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A Basic Klezmer Repertoire (or not!)
from a discussion on the jewish-music mailing list

Steve Lowenthal | Moshe Berlin | Yosl Kurland | Mike Curtis

to the main Klezmershack pageSearch the KlezmerShack:


Note that the latest stuff may not yet be indexed.

Selected online sources of klezmer books and charts (from the Klezvendors page):

"Klezmer Repertoire" by Mike Curtis

House of Musical Traditions

Or-Tav: Israeli Chassidic Music Collections

Stacy Phillips' "Klezmer Collection"

Pete Rushefsky's "Essentials of Klezmer Banjo"

Tara Music (also publishers of a wide range of Jewish music books)

Workmen's Circle

Online charts

Some bands provide a couple of their favorite arrangements on their web pages:

Shawn's Kugel

Cincinnati Klezmer Project

If you know of other online music resources, please let me know so that I can list them!

It started with a message from Maurice Altman on April 22, 1998:

... I would like to ask if you know of any special tunes for a bar mitzvah or rites of passage (to manhood) that you could recommend to play. The sort of tunes that will make the family feel touched.

Corey Marc Fogel responded, enlarging the question:

... speaking of which, I wonder if someone could please tell me or point me to a list of all the tunes that a Klezmer band should definitely have in their repetoire for different occasions, aside from Hava Nagila.

Since this is a common question, I thought I'd make responses available on this web FAQ. ari

Date: Thu, 23 Apr 1998
From: Steven Lowenthal lownthl@IDT.NET
[Long-Island, NY-based klezmer fusion musician]

While it is difficult to pinpoint all the tunes that should be played by a "Klezmer" band I would recommend that you include some of the classic tunes from the Kammen International Dance Folio Number 1 (It was only $12.95 at Sam Ash last year). There are some outstanding Frailachs in the beginning of the book as well as some nice Horra's and Bulgars. Then jump ahead to tune #47, "Chosen-Kalle Masel Tov", is a favorite played at almost any Simka such as a Bar Mitzvah. I've heard #48, "Ot A Soi", played by several Klezmer groups. Although I'm not that familiar with tunes #49 and #50, they do seem to have some of the melodic/rhythmic structures alluded to by Henry Sapoznik in his "The Compleat Klezmer" masterpiece, which, if you are serious about learning how to play Klezmer, should be regarded as mandatory reading.

The first 17 pages of "The Compleat Klezmer" consists of a brief history of Klezmer. The next 13 pages has "A few notes and observations on the theory and performance of Klezmer Music" (by Pete Sokolow), followed by 47 pages worth of Klezmer tunes. Although the majority of the guests at a Bar Mitzvah would not be familiar with the most of the tunes in this book, I would still play a couple of my favorites for them (e.g. Baym Rebin's Sude) because they are so beautifully Jewish.

Another music book that comes to mind that would be great for a Bar Mitzvah is "Easy To Play Jewish Nostalgia", again by J&J Kammen Music Co. Although many of the tunes in this book are less likely to be regarded as "Klezmer" than the ones I highlighted in the Kammen International book #1, they are considered all time Jewish Classics - many one of them are gems and should sound familiar to most of the Bar Mitzvah guests.

Other Jewish Music Books that I had used at Simchas:

  • "Israel in Song" compiled by Velvel Pasternak (Tara).
  • "Siddur in Song" compiled by Velvel Pasternak (Tara).
  • "Mir Trogn a Gezang - The New Book of Yiddish Songs" (Workmen's Circle)
  • "Pearls of Yiddish Song" (Workmen's Circle)

Date: Thu, 23 Apr 1998
From: Moshe Berlin moshe_berlin@
[Moshe Berlin, klezmer band leader, Israel]

I live in Israel where I am leading klezmer bands (Sulam...). Maybe the situation here is different from that in US, but perhaps you can learn something from my experience.

