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KlezKanada '99

Wednesday: Kurt Bjorling, "Who What When Where Why Klezmer?"

Wednesday: Zev Feldman, "Coming to terms with sacred and secular sources"

Thursday: Adrienne Cooper, "Itsik Manger"

Friday: German Goldenshtyn interview: From Bessarabia to America

other klezmer articles on the Internet

[These are rough notes from a talk moderated by Kurt Bjorling. Please excuse mistranscriptions and confusions. I will be most happy to correct mistakes.]

Klezmer Sources and Resources

panel moderated by Kurt Bjorling

10am, Wed., Michael Alpert does one of his badkhen hollers to get our attenion, and Kurt Bjorling introduces a panel on sources. In the other room, the Epstein Brothers are practicing. Julie, relaxed, standing on a stage with the drums. Pete is guiding new band members from his piano. Paul Pines, on sax and clarinet, is relaxed and businesslike. Ray Musiker, himself from a famous klezmer family, is now a regular fill-in on trumpet.

KURT: [filled in by Kurt upon review of this quick summary, later: "... the questions I was asking members of the first panel discussion to address [were:] To what extent have you learned Klezmer Music from: a) contemporaries, b) teachers, c) older musicians, d) sound recordings, e) written sources, (and how have you applied these as resources)? Are you a klezmer? - if so, how/when did you get to be one and what makes you so? - if not, what role does klezmer music play in your life?"]

"Most of what I have learned about or from klezmer music has turned out to apply to other forms of music that I play, and influences them, too. So, as time goes on, I see that what I have learned applies to other music, and is less specific to klezmer. Maybe I learned these things at a time of my life when klezmer dominated. Maybe klezmer was a better way to learn.

Many of the best resources to me were sound recordings. Without the recordings, other sources--even living people--would have been near useless. I would not have gotten the breadth and context.

I early sensed that klezmer flowered at a time of those first recordings, and that later recordings were modifications, not necessarily as important. The specific developments don't have the lasting quality or significance to me.

This doesn't mean that I am a traditionalist. I am also only interested in klezmer as a living thing today.

In the process of studying and applying various klezmer reosurces, my questions have changed from the early "how can I make that sound" to "how and why was this recording made." How does the answer to that question affect the material itself?

To say, "that's what they used to do," is NOT to say, "that is what YOU should do."

I am not a klezmer. I play klezmer music. I play Bach, but that does not make me a church choir organist or Bach. My artistic role is quite different from that of a traditional klezmer. I don't want to live the life of an old world klezmer.

[Kurt hands the floor over to Zev Feldman]

FELDMAN: This music is first of all part of a music reality with which I grew up. But other people who grew up in the same environment made different music decisions. [Father from Bessarabia, active landsmenshaft that was starting to fade as he grew up.]

The question is why I chose to do something seriously with this music. I first looked at Sephardic music, and got involved with Turkish music.

[Zev is hard to hear; a microphone is brought in]

[while we're waiting, the two viola players next to me exchange music for viola duets; on my other side, two people discuss family roots in Bessarabia and the fact that "a lot of klezmer music comes from Bessarabia." It sounds like a new form of Jewish geography.]

ALPERT [next speaker while they await the microphone setup]: For me, personally, my sources, for both klezmer music (instrumental folk music tradition), and for Yiddish folk song, two different folk traditions that are now merging in some ways....

But for most klezmer music and folksong, the best sources for me have been living exponents. [A mike is now available; Alpert mumbles a "shekhiyahnu;]. Living practitioners (makes them sound like medical personnel) of the various genres.

I have learned not just repertoire, but an entire ethos, cultural values ranging from musical specifics to a sense of eastern European Jewish culture. As a secondary source, old 78 recordings and 78s reissued on LP in the 60s and 70s. Particularly for Jewish instrumental music. And to a much lesser extent, printed music.

Just as an aside, there was a different direction this could have gone, of talking about specific sources and resources, and maybe we'll have some time to do that later, but this approach is also very good; the idea of getting at the essence of what we play and learn is very important. How do we approach this music and what does it mean to us?

So, for me, this contact with older musicians and singers--older to me, when I met them, some songs were learned from my own family.

To the question of whether i am a klezmer, I am reminded of a discussion at a Camp that several of us were involved with a number of years ago, and Kurt stood up and said, "My name is Kurt Bjorling and I want to be a klezmer."

