The Klezmorim / First Recordings 1976 - 1978

Album cover: That wonderful R. Crumb cover from the second album

The Klezmorim
First Recordings 1976 - 78

Arhoolie Records, CD 309, 1989 (compilation date)

How does one even begin to review recordings from 25 years ago? Do I have to note that, at the time, I was not particularly impressed—it was more interesting than the Giora Feidman recordings and performances to which I had been subjected in Israel during the early '70s, but still, not impressive? Can I mention that it wasn't The Klezmorim's recordings that got me hooked on klez, but the discovery of a bootleg of their drummer tryout tape, full of dubs of old klez and jazz 78s, loaned to me by a friend who was already hooked? Most important, should I mention that, 25 years on, this stuff sounds pretty damn good?

In a conversation about a decade ago, David Julian Gray, one of the band's earliest members, claimed that the first two albums of The Klezmorim, the two from which this compilation are drawn, were the albums where the band didn't know what it was doing. That may be true, but in my memory, it was during this period that the Klezmorim were most a "klezmer" band. By the time their third album, "Metropolis" came out, they were less a band, than a whole music show, complete with shtick and theatre and storytelling as they tried, frantically, to find a way to make a living playing a form of music entirely alien to our generation. I never saw them live prior to their shtick. (You can see the transition from strings to horns just by comparing personnel on these two recordings.) My earliest "live" contact with the band was hearing a broadcast of their Metropolis release on Gerda Daly's folk music show during a KPFA fund-raising marathon in the early 1980s. Once I heard them, I was hooked on the band and continued to hear them whenever I could, although by the very end, and despite the addition of klezmer/Russian break dancing, the band was louder (to my ears) than tuneful, and other bands were taking the tradition further.

So, you can see, it is impossible to just "hear" these cuts without the mind going off in dozens of digressions, all of which lead to klezmer. And that leaves me to point out the most important two facts that converge here. First, The Klezmorim probably had more to do with the recovery and revival of klezmer than just about anyone else. Granted that Andy Statman and Zev Feldman were doing amazing stuff even a bit earlier, back in New York. And granted even that Henry Sapoznik's continuing "Klez Kamp" (not to mention his own revival band, Kapelye) ensured that people could get their hands on the music and learn to play it has ensured an entire new generation of skilled klezmorim. I'll even grant that klezmer hadn't actually disappeared—the Epstein brothers never stopped playing, they had just moved down to Florida. Dave Tarras continued to teach, most notably, Andy Statman, along with Zev Feldman and Michael Alpert. Sid Beckerman, Howie Leess, Sy Musiker and Pete Sokolow not only didn't stop playing, they're still playing. It's even true that a lot of the ethnomusicology spouted by Lev Liberman and the Klezmorim was based on very little data—no one had been looking for that stuff in decades, and that left more room for imagination than for footnotes. But, and here's the point, the band also featured amazing showmanship. And, as this compilation demonstrates, much better musicianship than any of us remember. It was The Klezmorim who took klezmer to the streets and made it hip again. And if, today, only David Julian Gray and Stu Brotman (was he really a member of the band, or in for the sessions of the second album?) are still actively playing and jamming klez, so be it. (Lev, I know, has gone on to a successful multimedia career. Miriam Dvorin teaches music, including a class on Jewish music that I took at the local Berkeley Hillel a decade ago, and does a rare solo gig.)

The sad fact about The Klezmorim is that it is just about impossible to make a living touring with klezmer. Local wedding bands can do okay. A few bands, 20 years after the revival, can cross over enough to do short tours. But "platinum" in klezmer revival terms is still, maybe 10,000 copies of an album. Most bands, no matter how good, are lucky to sell out a pressing of 1,000, and most of those at local gigs. And The Klezmorim came too early—when they started, not only was the music forgotten, to most people it represented a culture that their zeydes had rejected in the rush to become American. It wasn't cool and modern like that Israeli stuff. (And Sephardic music? Who had even heard of it, excepting Miserlu and Jewish surf rock of the Sixties.) So, if most of The Klezmorim moved on, that's the way it goes. This album, in part, is testament to the success of the revival in which they played such a large role. Thank whatever spirits, god, or good fortune existed to give us The Klezmorim at a time when people were ready to start to listen. And you can see their legacy every time you see a band like Chicago's Maxwell Street Klezmer strut their stuff. You can hear it any time you see one of today's band take an old freylach and put it into the here and now without losing sight of where they came from.

Here's the most important fact. This stuff rocks. Not bad for a band whose original name was "Sarajevo String Band." There are a damn lot of bands out there today that would love to sound this good, and that would love to be as clued as these "confused" recordings by early The Klezmorim. Miriam Dvorin's rendition of the American labor weepie "Mayn rue plats" still defines how good that song can sound, to me. And the excitement of "Lebedik un Freylekh" overflows, just like it should. I'll even forgive the first klezmer revival recording of the awful shlagger, "Papirosn" for the pleasure of the still Balkan-sounding "Trello Hasaposerviko," not to mention the wall of sound "Zilberne Khasene" that opens up the album.

Reviewed by Ari Davidow, 3/28-29/98

Personnel first recording [1]:
(Arhoolie LP/Cas 3006: East Side Wedding)
Lev Liberman: flute, brass whistle, dumbek
David Julian Gray: B-flat, E-flat clarinets, mandolin, lauto, violin
David Skuse: violin, accordion
Greg Carageorge: double bass

Laurie Chastain: violin (#4, #5, #7, #16)

Personnel second recording [2]:
(Arhoolie LP/Cas 3011: Streets of Gold)
Lev Liberman: alto sax, flute
David Julian Gray: B-flat, E-flat clarinets, mandolin, alto sax
Rick Elmore: bass trombone, tuba, bass drum, cymbals
Brian Wishnefsky: trumpet
Nadezhda: tsambal mik, baraban
Susie Rothfield: violin
Miriam Dvorin: violin (vocals on "Mayn ruhe plats")
John Raskin: percussion

David Skuse: violin
Lew Hanson: accordion
Stuart Brotman: tsimbalom, peckhorn, string bass


  1. Di zilberne khasene [2] 3:17
  2. Cintec de dragoste/hora lui damian [1] 1:23
  3. Thalassa [1] 2:07
  4. Fidl volach [1] 3:39
  5. Medyatsiner waltz [2] 3:00
  6. Sherele [1] 2:10
  7. Mayn rue plats [2] 3:02
  8. A glezele vayn [2] 3:03
  9. Baym rebns sude [2] 3:03
  10. Lebedik un freylekh [2] 3:17
  11. Sirba/hora [1] 2:40
  12. Doina [1] 4:59
  13. Papirosn [2] 3:20
  14. Firen di mekhutonim aheym [2] 5:15
  15. Trello hasaposerviko [1] 3:04
  16. Sonya / Anushke [2] 7:35
  17. Af Shabes in Vilna [2] 2:00
  18. Taxim [2] 2:34

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