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September 27, 2004

Khevre burns the house down at Zeitgeist, 9/26/04

band enters the club playingEvery time I go to see Khevre I get that feeling of excitement that I am seeing something very new. I don't mean "new" in the sense that no one has ever played klezmer and Yiddish song with bits of rock and jazz and South American rhythms before. These days, that could describe any mediocre American simkha band. Rather, there is an energy, and a delight in playing together, and specific wonderful compositions (stayed tuned for their CD due out in about two weeks) and amazing talent that makes one feel the way it would have felt to be watching Shirim back when they were young (and the hope that the band will be as good as Shirim when it has been playing for 20 years), or one imagines, perhaps, watching the Jefferson Airplane on the tiny Matrix stage back in 1966 in San Francisco.

Last night's concert by Khevre was the best I have seen by them. Zeitgeist is a tiny club. It seats about 50 people Last night they were sitting in the aisles, standing by the walls, and crowded in from the street listening to the music. Michael Winograd led the band outside, gathered the last-minute cigarette smokers, and led the band into the club playing. (This may sound dramatic, but it occurred to me later that there really wasn't any backstage in which the band could hang out, so what choice but a dramatic entrance?)

band enters the club playingWith Khevre, the band has so much fun, and plays so well, and makes everything fresh. The old tunes sound new (a lot of the Yiddish repertoire, excluding Yiddish poems set to music by Winograd, could be found in the Theo Bikel songbook, although the band claims that most were learned from diverse sources), and the new tunes are very, very good. Winograd is an excellent clarinet player (last night featured two Bb clarinets: bass and the usual size) and a sophisticated tunesmith. Pianist/accordionist Carmen Staaf is quite extraordinary, as is drummer Richie Barshay who had to make do with a minimalist drum set on the crowded stage. Violinist Eylem Basaldi doesn't quite have the "krechts" down (imho), but she is such an amazing violinist that no one could think of complaining. Bassist Jorge Roeder is likewise incredible, and with Carmen and Richie represents some of the strong Latin roots of the band. New singer Dana Sandler is a treat, and is a prime reason the band's songs sound so fresh and so beautiful.

Part of the pleasure in listening came from the ways in which the band would improvise and stretch some songs a bit out. Some came from the very fresh takes on setting songs. The title track from the forthcoming CD reminded me, conceptually, of the jazz-influenced bluegrass supergroup Wayfaring Strangers (one of Andy Statman's current bluegrass outlets). I also enjoyed the fact that most songs weren't translated. There is a touch of attitude that feels good—"this is our music the way we feel like playing it, singing it. If you understand the words, great. If not, dig the music, but we don't have to explain who we are and we're not going to do it."

The band will be in Queens, NY on October 24th, and then back at Zeitgeist to host a Halloween festival of Jewish bands on October 31st (details to be posted soon). My advice: Don't miss any opportunity to see this band, and get there early because a lot of people are thinking exactly the same thing.

September 24, 2004

Freylakh the vote, NYC, Oct 12

Now let's see events like this all over the US.

Concerts for Change presents

Don't Just Rock the Vote... Freylakh The Vote!

A benefit for the Democratic Party's efforts in Swing States
A high energy evening featuring New York's premiere Jewish performers:

  • Alicia Svigals & The Klezmer Rock Project
  • Gary Lucas & Gods and Monsters
  • David Krakauer
  • What I Like About Jew
  • Yale Strom & Hot Pstromi

Tuesday, October 12th at 7:30pm
The Knitting Factory
Main Space
72 Leonard Street
Directions: (212) 219-3006

Tickets: $18 online/$25 at the door
All proceeds will go to the DNC
To purchase tickets online, go to:

Milken Archive on NPR

Earlier this week we were treated to a story on the Milken Archive on NPR. For those who are interested in the project, the NPR story is here: www.npr.org/features/feature.php?wfId=3927550 (FYI: Dave Brubeck is pictured - his CD is catalogue number 8.559406).