First and foremost I am a singer, and the genre is primarily instrumental. There is one folk tradition associated with it--that of the badkhn, but I have come to the klezmer tradition more recently; I grew up hearing the older music from the teens and 20s, some from recordings, some from radio--Ben Galing on the Boston Radio, would often spin the old disks and hearing that music was always very moving, very exciting to me as a kid.

But the larger question of whether we are or are not klezmorim is important, but there is another question, and with the passing of time there is a larger question, where those of us who are involved with making this music and in keeping this music, have to say, "it's not like we're recreating or doing archival culture--at a certain point, we have to acknowledge that we ARE Yiddish culture." as time goes on, we are the people who are the exponents of this music and this culture in whatever form we have chosen to make it.

Especially with regards to Yiddish song, at this point I feel that I AM an exponent of it.

FELDMAN: I'll start again. I think this dilemnna of old world klezmer and new world. In a sense I represent I represent that aspect of the Jewish music that was silenced when the music shifted to this country. My father was one of those disgruntled immigrants who didn't find himself so much better in the new world than the old world. He was not a musician, he was a dancer.

And then I went away from that. The whole scene died out when I was a teenager. I moved into Near eastern music--Armenian, Turkish music. At some point I began feeling that something was missing. My friend Andy Statman and I got this idea that we should find out what we could find out about the music of the eastern Jews, and we found Dave Tarras, and we went our way together for a while.

I realize that what we were both doing initially, both of us had strong imaginations. We knew that something must exist, something hidden. We came from very different backgrounds. He didn't come from a Yiddish background, and I grew up in a religious household where the background was davening. I have come to see over the years that there are some people who have that musical imagination and can hear something they have never heard and to work from small bits of musical information--whether you come from a Jewish background or don't come from a Jewish background; in a sense there is an esoteric and an exoteric music. There is a Jewish musical practice that is exoteric--out there, what is played. Some of that was brought over to America and Canada. Some types of music were esoteric even in their homeland. An obvious example is certain forms of hasidic music where the community felt that non-initiate people--it would be sinful for them to hear that music.

The klezmorim, of course, were not mystics in that sense. But they were a caste somewhat apart from the rest of the community. They were able to create by taking elements from different parts of jewish music, and in creating something that expressed something whole.

Some early recordings were windows to that esoteric music. It happens that I chose to play the most esoteric of Jewish instruments, the tsimbl. I came to it through Greek music. It only had a place in the much older form of the music; it didn't have a place in the newer form of the music. And at some point I stopped. I reached the limit of what was available 20 years ago. I spent over a decade working on Turkish music in Turkey. Their music is also in rather declining shape, but it is in better shape than ours--they have a country.....

I came back eventually to Jewish music. I never thought I would. I began to sense that something had been changing and that some of what we had done 20 years ago had begun to resonate. So felt that I should try to relearn what I had started to learn earlier, and at this point, there were more resources available. And at this point I began to perceive certain things that should be done in a Jewish context. And then I met a living proponent, someone who was 88 years old, and could answer many questions, and was the leader of his own kapelye.

So, in my own case, it is a kind of imagination to which I have been moving, and as I have been slowly moving toward hat goal, and elements of this music have appeared, or reappeared.

Sources. I use old sources. As much as possible I try to know every scrap of material, every sound recoroding that is relevant, and, in my case, this "kapelmeister" whom I see frequently.

Of course I am not a klezmer. A klezmer belongs to a social mileu that is gone, and that life was miserable.

But I feel that I am transmitting something of what the klezmorim have done. The romanticism of the past doesn't apeal to me. But the klezmorim had an important synthesis of the musical tradition of eastern european jews which has become accessible to us, and I am definitely a part of that.

SCHWARTZ: In listening to Kurt and Michael and Zev, I was really struck by the extent to which I share certain experiences, and yet have had totally different experiences.

One way in which I am unlike these people is that I am not a musician, and not even a musicologist. I am an academic scholar of ancient languages and cultures.

My mother was a singer of Yiddish music. someone who learned form ear, learned from her parents and people around her. I grew up in New York hearing Yiddish and real Yiddish folk styles. Music was to [my mother], life. It was how she survived the difficulties of life.

In New York I heard Yiddish radio. I think I must have heard klezmer discs. I did hear crooners like Seymour Rechzeit and cantors like Moyshe Oysher.