In case I don't know what to play, I ask the family to point out what they would like to hear. In many cases I get a full repertoire for the whole evening. Sometimes I get only directions as: Classic, Yiddish, Chasidic Carlebach etc. and on some other times I am allowed to play whatever I want. I have to know everything, from the old and nostalgic tunes to the new and modern ones. If there is something that I don't know I ask for notes or a recording to study it, or, I suggest some other tune, instead. In the years I could gather the listings and they can help me while playing, or I cae represent them to the "Ba'alei Simkha" to choose from it what they like. The point is that I am coming to a Simkha open minded, like a clear sheet, with no "basic repertoire", only with what I was asked for and of course with what that happened during the Simkha. I want to emphasize that (not of less importance) I am told what not to play. (for instance tune of Belzers in a Satmar simkhe and vice versa).

To your question I will suggest also:

  • Yevarekhcha hashem mizion
  • Am Yisrael chai
  • Uvau Ha-ovdim

Date: Thu, 23 Apr 1998
From: Yosl (Joe) Kurland
[The Wholesale Klezmer Band, Western MA]

I would say, rather, what functions should the music in a klezmer band's repertoire serve. Yes there are some songs or prayers that are particularly appropriate or touching, but tunes? Let's not all be carbon copies of each other.

OK, OK, we play "Khosn Kale Mazeltov" (Congratulations/good luck to the bride and groom) when the glass is broken at a wedding. We play the well known "broyges tants" melody (the dance of anger and reconciliation) when it is to be danced. Aside from that, we play some things that other bands play because they speak to us, and we play the old tunes we've searched out on 78's that we like, and we play things we've written ourselves. We'll play "Miserlu," too, because its as much a tradition to dance it at a Jewish wedding as to dance to "Hava Nagila" at a Greek wedding.

But tunes? There are hundreds of melodies to which you can dance a sher. There are loads of terkishers, freylekhs, bulgars. The bride and groom can choose the pace that they would like for being escorted to the khupe (canopy) and there are loads of tunes to choose from. A Roumanian Hora is good for when the bride circles the groom 7 times (and/or vice versa depending on minhag hamokom--local custom).

As for songs--the only songs traditionally performed by the klezmorim (not counting if the chazn is one of the klezmorim) at simkhes are badkhones--rhymed chanting that the wedding jester (badkhan) writes about the people at the party.

Now as for concerts, I really don't want to go to a klezmer concert and have more than about 20% of the repertoire be something I'll hear when I listen to another band.

So please, everyone, let's not have a list of melodies everyone should play.

Date: Sat, 15 Aug 1998
From: Mike Curtis
[Mike Curtis Klezmer Quartet, Portland, OR]

While I tend to agree with the previous respondee that standardizing the klezmer repertoire would be unfortunate, I think that in the interests of those starting out (and to develop the viability of this fledgling site) there are some key tunes to be aware of. Of course, it makes a difference who you're playing for. Concerts, I agree, should be dominated by the new and creative, but life cycle receptions (and the requests they engender) often call for the tried and true.

Bulgars/freylachs, chusidls, shers, and horas make up the bulk of the klezmer repertoire. They are as numerous as they are interchangeable. These days, thankfully, numerous books containing these dances are on the market, including my own. Tunes that get a lot of play include:

  • Baym Rebn's Sude
  • Freylachs fun der Khipe
  • Lebedik un Freylach
  • Yoshke, Yoshke
  • Der Heyser Bulgar
  • Ot azoy
  • Papirosn

Tunes that are not klezmer but are borrowed from the Yiddish theatre of the 1920s and 30s are still popular> These are great with a vocalist, tuneful without one. Numerous songbooks can be located, including such tunes as:

  • Mein Yiddishe Maydele
  • Yossel, Yossel
  • Mayn shtelele Belz
  • Di Grineh Kusine
  • Oy Mame, Bin Ikh Farlibt
  • Maz'l
  • Glik
  • Abi Gezunt
  • Hopkele

Swing tunes seem to go over well. Lots of gigs use:

  • Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn
  • And the Angels Sing

Dance numbers that appeal to a broad range of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean tastes include:

  • Zemer atik
  • Miserlou
  • Mayim
  • various Hassidic medleys

And what would any Jewish event be without:

  • Tumbalalaika
  • Hava Nagila
  • Sunrise, Sunset

Hope this has been of use to somebody out there,
Mike Curtis

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