September 12, 2004

Review of London's KlezFest 2004

Leslie Bunder, editor of the UK's SomethingJewish site writes:

For anyone interested in coverage of Klezfest 2004 in London, we now have our review on it. See Klezfest 2004 (and maybe work on catchier headlines, eh—the KlezmerShack could use the same help?)

Class on History of Klezmer starts in Oct, NYC

From Daniel Septimus, of the Skirball Center

At the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning, we have an 8-week course on the history of klezmer beginning in October. Here is a description of the course.

The Strange Life, Death, and Rebirth of Klezmer: From Minsk to Manhattan and Back
Jim Loeffler
Wednesdays, 8:15 PM-9:45 PM - Oct. 13, 20, 27 - Nov. 3, 10, 17 - Dec. 1, 8

For centuries, klezmer music was the soundtrack to Jewish life in Eastern Europe. In the twentieth century, klezmer went through a wild series of twists and turns, disappearing and reappearing in the most surprising cultural combinations and locations. In America, klezmer arrived with immigrants and collided with American popular music before virtually disappearing following World War II. Now, in the past few decades, klezmer has become an international musical sensation with the most unlikely of influences, including jazz, reggae, and hip hop. Follow the fantastic history of klezmer music and listen your way through a century of amazing, often obscure, recordings.

Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning
(212) 507-9537

September 11, 2004

Shalshelet, "Festival of New Jewish Liturgical Music", Nov 13-14

Long-time klezmer Wendy Morrison currently plays with KlezCentricity in the Washington, DC area. She is also responsible for The Celtic Klezmer Concert of the Second Millenium a decade ago that pulled in her love of Celtic music. Her most recent project, "Shalshelet" is Jewish liturgical music, and is now to be featured at the conference of the same (albeit unreleated) name. She writes:


I am privileged and honored to report that 3 of my original liturgical compositions, as performed by my band Shalshelet, have been selected out of a field of 175 submissions from composers from around the world, for inclusion in this year's Festival of New Jewish Liturgical Music, to be presented by Shalshelet.org, the Foundation for New Jewish Music (same name, but no formal association between our band and the non-profit foundation).

Our version of the Shabbat table song "Mipi El" is to be performed in choral arrangement, accompanied by the band, at the Saturday evening concert on November 13, 2004. The other two selections, the Hillel quote "Im Ein Ani Li Mi Li" and the table song "Tsur Mishelo", will be presented and discussed at two different Sunday workshops on November 14. Please mark your calendars, and we'd be grateful if you can help us publicize the festival in your schools and synagogue newsletters.

(Details at www.shalshelet.org—check back after the holidays for updates, as this is late-breaking news and the website will not be updated until all winners have been notified.)

I was given to understand that approximately 30 pieces were selected from all the submissions for inclusion in this year's festival. I'm eagerly looking forward to hearing the other selections at the festival. Planning is underway for a book, with texts and musical scores, and eventually, a CD.

My thanks go out to all those who have encouraged and supported our band, and those who personally helped me copyright, arrange, record, and prepare the musical submissions. Todah Rabbah, and Shana Tova to all.

Wendy Morrison

More on "Maftirim" from Turkey

Sandra Layman, whose "Little Blackbird" album is one of the most awesome recent klezmer recordings, found this article about the Turkish "Maftirim" group. We recently reviewed a CD by the same name, but this sounds like a different group doing similar(?) material. It isn't clear if this article is from 2004, or from an earlier year.

Small band of Turkish singers keeps fading Jewish tradition alive
By Yigal Schleifer

ISTANBUL, Aug. 8 (JTA) - A group of eight men gathers in a small office on a busy Istanbul street one recent evening. Sipping on juice and soda, they chat and catch up on each other's lives.

But this is more than a simple social gathering.

With small talk out of the way, the men pull out folders filled with sheet music and quietly start leafing through the pages. One of the group's members sings a short musical figure and then the rest follow suit, singing in Hebrew over a haunting Ottoman melody.

The group is singing from a collection of songs called Maftirim, Hebrew devotional poems set to intricate Turkish classical music and traditionally sung a capella in synagogues on Shabbat.

