The Klezmer Revival: Old World Meets New

by Seth Rogovoy

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., July 31, 1997) -- It is both young and old. Urban and rural. Old World meets New World. Traditional and experimental. Classical and folk. Jazz and rock. Western and Eastern. Secular and sacred. Joyous and sad. For dancing and for listening. A virtuoso style with rigorous parameters that is nevertheless eminently accessible. It is a music of contradictions, and the vibrant, cutting edge of a cultural revival.

Klezmer -- the instrumental celebration music of Eastern European Jews -- is one of the hottest genres of music around. Risen from the ashes of the European Holocaust and sprung from the closet of American assimilation, Klezmer is experiencing a contemporary revival as rich as that of any other world-beat or ethnic music.

From internationally-renowned groups playing the top festivals and concert stages of the world to local, grassroots ensembles carrying on Klezmer's age-old role of entertaining at weddings and bar-mitzvahs, the sounds of Klezmer in all its variety ring out with a passion and poignancy that eloquently bespeak its refusal to die.

The revival's highest-profile development so far has been "In the Fiddler's House," the tripartite package of video, CD and concert tour led by world-renowned, classical violinist Itzhak Perlman, featuring four of the top contemporary Klezmer groups.

"In the Fiddler's House," the concert tour, makes its way to Tanglewood tonight (July 31), when Perlman will be joined in the Shed by the Klezmatics, Brave Old World, the Klezmer Conservatory Band and the Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra, beginning at 8:30.

"This music is incredibly accessible," said Perlman, 52, whose participation has been a great boon to the revival, bringing it into the homes of hundreds of thousands of new listeners through his PBS-TV Great Performances special and EMI/Angel CDs bearing the "In the Fiddler's House" imprint.

Klezmer, said Perlman, "touches our soul, and it gives us an inkling of what our ancestors used to listen to and dance to and be happy to."

Strictly defined, Klezmer is the Jewish instrumental music that was played by professional musicians in Eastern Europe for occasions such as weddings and bar mitzvahs -- a tradition that dates back at least as far as the Middle Ages.

But in the same way that "jazz" no longer simply refers to the particular style of polyphonic music played by New Orleans string-and- brass ensembles in the 1920s, so too has the term "Klezmer" come to embrace a wide variety of music, both instrumental and vocal, originating with the Yiddish-speaking immigrants who came to the U.S. at the turn of the century.

"Klezmer isn't the music of an extinct culture," said Alicia Svigals, a composer and violinist for the Klezmatics. "It's a particularly hardy piece of an evolving culture. As contemporary, living culture -- as opposed to something extinct which has been curiously and artificially revived -- Klezmer is different than it was twenty years ago, and still more different than it was forty, sixty, a hundred years ago, in the same way that jazz still exists but is different than it was in 1920."

And like jazz, which is now a catch-all term that embraces everything including Kenny G's pop noodlings, wild, electrified skronk and the elegantly-styled symphonic compositions of Wynton Marsalis, Klezmer too comes in various guises, including Andy Statman's Coltranesque improvisations, Wolf Krakowski's electric shtetl-rock, and the elegantly-styled, symphonic compositions of the Swiss ensemble Kol Simcha.

Just as traditional Klezmer reflected the influence of its musical surroundings in countries where it flourished, including Romania, Hungary, Bessarabia and the Ukraine, so too has modern Klezmer taken on aspects of more contemporary styles, such as jazz, swing, rock, hip- hop, world-beat and even surf music. Whereas the sonorities of Old World Klezmer evoked the simple joys and sorrows of shtetl life, New World Klezmer speaks eloquently of and to the post-modern, multi- textural dimensions of diaspora life at the end of the 20th century.

In all its variety, however, Klezmer maintains a certain unmistakable essence. At its foundation, it is the expression of the Jewish heart and Jewish soul, filtered through the conversational tones of the violin and the clarinet, and reflective of the very rigors, pains and joys of Jewish life in the diaspora at any particular moment.

Klezmer thrived in the U.S. and abroad in the first half of this century. In America, immigrants carried on the European Klezmer tradition, playing at weddings and parties and providing the soundtrack for the Yiddish theatre and the Borscht Belt.

