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George Robinson, GRComm@ writes for the Jewish Week. His book, "Essential Judaism," was published in hardcover by Pocket Books, March 2000. You can find out more at his website.

Articles by George Robinson, available on the KlezmerShack, are:

2004 Chanukah Roundup, by George Robinson, sent 2 Dec 2004.

The Year's Best: the annual "best of" column, by George Robinson, sent 25 Nov 2002.

A Religious Experience: A roundup of recent Jewish liturgical music, by George Robinson, sent 26 Aug 2002.

More Than Klezmer: A sampler of Yiddish vaudeville, folk music and even art song, sent 9 Aug 2002.

Spring Sephardic Music Roundup, send 3 May 2002.

The Spring Roundup, part 1, sent 9 Mar 2002.

The Spring Roundup, part 2, sent 9 Mar 2002.

The Best of 2001 - Hanukah suggestions, sent 7 Dec 2001.

Isaac Stern: Beyond the Fiddle to the Heart of a Man, sent out 5 Oct 2001.

Sounds for the Jewish New Year, sent out 23 Nov 2001.

Slobin on Beregovski (and the survival of Klezmer Music), sent out 30 Aug 2001.

Women of Valor, sent out 15 Aug 2001.

Shabbat, for Starters, sent out 3 Jun 2001.

From Liturgical Rock to the Postmodern, sent out 15 May 2001.

A Sephardic Passover, sent out 25 Mar 2001.

Oh, Klezmer, sent out 18 Mar 2001.

Jewish Classical Music, sent out 1 Mar 2001.

Best of 2000, send out 23 Dec 2000.

Holiday Music for Hanukkah, 6 Dec 2000.

Kidding on the Square, 9/29/00, from the Jewish Week

From the Catskills to Canada, 6/15/00, from the Jewish Week

Sephardic Survey, 05/00, from the Jewish Week

1999 Klezmer Wrapup, from the Jewish Week

Sisters in Swing, 12/15/99, from the Jewish Week

Bending the Genres, October 1998, from the Jewish Week

The Klezmer Drums of Passion, September 1998, from the Jewish Week

Drums of Passion, summer, 1998, from the Jewish Week

Other resources of interest:

A klezmer bibliography

Other Jewish music bibliographies

other klezmer articles
on the Internet

Slobin on Beregovski (and the survival of Klezmer music)

E-mail publication 30 Aug 2001.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

by George Robinson,

History played a series of nasty tricks on klezmer music.

First, it sent many of the musicians to America, where it would be dissolved into a musical stewpot, at best a trace element in the chemistry of American music. Then it destroyed the culture -- and the people -- that had nurtured the musicians themselves in Eastern Europe.

But, as ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin points out in his writings and in conversation, klezmer returned history's dubious favors by not only surviving but thriving under the most unlikely circumstances.

Slouching comfortably in a chair in his sparely furnished apartment on the Upper West Side, the 58-year-old Slobin smiles behind his wire-rim glasses. With his curly steel-gray hair and puckish smile, he looks like Joel Gray's smart kid brother. A professor in the music department at Wesleyan University, Slobin splits his time between the school's Connecticut campus and his New York apartment.

"Klezmer is a diaspora within a diaspora," he says quietly. "If you had said fifteen years ago that klezmer would be played all over Europe, that John Zorn would be playing a fusion of Ornette Coleman and klezmer, that Itzhak Perlman would sell 200,000 copies of a klezmer album, nobody would believe you. But that's what has happened."

The Detroit native contributed significantly to the rebirth of klezmer when he edited and translated a collection of the papers and musical transcriptions of the Soviet ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovski, who did much of his field work in the 1920s and '30s, difficult times in Russian history to say the least. Published in 1981 as Old Jewish Folk Music, that volume helped shape the repertoire of countless New Klez bands in the early days of the rebirth of klezmer. Now, after more than a decade in which the book was unavailable, to the great frustration of aficionados of Jewish music, Syracuse University Press has not only reprinted Slobin's original English-language edition, but has also added a second volume of Beregovski's papers and transcriptions, both of which were issued this summer. Even more than the first book, Jewish Instrumental Folk Music will be a valuable aid to would-be klezmorim, devoted as it is specifically to Old World klezmer (and including a CD filled with musical examples).

Slobin is emphatic when he describes Beregovski's importance.

"Beregovski was an amazing person," he says. "He was working in an intensely anti-religious atmosphere when he put this stuff together. At his institute, he created a real archive of Eastern European Jewish music in the proper style -- a thousand wax cylinder [recordings], a detailed file-card index. He was the only person to do this for Yiddish music, and he was an excellent ethnomusicologist."

To understand the importance of Beregovski's work for students and players of Yiddish music, one need only compare what is available in that field with a comparable records of, other East European folk musics.

As Slobin explains, "For someone working in Lithuanian music, you have tens of thousands of examples, for Hungarian music hundreds of thousands. You have the creation of a canon of music that you can improvise on.

"What is a canon is not an issue for them, but if you're Jewish, what have you got? The canon is incredibly small because of the destruction of the culture from which the music was bred."

Even without the historical violence to which the Jewish communities of the region were subjected, there are other reasons for the sparseness of documentation available.

"The first Yiddish song extant on record was recorded in 1901, so there's nothing before the 20th Century," he says ruefully. "There are recordings of Yiddish vaudeville and of cantorial music, but there are virtually no recordings of folksongs, nothing that comes from the oral tradition until Ruth Rubin makes a record in the 1960s."

Bluntly put, the record of Yiddish folk music from the oral tradition is, Slobin says, "minuscule."

And Beregovski's contribution, which is monumental in its scope, was almost lost as well.

"It was believed that the archives were destroyed during the Second World War," Slobin says, "but they were discovered in a Kiev library in the mid-1990s."

Which is about the time that klezmer was reasserting itself as a living music, much to the surprise of students of ethnomusicology and music history.

"I couldn't understand what was going on," Slobin admits. "Here is a music without a homeland, reinvented and revitalized by people who have had no contact with its origins, re-exported to home as an American music."

His fascination with the unique system of transmission that enabled klezmer to revive itself led to his most recent book, Fiddler on the Move, a brief but information-packed study of the phenomena.

"I wanted to consider klezmer as an urge -- what makes people want to do this," he asked himself. "I wanted to see how it works in community life, not just as a commodity, a product. And I wanted to examine the music itself. You can hear or see how it embodies certain principles, that it's not just sounds but represents cultural and social actions."

He adds with a grin, "That's what ethnomusicologists do, you see."

Slobin's next book takes the work of Fiddler a step further. American Klezmer is a collection of papers and essays that had its beginnings in the first-ever Klezmer Research Conference, held on Slobin's own Wesleyan campus in 1996.

Unlike some nay-sayers, Slobin is optimistic about the future of klezmer music.

"We may never see a breakthrough figure who can create a major crossover audience for the music [the way Bob Marley did for reggae]," he cautions. "But that's unpredictable. But the success of Perlman's klezmer recording was something that couldn't have been predicted either."

Old Jewish Folk Music by Moshe Beregovski, translated and edited by Mark Slobin and Jewish Instrumental Folk Music by Moshe Beregovski, translated and edited by Mark Slobin, Robert Rothstein and Michael Alpert are published by Syracuse University Press; Fiddler on the Move by Mark Slobin is published by Oxford University Press; American Klezmer, edited by Mark Slobin, will be published this winter by University of California Press.

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Contents copyright © 2001 by George Robinson. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Page last revised 11 June, 2007.