First composed more than 300 years ago in the then-Ottoman city of Edirne, located near Turkey's border with Greece and Bulgaria, the Maftirim repertoire is considered one of the cultural and religious jewels of the Turkish Jewish community.

The group meeting in the office, which simply calls itself the "Maftirim Chorus," has been singing together for five years. Its members, who range in age from 36 to 66 and include a dentist and a few businessmen who moonlight as cantors in some of Istanbul's synagogues, say they still consider themselves novices, but there is a sense of urgency to their gathering.

Despite the deep roots Maftirim have in Turkish Jewish life, the songs appear to be a fading tradition, with few members of the Turkish Jewish community remaining who know how to sing the complex songs.

"What has been done until today is all that can be done. Past that it's not possible. There's nobody left who can take it further, to our great sorrow," says Yitshak Macoro, 85, who was Turkey's chief cantor for 50 years and is considered one of the last living Maftirim masters.

Up until a few decades ago, Maftirim were still a prominent feature of religious life in Istanbul, with a large chorus singing the songs before Shabbat afternoon prayers in the city's central synagogue, Neve Shalom.

Today no regular group sings in any of Istanbul's synagogues. The Maftirim Chorus sings at different synagogues only on holidays, and gives occasional concerts.

Turkey's current chief cantor, David Sevi, sings Maftirim on Shabbat in the city's Sisli synagogue, but has no chorus backing him up.

"Somehow, the Maftirim tradition is going out," says Karen Gerson, a musician who is director of the Istanbul-based Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Center.

While the tradition is fading, Gerson's center is trying at least to keep its memory alive. At the end of the year the center is planning to release a multi-volume CD featuring Macoro, Sevi and David Bachar, another master cantor, singing a large number of Maftirim. The trio made the recording 15 years ago, but it was only recently rediscovered.

"It has huge archival value. When we put it into the archives, then future generations will know how to sing" these historic songs, says Gerson, who plans to release the CD along with a 145-page booklet in English, Hebrew and Turkish. "There's nothing like this in the world right now.

"This is really important, both for our community and world Jewish music," Gerson continues. "It's part of world Jewish music and we're lucky to have a recording of these masters."

Macoro says he first remembers hearing the Maftirim songs as a child in Istanbul's old Galata neighborhood, which was the center of the city's Jewish community until the 1960´s, and still is home to Neve Shalom.

On any given Shabbat, he says, the synagogue was filled with more than 200 people who came to hear the singing.

"It was both a religious and community experience. Its role was to bring people to synagogue, and it was always full," says Macoro, who started singing as a cantor at age 17 but no longer performs. "I wish this tradition could still continue, to keep the community together and to keep people going to synagogue."

The Maftirim tradition got its start in Edirne, less to draw people to synagogue than as an expression of the personal devotion of its composers. The Sephardic Jews of the Ottoman Empire had brought with them from Spain a tradition of singing religious poetry and also the kabbalistic notion of using song to reach higher levels of religious devotion.

In the Ottoman Empire, meanwhile, many rabbis encountered the classical music of the Sultan's court, with some even becoming court composers themselves.

In Edirne, the city's rabbis apparently came into contact with members of local Sufi orders, who also used music and song as part of their mystic traditions and were heavily influenced by Ottoman court music.

According to researchers and memoirs from the time, a type of cross-pollination took place in Edirne, with Jews visiting Sufi meeting houses to listen to the music and Sufis coming to the city's synagogues to listen to rabbis singing Maftirim.

Out of this rich religious and musical environment the Maftirim developed into a musically sophisticated body containing more than 1,000 devotional poems, though only some 70 are sung today.

"You have this musicianship, this expertise in the classical repertoire, and you have this desire to express their religious feelings with unique means - not only with the daily prayers, but also with poetry and music," says Edwin Seroussi, professor of musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "It's not folk music. It's professional music."

While Sephardi culture is filled with popular songs sung on holidays and at home, Maftirim are far from sing-along music. The liturgical poems are based on microtonal scales - notes on a western scale are divided into two, while in Turkish classical music they are divided into nine - which gives the music its filigreed, snaking sound and which requires vocal training.

