Why Klezmer?

by Inna Barmash

This article was originally published in Princeton University's "Nassau Weekly" in 1999. Please do not reprint or repost any part of this article without prior written consent of the author

It is music of uncontrollable joy fused with irrevocable pathos. Echoing the sounds of its long-lost homeland of Eastern Europe, it mirrors and interweaves with the musical kaleidoscope of its new home in America. Klezmer music, which originated in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, then forsaken by the self-conscious Americanized immigrants, has bounced back to life, and boy, is it kicking!

The Yiddish word klezmer referred to professional Jewish musicians. Besides entertaining for the gentile public, these klezmorim commonly played at weddings in the shtetls, close-knit Jewish communities that speckled the Eastern European landscape up until the World War II. The language of these Jews was Yiddish, and today Yiddish songs comprise a large part of klezmer repertoire. The word klezmer comes from the Hebrew words kle, vessel or instrument, and zemer which means song. Klezmer music made an appearance in the United States in the wave of immigration in the early 1900s. However, it did not take on the new soil, as younger generations of musicians and listeners rejected their roots, turning to more "American" musical styles. Klezmer music in America was thus quickly disappearing, only occasionally surfacing in the mainstream in the form of Jewified jazz. As the war wiped out the remnants of Yiddish life in Europe, the prospects for klezmer music seemed bleak.

In 1970s, a new generation of Jewish musicians set the stage for a klezmer revival. Long established in the new country and eagerly searching for their lost roots, they feverishly sought out to uncover old scores and records, anxious to capture the disappearing tradition. Several major bands, some of which are still actively recording today, brought new life to the style, making recordings and attracting a new generation of listeners. Today klezmer music is at the peak of its revival, with bands numbering in thousands all over the world. Despite its inherent roots in tradition, klezmer is evolving. It's being infused with jazz, ragtime, blues, bluegrass, new age and many other musical traditions. The klezmer spectrum ranges from more experimental groups like The Klezmatics and Hassidic New Wave to groups of the more traditional klezmer canon, such as the Klezmer Conservatory Band. Klezmer even surfaced on our lovely WASPy campus this fall, when a couple of friends and I got together to form The Klez Dispensers, the University klezmer band.

I had been singing in Yiddish for many years before I came to Princeton. I imagined, however, that I was alone in this pursuit, and fancied myself the lone perpetuator of the style. So last year it was a surprise to me when after a senior put up flyers advertising the formation of a new klezmer band, many musicians responded to the ad. Although the band never got off to a good start last year, I was surprised to learn that there was a great interest in klezmer music. This year, we put together a full band, started rehearsing, put on a couple of shows, publicized ourselves on the Internet, and gigs started coming. I think the timing was perfect both for Princeton and the outside community. Klezmer is hip, and young Ivy League klezmorim have powerful market appeal. Our group comes from a variety of musical backgrounds. Some of us are not Jewish, others have had very little connection with Jewish culture before joining the band. So why klezmer?

The klezmer revival sprung up as generations of Americans set out in search for their roots. The comeback was inspired by the same 1960s self-expression movement that revived bluegrass, old-time swing, folk, soul, and many other vanishing styles. As the social and cultural backlash for being "too Jewish" was disappearing, many Jews sought to learn more about their background, of which they had only a vague romanticized "Fiddler on the Roof" notion. In their attempt to understand their heritage, these Jews discovered a rich tradition of klezmer music that perfectly expressed their yearning for the Old World and their need to find a solid, powerful, and expressive culture. In a famous anecdote, Henry Sapoznik is interviewing the old-time Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell, who asks him, "Don't you people have none of your own music?" Sapoznik proceeded to become a founding member of the klezmer revival.

With the fall of the iron curtain, pilgrimages to long-lost Eastern European ancestral homes became a fashionable and almost obligatory form of vacation for many American Jews. In Lithuania, where I grew up, it was not uncommon to encounter starry-eyed Americans hopelessly searching for great-grandma's shtetl or visiting ancestral burial places. To these Jews, klezmer provides a way of connecting to their forefathers through their music. In that sense, klezmer music unites Jews of all persuasions in a collective yearning for the romanticized old world of their ancestors.

One of the most interesting aspects of the klezmer revival is its popularity in Germany. American and other klezmer groups regularly tour there since the 1980s, and dozens of bands formed in Germany and are composed of mostly non-Jewish musicians. Germany is the site of the largest klezmer festivals, and klezmer concerts regularly fill up German concert halls. Germany has become one of the few places in the world where musicians can make money playing Jewish music. The American klezmer band Brave Old World sees it as "Gels [Yiddish for money] for guilt." In an ironic twist of fate, Germans flock to hear the music their fathers nearly destroyed.

Klezmer music's popularity also comes with the revivalism movement: retro is in. The past few years have seen a major comeback of swing. Folk music and other forms of old-time arts are at their popularity peak, as well. Furthermore, the American musical scene is becoming increasingly open to eclectic, diverse styles in the politically correct move away from the western canon. Celtic, African, Indian—you name it—ethnic music is enjoying great interest and popularity. Many Americans are now seeking the unusual and interesting; settling for the pop norm is out of style.

However, the aspect of klezmer that attracts the greatest number of people is the irresistible and hypnotic beauty of the music itself. Klezmer music is both challenging and fun to play. The quasi-improvisational form allows for great freedom of expression. The clarinet, one of the traditional lead instruments, carries the melody, adding intricate nuances, particular to klezmer music: krekths (Yiddish for groan or weep), the tshok (laugh), and the knetsch (sob). These may add a touch of irony and sadness one moment, and a feeling of joyous rapture the next. Klezmer music's breath-taking, exhilarating rhythms propel you onto the dance floor, and its simple, sincere melodies touch your heart. There is nothing more satisfying than to perform for an audience completely mesmerized by the live beat of the music that was so close to extinction. Klezmer is alive, back, and kicking.

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Copyright © 1999 Inna Barmash. All rights reserved. Posted to the KlezmerShack on 2/17/08.
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