators grows into a vast pedestrian traffic jam while a cluster of camera phones held aloft records the moment. Rush hour is unofficially suspended, perhaps subverted. The Argentinians romp through an up-tempo freylaks, Buenos Aires style. The Kef players all wear matching green ball caps, vests, and shirts. The three front men jump on cue and hit the ground together to finish the tune on a downbeat to bravos and whoops of approval echoing through Estação Sé. A few spectators reluctantly amble off to continue their transit.

Following a three-song medley, Edy Borger, the festival director frequently in charge of MC duties, takes the microphone and names Kef’s musicians, explaining to the crowd they’ve just heard Jewish music from Argentina. He summarizes the Kleztival schedule and gives details about where to attend upcoming events. Meanwhile, Mexico City’s Shtetl Klezmer sets up. As Borger steps from the portable stage, bandleader-violinist Abraham Rechthand airs a long, unmistakably Klezmer, plaint that introduces part two of the subway set. A single draw of the violin bow, such as Rechthand is a master, shows how deftly Klezmer can switch moods. As if also strung with vibrating strings, the crowd responds immediately to the slow, nostalgic pulse and sways dramatically side to side. subway station is not only the city’s transit heart, for a Klezmer hour it is also the vessel for its receptive soul.

Friday, 3 pm, Sao Paulo State Music School, Largo General Osório: Duets and Ideas

A collection of young music students wander into a stuffy room designated for a workshop/conference about Jewish music in collaboration with Kleztival. The average audience age might be 17, and while they fidget, joke, and text message, music director Frank London who is leading the session looks them over, spying the various instrument cases in an attempt to size up the group. On an elevated stage behind him, oud player Yair Dalal from Israel, a studious, reserved man dressed in white, tunes his exotic instrument with delicacy and concentration.

“What do you guys play?” Frank casts around to no one in particular. The students offer shy, fragmented responses, and it turns out most of them know little about Klezmer, but following the introduction they are keen on participating. Brazilian violinist Daniel Stein who now lives and studies in the United States provides simultaneous translation as necessary for the 90-minute exchange.

“Let’s play,” London suggests to Dalal, waving his trumpet in one hand and the mute in the other. Yair nods solemnly, smiles then introduces a slow and gentle Bedouin motif, one of the essential references for the music he plays. The result is the first trumpet-oud duet I have ever heard. Still more astounding than the pairing of instruments is how softly the trumpet sings, an almost hidden background melody, as if their duet was a wandering desert walk in which partners converse alone in a remote expanse. How could such a seemingly mismatched pair of instruments fit together so exquisitely?

“It is always about listening,” London suggests after a long silence ends their piece. “How will you become a bigger musician otherwise? You have to adapt to the other.” He couldn’t have provided a more poignant example of complicity and adaptation. That too, it appears, could be another meaning for Klezmer.

Following discussion and commentary, Dalal and London play a traditional Arabic motif called a Dulab, usually used as an introduction, and the conference public is invited to sing an imitation.

“Now listen really carefully” London instructs, repeating the phrase with Dalal. The students repeat. “Now listen to every single detail and sing again,” he insists, closing his eyes and straining as if to indicate just how much more there is to hear. A long silence follows the repetition.

“You always have to know where you are and where you are going,” London says with regards to the listening/imitation exercise. “Written music means nothing if you don’t know what it is supposed to sound like in advance.” The example makes his point unmistakeably clear. “Musicians have the most important job in the world,” Yair Dalal offers. “They are the best positioned to spread culture and peace…to construct a bridge across differences.” Dalal, a peace activist and contributor to dialogue between Jews and Arabs, is a stunning example of such bridgework.

“Passion is the most important thing you need to play music,” says London. “To open your heart is the important thing,’ Yair answers.

The Babel-Ashkenaz project at SESC Pompeia. L-R: Erez Mounk (Israel); Frank London (USA); Yair Dalal (Israel); Beny Zekhry (Brasil). Photo: Andre Nehmad

Clube Ateltéico Paulistano Concert: Trio in Canto, Beyond the Pale, Daniel Stein, Gustavo Bulgach, Trio Shelvá, and Frank London

Detailed security clearance is required to enter the Clube Atelético, São Paulo’s chic, oldest, and most exclusive, private social club and high-end sports complex. Within its vast, walled-compound the visitor finds a collection of full-sized athletic fields, tennis courts, training rooms, a heart-shaped swimming pool with a garden bar and restaurant, a movie house, billiard salon, and a performing theatre where one of Kleztival’s 2012 concerts will take place.

Between sound check and concert, the musicians in Toronto’s Beyond the Pale drink beer and relax at the poolside bar. Led by mandolin player Eric Stein, also the director of Toronto’s Ashkenaz festival of music, art, and culture, Beyond the Pale boasts an eclectic line-up of world-class musicians. In their multiple Kleztival appearances they showcase original and traditional repertory, freely exploring musical forms and impressive solo improvisation that reveal influences from jazz, contemporary, Dixieland, folk and a variety of ethnic music sources. They call their take ‘Euro-folk fusion’ and offer listeners intriguing interpretations on Klezmer repertory.

Festival finale at the Hebraica. Photo: Andre Nehmad

The Clube Atelético audience is subdued and slightly formal, not exactly ready to dance in the aisles as they did at the SESC Pompei concert, but still warmly enthusiastic. Shelvá, a trio of young performers from Israel now living in Brooklyn, plays original compositions and fresh arrangements of traditional Israeli repertory. Though Shelvá means “serenity” they groove with a decidedly jazz touch that highlights Assaf Gleizner’s piano and melodica solos.