In the early '70s I had gone through a great interest in things Jewish, and on the wake of that personal experience, I remembered the music of my childhood and began to look for old recordings. I also got interested in related music, such as Greek music. I was interested in exploring some of those relationships. And I became a big record collector. And I met Henry Sapoznik and Lev Liberman and David Gray. In time I've reissued some compilations [the Arhoolie compilation, for example. ari], and other thing that Joel Rubin put together and annotated (Yikhes).

I believe that there is a unity, which was addressed in various ways, briefly, by Zev, and by implication, Michael and Kurt, a unity of Yiddish music in which I include the klezmer tradition. If you listen to a Yiddish singer, you begin to understand how things were phrased, how much time to put between notes, or not between musics. Repertory is different--there are genres that you would never hear from someone like my mother. So, I do urge you you, as did Michael, that if you have the possibility of hearing an older person with singing ability, listen. There are some old records--the 78s are useless, because they didn't record Yiddish folk style then--but there are some old LPs.

I also think its a good thing to listen to all kinds of music, because these musics interact. The kind of exotic elements that klezmer and, to some extent, hasidic music, integrated, there were influences on them, and they influenced others. For a Jewish musician, it is yet another form of information, yet another fuel, to hear other musics that grew up in Eastern Europe.

SOKOLOW: By definition, as far as I am concerned, a klezmer is a person who plays music in a commercial venue. I was not interested in Jewish music. I came from a home where both of my parents were born on this side. My grandmother had a feeling for things Jewish. My father was a fine pianist, mainly classical, and Gershwin. I learned a few Jewish tunes. I became interested in swing. I first learned clarinet/saxophone. When I heard Goodman I went crazy.

In 1957 I took a job in the Catskills. The importance of the Catskills on the development of the American Jewish klezmer cannot be overstated. What I learned.... I got a job in 1958 with a band of older men--in their late '40s and '50s. I learned the value of entertainment and I learned a whole repertoire. Most guys my age knew "hava nagila" and a few Israeli folk songs. But these guys introduced me to doinas and all kinds of Yiddish material. I was a kid without much Jewish background. I learned from these people not just a certain repertoire and phrasing. through them I also began to work in some early hasidic bands. When the old repertoire began to die out after WWII, the hasidic market opened up.

From the generation of Americans born here in 1910 and so, actually Epstein took my clarinet style and dissected it in five minutes. He said, "the ornaments do not replace the melody." But Maxie [Epstein] showed me that the dreydlach (ornaments) enhance the melody. They don't make the melody. Later on I began to learn more repertoire from recordings. I had the great advantage of being Dave Tarras' last pianist. Max Epstein was also Dave's equal. When you listened to these people you couldn't help but learn. The guy who taught me the most tunes was a postal worker who retired, Sid Beckerman. His father Shloymke was a master. The main thing I had to learn was the value of communication from me to you.

What I learned form that particular generation was a totality of playing this Jewish music in a commercial venue. We called them "club date" musicians. Also, the atmosphere of playing for an older generation of musicians who had a certain flavor.

When I entered music in 1956 there was still a generation of older musicians around. Holocaust survivors played differently. Since they were in Europe longer, they had more current European tangos and waltzes and rhumbas. What it was, was a vermisht, a mix of all kinds of music. Our generation had to play a full panoply of American music.

If you're going to play music, it's gotta have authenticity. If you're going to superimpose uh rock jazz concepts on these things, I personally, I mean, I'm not going to tell someone not to do it, but if you listen to a hasidic band today, it's all rock. It's awful. ... Rock eats up anything it comes in contact with. Fine, if that's what you want. I'm a moldy fig. I have a lot of experience playing with traditional jazz. I've been very fortunate in the commercial thing, but in the Jewish world, my experience is mainly hasidic, and in the jazz world, my experience is mostly with commercial. I do play some harmonic things that to some European musicians sound tacky. So I always say my klezmer playing is essentially the first or second generation American ... it's not Belf; it's not even Naftule--the closest I've come to that is playing with Beckerman. He is a real klezmer.

Now, I play with Kurt Bjorling, and he predates my styles. it's a fascinating turnabout. These guys play the real European sound.

When I transcribed, I put down the basic harmonies and basic melodies. You should learn some ornamentation, too. I don't transcribe it, because I worry that it will be too complicated for a beginner, but you need it.

When I was starting out in hasidic music, that was a completely different repertoire from klezmer. I have also been very influenced by Orthodox life, and the hasidic for whom I have played, especially Bobov.