Two developments brought about Klezmer's decline: the near-total destruction of the European Jewish world by the Germans in the 1930s and '40s, and the American-Jewish trend toward cultural assimilation. In their haste to shed aspects of the Old World in favor of becoming New World Americans, Jews turned their back on their musical heritage.

"If you want to find a record from the 1950s that every Jewish family had, it would be Harry Belafonte's calypso album," said Hankus Netsky, who as founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band is a pioneer of the neo-Klezmer revival.

But a strange thing happened in the 1970s. Just as African-Americans staked their claim to their particular history and culture in the wake of Alex Haley's book and TV mini-series "Roots," so did other minorities, including Jews, gain renewed pride in their pre-Melting Pot ethnicity. Many of the musicians in the bands playing tonight were part of this wave of cultural renewal. Second- and third-generation Americans, steeped in American pop, rock, country, jazz and classical music, they felt confident enough as Americans to go back and reinvestigate the nearly forgotten music of their own people.

Andy Statman was one of those early, neo-Klezmer pioneers. In the mid- to late-'60s, Statman gained prominence as a bluegrass mandolinist, and later delved into jazz. "Jazz at that time was very interested in spirituality, and people were searching -- Coltrane in particular -- different musics from all over the world, Africa, India, the Balkans. It dawned on me that if I'm looking for a spiritual and musical path, I'm born Jewish, it was handed to me, so this is something I should explore."

Once these musicians rediscovered their musical heritage and became comfortably rooted in the traditional repertory, it was only a matter of time before they began tinkering with it, in the great Klezmer tradition, making it speak to their own generation.

Thus, the members of Brave Old World have written original Yiddish songs on topics including Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Bosnia, and have collaborated with East European artists such as Hungary's Muzsikas. The Klezmatics have integrated funk, jazz and hip- hop into their musical mix, and their songs include odes to marijuana and homosexuality.

Michael Alpert of Brave Old World points out similarities between the Klezmer revival and trends in contemporary Celtic music. In both genres, said Alpert, musicians are "going back to the funky, traditional music, especially rooted in an instrumental tradition, and yet performing the old repertoire in new ways. And Celtic bands like Altan and Capercaille are now composing new music with one foot in the tradition and one foot somewhere beyond."

Netsky says there was destined to be a Klezmer revival all along. "Archaic things come back," he said. "The blues came back....And the same thing eventually happened when our generation came of age and said, `Wait a minute. What happened? Where's our folk music?'"

Alicia Svigals echoes and expands on Netsky's comment. "It's great music -- a deep, rich, complex, beautiful, expressive style which, while being a vehicle of the full gamut of human emotions, is also constantly and always a musical representation of `Jewishness.' It's a musical abstraction of the Yiddish language, and it simply sounds `Jewish' to our ears.

"It was natural that it should `come back.' The good stuff always does."


The four groups performing in tonight's "In the Fiddler's House" concert are generally considered to be the top groups of the contemporary Klezmer revival. While each group is steeped in different aspects of the Klezmer tradition, each also brings a distinctive, modern sensibility to that tradition, helping to move the music forward and speak to contemporary audiences.

The Klezmatics: Of the four groups on the "In the Fiddler's House" bill, the Klezmatics -- denizens of New York's Knitting Factory, the temple of the downtown avant-garde -- are the most experimental. Probably the only Klezmer band ever to be on MTV, the Klezmatics' amalgam of traditional Klezmer and jazz, funk, reggae, rock, world-beat and hip-hop has been tagged as "Jewish roots music for the 21st century." Furthering their "out" cache, two members of the band, vocalist/accordionist Lorin Sklamberg and violinist Alicia Svigals, are openly and outspokenly gay. "We come from this ecstatic standpoint on Jewishness, gender and sexual politics," said trumpeter Frank London. "We're very out, yet in a totally joyous, undogmatic way." The group's latest album, "Possessed" (Xenophile), contains a haunting mini-suite of songs written with playwright Tony Kushner for "The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds," which will be given its world premiere this fall in New York, in a production featuring The Klezmatics.

