Chicago Klezmer Ensemble / Sweet Home Bukovina

Album cover: Cheesy type--pseudo celtic and Friz Quadrata. Ick. Cheesy background. Okay duotone publicity photo in photoalbum frame.

Chicago Klezmer Ensemble
Sweet Home Bukovina

Oriente Musik, RIEN CD 13, 1998

Kurt Bjorling
E-mail Chicago Klezmer Ensemble

The Chicago Klezmer Ensemble is a local Chicago treasure, almost unknown outside of their home town. They pretty much don't tour. Kurt Bjorling, the lead clarinet tours as part of Brave Old World (and even put in a stint in the Klezmatics way back). But for the rest of us, appearances such as last summer's gig at Toronto's Ashkenaz festival were a near once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear the ensemble live. You can still listen to RealAudio excerpts from one of their performances at the festival, and hear much of the material on this new, first CD.

There are two things that make the Ensemble unique. In the first place, they are very, very good. That is rare enough. In the second place, there is a treatment here of klezmer as if it were concert music that can be a lot of fun. It's entirely anachronistic, but it's certainly a lot of fun. What isn't anachronistic is the way that the band reaches back to klezmer traditions that predate the early American klezmer bands, back to Europe, and reconstructs something that is sometimes, in jest, and with some seriousness, called "Old timey klezmer." The label makes some sense because, unlike modern bands, there is no thumpa thumpa drum here. No drum at all. Instead, there are two people who alternate on clarinet and tsimbl, two fiddles, and a great bass. It is, in short, an ensemble from an earlier period of Jewish music.

In the CD liner notes, ethnomusicologist Zev Feldman notes:

To understand the performance of the Chicago Klezmer Ensemble contemporary listeners must realize that in pre-immigration times klezmer music had a dual function, both as ecstatic dance music and as sophisticated music for listening. In Europe only the best and most sought-after klezmorim, such as the tsimablist, Gusikow or the fiddler Peducer, were capable of creating such a performance. In America little need was felt for this sophisticated style, ....

In other words, just as classical forms of Western music had both their popular, "dance" expressions, and their "classical" expressions, so, too, with the traditions of excellent musicians elsewhere in Europe. In this sense, as I wrote last year about Budowitz, Josh Horowitz' "early klezmer" ensemble based in Austria, this music goes and shatters our sense of a monolithic, limited sense of klezmer (just as the klezmer revival, itself, rescued the sense of American klezmer from the caricature of "Fiddler on the Roof" tunes to which it had been remembered by the 1960s and 1970s). In this sense, the Chicago Ensemble, as Feldman notes, is among the radicals and avant gardeists playing klezmer today. In this they are joined by instrumentalists such as Jeff Warschauer and Alicia Svigals in recreating an early klezmer repertoire and then taking it in new directions suitable to this century and time.

On the back of the current CD, the band notes, "In 1936 the great blues artist Robert Johnson recorded "Sweet Home Chicago" referring to a city where he never lived and which he may never even have seen. Similarly, we've never been to Bukovina, and although klezmer music once thrived here, it is now a 'sweet home' of memory and myth to which this music will always belong, and for which it will always express a deep yearning."

So there you have it. The Chicago Klezmer Ensemble is to klezmer what Robert Johnson was to the blues. On the evidence of "Sweet Home Bukovina," I can live with that summary.

This album is not dance music (not primarily), nor is it jazz, the usual post-klezmer area of exploration in this country. It is a purified essence of Jewish music, expressed in a classical, sometimes chamber music style. It is beautiful and intricate, complex. There is also a warmth and soul to the music (and sometimes, it just plain moves) that is apparent only in the best of classical performances, exemplified best, perhaps, by Eve Monzingo's "Hora Monzingo." This number is followed by the solemn joy of Kurt Bjorling's arrangement of the traditional "Yosl Ber;" one is transported elsewhere and elsewhen. The bass line in the first half of the medley so catches a sense of Jewish melodic archetype that one senses the band has tapped into some secret "from deep in the forest" source of Yiddish music-keit, and then the melody picks up rhythm and pace to become a formal-sounding dance. Since first hearing this medley live I have had a hard time not imagining Jewish contra dancers at an upper crust society simcha way out, oh, way out there Bukovina way, somewhere on the road to Transylvania, but closer to home and always in memory.

Like their earlier cassette release, "Sweet Home Bukovina" is a very special recording. I can only hope that it receives wider distribution than the cassette. Their label, Oriente, however, lacks extensive American distribution. Should you have difficulty finding this recording in your local store, you should first secure your personal copy, immediately, through the band. Armed with aural proof of the band's immense talent, you can then challenge the buyer at your local emporium of fine recordings to a Yiddish spelling bee, and upon winning same, insist that she or he stock this soon-to-be best seller.

Reviewed by Ari Davidow 5/30/98

Personnel this recording:
Kurt Bjorling: clarinet, tsimbl, accordion
Eve Monzingo: clarinet (on shale shudes), piano
Joshua Huppert: violin
Deborah Strauss: violin
Alan Ehrich: bass


  1. Doyna and Sirba Populara (trad./Bjorling) 6:40
  2. Sweet Home Bukovina (trad./arr. CKE) 7:14
  3. Mazltov (trad./arr. CKE) 4:25
  4. Rumeynisher Bulgarish (trad./arr. CKE) 3:45
  5. Hora Monzingo (Eve Monzingo) 5:29
  6. Yosl Ber (trad./arr. Bjorling) 5:09
  7. Yismekhu V'malkhuskho (trad./arr. CKE) 2:48
  8. Trinkt Briderlakh! (trad./arr. Bjorling) 6:41
  9. Shaleshudes (Monzingo) 5:30
  10. A Hora mit tsibeles (trad./arr. CKE) 6:22
  11. A Yidishe Neshome (Bjorling) 4:42

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