JUDITH COHEN: I work in Sephardic music, and within Sephardic music specifically Ladino song. I started with Medieval Spanish music--12th, 13th, 14th centuries, and then learned Balkan dancing and Turkish music and put it all together and it added up to sephardic music so that's what I ended updoing. So I have two decades of working with Sephardic music despite being an outsider Ashkenazi. I try especially to work directly from sources. I learned a lot of music from people here in Montreal. I did a PhD thesis on Sephardic music and traveled and listened, and finally got very interested in the crypto Jews who had never left the Iberian peninsula, working directly with them and comparing it to what people nearby sing.

WARSCHAUER: I came at this a bit differently because I play "the wrong instruments," guitar and mandolin. So I had to do a lot of working from sources that are not native to my instrtument. And I think that practice is important, even when you do play a more traditional instrument. I am also a singer, and I think that singing is so important in this music. Learning by singing through the tunes and learning through singers. I was lucky to be introduced to a Yiddish club in Boston when I was learning this music, and now I go to one in Brooklyn, and these still exist and are very useful. I also have the opportunitiy to work with older generation mandolinists. .... Imagination is important, but don't be afraid to seek out real people. Kurt has compiled a lot of tapes. Hasidic tapes in Yiddish are also very useful, a repertoire that you don't normally hear. Printed sources are also useful, but I really want to stress. I have some books I brought that you can look through. Learning Yiddish is so important. I had to take it up as an adult, but it is so important. Even as a musician, but even moreso if you are singing. And, it will help you in all the other work that you do.

GREENMAN: I'm Steve Greenman and I'm a Jewish violinist. I've learned from most of the people here, and I also need to stress the importance of Jewish festivals--klezkanada, klezkamp, buffalo on the roof. My first introduction to Jewish music was through the recording of Fiddler on the Roof. I've come a long way since then, but it was important as a child. I heard all these violin solos, and for me, it brought be back to this Jewish music. The other thing that was important was the synagogue. I went to a Conservative Synagogue as a child, and the rabbi wanted me to become more frum, and I learned a lot from him, and I really enjoyed the sounds of the synagogue, and that was how I began with roots in Jewish music.

I never really thought about klezmer. My parents were 3rd, 4th generation American Jewish, so klezmer was not part of their lives. I'm actually bringing it back to them.

I want to tell a brief story. How I got into klezmer. I got into classical music. Got my degree, and ended up playing some classical Jewish music, and went to Europe for a classical music festival, and while I was there I ended up playing some music on streets, and I met up with Josh Horowitz who taught me a few Yiddish songs and I really liked it, and this really changed everything. I was going to become a symphonic musicians, and this changed my life.

I don't consider myself a klezmer, but I am Jewish, and being Jewish is very important to me. For me, being a violist and playing Jewish music is being Jewish.

GERMAN GOLDENSHTAYN: (in Yiddish): First, it does my heart good to see so many people interested in Yiddish and Yiddish culture. It means that Yiddish will never die. But, here we are talking about Yiddish culture and traditions, but not one person here spoke in Yiddish. If you love Jewish, you need to love the Jewish language. The question is: "Who is a klezmer, and how does one come to it." There are many different answers, but I will give you mine. Every person comes to it through their own path. I don't come from a klezmer family. It's only worked out that my life has led me such a course that I got into it and I'm very glad of that. In order to understand klezmer music, you have to live it. What living it means is.... the idea I have of klezmorim is one of older musicians who are traveling from shtetl to shtetl with instruments on their backs. There can be many different types of musicians, but klezmorim are those who play for Jewish weddings and different Jewish celebrations. In my time, I am my colleagues also played a lot of non-Jewish weddings. I probably don't have as many hairs on my head (he is largely bald) as the many weddings I have played.

[I will be adding resource lists from Michael Alpert and Kurt Bjorling, shortly. ari]

As I convert these notes to HTML I am struck by how this differs from the old Hasidic story, told about one of the rabbis, who is explaining how strained and thin the tradition has become. "This rabbi could go to this place and talk to god. The next rabbi knew the place, but didn't talk to God, and now I know neither the place, nor do I know the words, so my intent must suffice...." The many klezmer traditions (we are also learning how different music from Poland was from Romania, to use two broad examples) are attenuated, but new traditions are joining the old, much the same way that threads are made not from one piece of cotton or wool, but from successive bits of raw material woven into a gradually-emerging tapesty. Ours is far from finished, but it is clear that the tradition is changing and being adapted to our time and place. As Michael Alpert says of his peers who are carrying on and who are creating anew, "we are now making Yiddish culture." It is time even for folks like me to take that seriously and to learn.

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