The Maftirim songs also allow a singer to improvise based on maqam, a system of scales that contain built-in improvisation rules. There are dozens of maqams, each identified with a different mood and even with a different occasion, and they also must be learned.

It's music that cannot be learned simply by listening to it, which is a main reason the Maftirim are disappearing as a sung tradition. The members of the Maftirim Chorus said it's because of this that they first started gathering, realizing that they would have to devote themselves to learning the songs if they wanted to be able to sing them properly.

"These are mystical songs for which you have to learn special maqams—this is what you have to feel and give to the listener," says Yusuf Kaspi, 42, one of the group's members.

"A popular song everyone can sing, but a song Pavarotti sings not everyone can sing," says Robert Elmas, who at 65 is one of the group's oldest singers. "This is art."

Like any kind of art, the Maftirim require a commitment and an education. Sevi, the current chief cantor, says he is not certain future generations will be interested in taking on something like that.

"It's very difficult. The youth are not interested in something like this. The tunes even sound foreign to them," Sevi says.

"Maybe a young person will come along and get interested in it. If there's someone else who's crazy like me, then there's hope. To learn it you need time, you need to drop other things."

September 7, 2004

Ashkenaz 2004: Great music, but still some questions

Toronto's bi-annual Ashkenaz Festival is one of the most eagerly awaited Jewish music extravaganzas. It doesn't have the depth or longevity of say, Berkeley, California's "Jewish Music Festival" held every year, nor is it the once-every-350-years extravaganza taking place in New York City right now, but nowhere else in the world can one stroll around and hear so much Jewish music and Jewish language in one place, most of it for free, much of it happening all at once.

Avrom Lichtenbaum on Yiddish Humor, in YiddishThis year, as in each of the preceding four festivals, there was no shortage of amazing music. So, I'll get to that in a minute. Instead, I'd like to spend a few minutes talking about some of the few things that went wrong, starting with the fact that this festival, officially tagged "a festival of new Yiddish culture" contains precious little that is new, and is clearly not limited to Yiddish culture.


George Robinson on Folkways reissues, now available from Hatikvah in LA

Simon, from Hatikvah Records, writes:

The current issue of 'The Jewish Week' features George Robinson's Jewish Music column. George reviews some of the "Folkways Records" Jewish titles that we now distribute, as well as other great recordings; Sephardic, Klezmer and Cantorial. The column is Something Old, Now New

September 3, 2004

"KlezKanada" continues

Jamming by a park. Photo by Bob Blacksberg.On the one-week delay forced by the Internet outage last week (imagine! forced to give up e-mail for a week and enjoy only the Yiddish culture in front of us!), you can read about the week through "last night"—Thursday night at the KlezKanada weblog

Rogovoy on Wall's "Later Prophets"

This week's Forward includes a profile/review of Greg Wall's terrific new "Later Prophets" project by writer Seth Rogovoy, Digging Into Jewish Liturgy for Musical Inspiration

According to legend, a Polish nobleman once hired a group of Old World klezmer musicians on the condition that they use written music. Rather than forfeit the well-paying gig, the musically illiterate players faked it by bringing their Bibles. They placed the books on their music stands, the landlord glanced at the strange squiggles on the pages and shrugged and the musicians played, pretending the Hebrew was some obscure musical notation.....


September 1, 2004

Shteyt Oyf! (Stand up!) for Social Justice, Hopewell Junction, NY, Sep 3-6 3-6, 2004

workmen's circle logoIf you can't make it to Toronto for Ashkenaz this Labor Day weekend (and even if you can) do consider attending a social justice weekend at Hopewell Junction, NY (Sylvan Lake) sponsored by Workmen's Circle.

Oh, right. This is the KlezmerShack, not the SocialJusticeShack. Trust me, there will be klezmer.

KlezKanada weblog new entry up

Well, it's almost a week and a half after KlezKanada began, but I've somewhat recovered from trip lag and the first entry is up at www.klezmershack.com/klezkanada