Brave Old World: Formed in 1989, Brave Old World is probably the first Klezmer "supergroup" -- the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of neo- Klezmer, if you will. BOW combines the elegance and sophistication of an Old World chamber group with the improvisational virtuosity of a New World jazz ensemble. Rooted in 19th-century-style, Eastern European Klezmer, BOW updates the tradition with original compositions addressing contemporary issues such as Chernobyl, Bosnia and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Along the way, BOW is creating a new Yiddish art music, with the emphasis on listening. In addition to his work as a composer and bandleader, vocalist/violinist Michael Alpert is a folklorist -- the Alan Lomax of Klezmer -- who travels throughout Eastern Europe in search of Klezmer musicians who survive from pre-war Europe in order to preserve and record the music of their generation. The group also includes musical director and accordionist Alan Bern, clarinetist Kurt Bjorling, and bassist Stuart Brotman.

Klezmer Convervatory Band: One of the pioneering Klezmer revival groups, the Klezmer Conservatory Band was founded by a group of students at the New England Conservatory in 1980. Among the original members were Frank London, who went on to form the Klezmatics, and jazz avant-gardist Don Byron. Founder Hankus Netsky remains as the group's director, and the 11-piece KCB -- frequent guests on Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" public radio program -- continues to be one of the most popular touring and recording acts of the Klezmer revival. The group's latest album, "Dancing in the Aisles" (Rounder), offers a typical dose of the KCB's brand of klezmer -- heavily influenced by the vocal stylings of Yiddish theater music and the swing-influenced arrangements of '30s and '40s-era American Klezmer.

Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra: Andy Statman is always counted among the handful of musicians credited with pioneering the Klezmer revival in the 1970s. Coming from the fringes of the progressive bluegrass scene alongside the likes of David Grisman and Jerry Garcia, Statman, at the time a mandolinist, picked up the saxophone and clarinet when he fell under the sway of progressive jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. Eventually he became the student of Dave Tarras, widely considered to be one of the top Klezmer clarinetists of the immigrant generation. Tarras passed along his clarinets and his mantle to Statman, who, as heard on his latest CD, "Between Heaven and Earth" (Shanachie), carries on his mentor's legacy while mixing it with some Coltrane-inspired improvisational jazz and a heavy dose of spirituality by way of Statman's Hasidism. His bandmates tonight will include pianist Lincoln Mayorga, bassist Roger Mason and drummer Bob Meyers.

Recommended Klezmer Listening:

In addition to Itzhak Perlman's two CDs on Angel Records, "In the Fiddler's House" and "Live In the Fiddler's House" -- both of which include the four bands on tonight's bill and serve as fine, general introductions to the Klezmer revival -- the following CDs are recommended to listeners interested in digging deeper into the wealth of Klezmer music:

The Klezmatics, "Jews With Horns," "Possessed" (Xenophile).

Andy Statman, "Between Heaven and Earth: Music of the Jewish Mystics" (Shanachie), "Songs of Our Fathers" with David Grisman (Acoustic Disc).

Brave Old World, "Klezmer Music" (Flying Fish), "Beyond the Pale" (Rounder).

Klezmer Conservatory Band, "Old World Beat," "Dancing in the Aisles" (Rounder).

Various Artists, "Klezmer Music: A Marriage of Heaven and Earth," (Ellipsis Arts).

Wolf Krakowski, "Transmigrations" (Kame'a).

David Krakauer, "Klezmer Madness!" (Tzadik).

Joel Rubin, with the Epstein Brothers Orchestra, "Zeydes un Eyniklekh: Jewish-American Wedding Music from the Repertoire of Dave Tarras," (Spectrum/Wergo).

The Epstein Brothers Orchestra, "Kings of Freylekh Land" (Spectrum/Wergo).

Kol Simcha, "Symphonic Klezmer," "Crazy Freilach" (Claves).

Joel Rubin Jewish Music Ensemble, "Beregovski's Khasene" (Weltmusik).

Rubin and Horowitz, "Bessarabian Symphony" (Spectrum/Wergo).

Various Artists, "Klezmania: Klezmer for the New Millenium" (Shanachie).

Jeff Warschauer, "The Singing Waltz: Klezmer Guitar and Mandolin" (Omega).

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 31, 1997. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1997. All rights reserved.]

Seth Rogovoy
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