Nicole Borger, Kleztival’s co-director, is an engaging singer. Her group Klezmer4 performs rare pieces of Jewish repertory as well as original pieces. During the concert they showcase pieces from their excellent Klezmeriando recording

“My grandfather taught me this song,” clarinettist Gustavo Bulgach tells the audience before launching into "Yoshke, Yoshke", a Klezmer classic. Born and raised in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires, the fine clarinettist later moved to Los Angeles where he pursues a multi-faceted career. Laying claim to heritage is Bulgach’s passion and is reflected in his current project about rediscovering the Jewish tango. A showman on stage and an animated talker about all subjects, Gustavo performed solos, duos with violinist Daniel Stein, and ensemble pieces including the premier of a piece composed for the festival. As if tagging on a wall in L.A., Bulgach summarizes, “Klezmer is the soundtrack of the diaspora.”

Trio In Canto, a São Paulo’s women’s vocal ensemble, is inspired by the work of American composer, singer, arranger, and poet Debbie Friedman. At the Clube Atelético they perform 5 songs in English, Yiddish, Portuguese, and Hebrew from traditional repertory. They are animated story tellers, and their delicate and playful voices combine to entertain with songs of love, lament, and, devotion.

Festival finale at the SESC Pompeia. Photo: Andre Nehmad

After the Gala concert

Jokes and conversation fill the festival shuttle-bus following the gala concert at Hebraica, São Paulo’s Jewish cultural center. With the exception of a Sunday mid-day concert, the festival is over. Many musicians will go directly to the airport during the night to catch international flights, the musical diaspora once again heading home.

Abraham Rechtman says it is the first time his Shtetl Klezmer group has been invited outside of Mexico. Their playing is perhaps the most traditional, coherent with an artistic mandate to perform in a style dating from the first half of the twentieth century.

“I don’t really know how to do this touring business,” Rechtman admits. “In Mexico City we do all the Bar Mitzvahs, the weddings, and parties because people know us, but I am a trained classical musician, so I also play in string quartets, orchestras, and other groups.” Having clearly become a festival favourite, his quartet received resounding applause when they walked on stage earlier in the evening. Rechtman introduced a piece he wrote called “Hommage,” dedicated to all the musicians who died in the Holocaust.

“I am a traditionalist, you know. I don’t like fooling around much with this beautiful repertory, but I love listening to what everyone does with it as long as they make great music.”

Also during the gala, violinist Daniel Stein and Gustavo Bulgach paraded down Hebraica’s centre aisle playing "Yoshke, Yoshke" then continued a medley of pieces with a mixed ensemble on stage. Polina Shepherd the brilliant Russian singer from England sang dramatic piano-clarinet duos with Merlin Shepherd then led a song and dance finale which included all the festival musicians and a dancing Hebraica audience.

Polina and Merlin Shepherd from the UK at the Hebraica. Photo: Andre Nehmad

When the shuttle-bus stops in front of a restaurant, the exuberant concert mood has trailed the Kleztival family across town as it files in to celebrate.

A taxi, somewhere in São Paulo

It is closer to daybreak than to midnight when we say last goodbyes and obrigados. Some festival partiers appear hesitant to leave the people and event that has so intimately joined everyone. Michael Alpert and British clarinettist Merlin Shepherd sing together at a table, heads touching. Nearby, players from Uruguay’s Klezmeron Orkestra from Montevideo have a guitar and are singing songs in Spanish. Out on the sidewalk I have no idea where I am in the city or which direction leads home. Everyone says that it is very dangerous to wander São Paulo’s streets late at night, but I feel protected by all the music, celebration, food, and cachaça, Brazil’s sugar cane alcohol.

The taxi driver speeds through Sao Paulo’s downtown streets at 85 miles an hour, the city flashing by in bright streaks. He runs three successive red lights, but I don’t pay much attention because I am remembering the Kef Orquesta’s guitarist jumping insistently as if hitting his head on high ceilings was part of a Buenos Aires dance. I remember Frank London telling students that perhaps Chopin and Pixinguinha, the famous black Brazilian popular composer, are really connected, and I wonder what he meant. I am searching for ways to understand Klezmer’s charm.

Two days later I find a key in the sprawling Rio de Janeiro slum of Rocinha when I meet Flavio “Peniel.” He was cutting keys at his sidewalk stand when I noticed the Star of David on his sign announcing that he was a locksmith. Flavio tells me he is the only Jew living in Rocinha, and his business card reads Peniel—locksmith. Peniel, is a reference from Genesis where after Jacob wrestles with God he names the place Peniel, “the face of God.” Flavio, standing on a corner in his vast ghetto, wears a broad smile, blue ball cap, and work apron.

“I am a Shalom locksmith. I play Jewish music,” he answers when I ask about his work with locks. He verifies a key he has just cut then adds with his kindly glance, “My group is called “Braz-El”. We play psalm lyrics with a Brazilian Samba beat. It’s beautiful. You have to hear it.” I do.

Some Kleztival Videos

Kleztival no Mosaico 21-10-12, includes Frank London interview snippets

Shtetl Klezmer - Kleztival 2012 no Metro

Polina and Merlin Shepherd

Festival finale?

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This page is maintained by Ari Davidow. E-mail Ari Davidow with any comments or suggestions. Last revised 02 September, 2013.