Klezmer Music: A Marriage of Heaven and Earth
1996 Ellipsis Arts...
Interview with Ben Bezyler
Conducted by Michael Alpert
I am all my life a musician, from eight years. I am a musician through my pipik, my belly button – the last living member of the Kalushiner Klezmurim. It’s like the music’s baked into me – I come from generations of musicians.
I’ll never forget how some neighbors, Jewish girls and boys who came just to watch, were standing by the door. They weren’t guests, but the family would never have thrown them out. When leykekh mit bronfn, honey cake and brandy, were served at the end of the wedding, they’d get a piece of cake, but no liquor. Food was very expensive, and they were only neighbors, after all.
We were also standing by the door, where the girls were. You know, Jewish girls used to wash their hair with kerosene. Why? First of all so it would be clean and they wouldn’t get lice, and secondly because it shone. Jewish hair is dark, after all. It had a shine to it. The girls were very afraid to get too close to the kerosene lamps, because their hair would catch on fire.
And the girls liked to talk with the musicians – you know how it is. There was one particular girl standing there, maybe seventeen or eighteen years old. She was so lit up by the way we were playing that she turned to another girl and I heard her say, "The musicians are playing so well that I’d like to go to bed with them."
Now that’s an expression, eh? I was just a boy, but I remember it as if it happened yesterday...
Sometimes we’d play in small groups – just a fiddle or maybe a bass or cello as well. Other times for a wealthy wedding there would be large groups of up to twelve or fifteen fiddlers, as well a strumpet, trombone, clarinet, cymbalom, bass, sometimes even a zither and a harp. We would play there – Jews, Gypsies and Ukrainians – late into the night, under the stars, and the music would just pour out. And when I ran out of tunes I would just make them up until I fell asleep standing there at the violin.
When you play a wedding in Russia, you don’t want the customer to understand what you’re saying. So labukh or labushnik is a musician, lomir labern means "let’s play," bashalemen means to pay up, and a lazhuk is someone who’s a pain in the butt. My partner Mishka used to say, "Every simkhe, every celebration, has to have a lazhuk, someone who bothers you, who tells you that the music is too loud or too this or too that." That’s a lazhuk.
We played a whole world of music. First there were melodies from the "seating of the bride" ritual for the wedding. When the party would get going we’d play the Jewish dance tunes like the freylekhs, sher, and khusidl, and also nigunim, Hasidic tunes. We also played londres and gasn nigunim; dance tunes and processionals, in 6/8 time. Then there were tunes "for the table," for the guests to listen to and to let the musicians show off and make money: a vulekhl or a doina, some zmires (religious folks songs), kind of like Black spirituals, and Yiddish folk songs or theater songs. You had Polish dance tunes like krakowiak, oberek, na wesolo, mazur and polonez, and of course polkas and marzurkas and waltzes. And tangos – Polish tangos were very big in the '30s. Finally, we played Russian folk songs and popular music, and "continental" music, and American dance music. We even played famous classical pieces like the waltz from Gounod’s Faust.
See, when it comes to having a good time, anti-Semitism and all that falls away. When it comes to a party, it all falls away – nationalities, rich and poor, whether you’re plain or good-looking. Because music is magic, the most beautiful thing in the world. Without it, I would have been in the next world long ago. Vayl vus ken zany shener un beser vi misameyakh tsi di velt? – "What can be better and more beautiful than to make the world rejoice?"
Now, you wanted to know what instruments there were in our band. My uncle Nusn was on the clarinet. He shlepped two clarinets around: an E flat clarinet, and a B flat clarinet. Then there was a primer, a first violinist. Next, there were two second violins, called fturkes, playing rhythm. They were regular violins, but held down low, at the shoulder. I can never forget the tricks they did. They provided such rhythm that even if my uncle sent me off somewhere and there was no drum, people would keep dancing. Finally, there was a bass, and sometimes a trombone as well, and I was on the puk, or baraban – the bass drum.
I was never able to go and dance, because I was in the band. A musician can’t get up to dance. But I watched closely. First they used to dance like I showed you, in a circle. After they were all sweated up, they danced a slow freylekhs, a slow circle dance. They held each other by the shoulder, or by the kerchiefs. Someone would give Feter Nusn a twenty, and he’d call out:
"Hersht vet tantsn Malke mit ir man. Ikh beyt akh zeyer, ir zolt zay nisht shtern!" ("Now Malke’s going to dance with her husband. Don’t get in the way!")
And the two of them, each with one end of a red kerchief in their right hands would hold it over their heads and turn themselves counterclockwise underneath it in time to the music. Watch! You twist the kerchief until it makes a knot, and then you unwind, and when the knot is unwound, the music stops. Afterwards, the next couple came forward. And people were standing all around in a circle and clapping, and taking each other by the hand.
After the war, when I was released from the Siberian camps, I played Jewish weddings in the Soviet Union. You see, no matter where in the world you are, you have to make a living. The bride’s father guaranteed a little something, because we also played the ceremony. But the real money came from playing the table and taking requests, for dancing as well. And when you’ve played a wedding all night, "doing the table" – playing tunes to honor the seated guests – is the smetane, the cream, the frosting on the cake. Back with my uncle Nusn, when I was a kid, I was on the sidelines. In Russia I was "dus aybershte fin shtaysl," the cat’s meow.
People are sitting down. They’ve had a drink, they’re a little tipsy. Just like my uncle Nusn used to do, I get up on a chair: The teller, the dish for the money, is on the table, a big vase or a plate. I put the first twenty in, like musicians do nowadays in bars. The wedding party is all at one table, together with the bride and groom. I clap my hands four times – you could hear a pin drop – and call out in a loud voice:
"Let an upstanding and respectable salute be played for bride and groom,
And then came music – the musicians would lay into it. The point is to give the customer what they like. You have to know how to run a simkhe. It's a big deal for four people to make a hundred and fifty people happy. My partner in Russia, Mishka Schuster, had an expression: "Gi' mir di khasene, vel ikh zi tseraysn of shtiklekh!" – "Give me the wedding and I’ll tear it to pieces!"
And the plate filled up – I remember like it was yesterday – there was so much money that the plate overflowed, and the bride's mother poured it all into her apron and put the plate back. Finally the apron filled up.
I can talk up and down. And I’ve been a klezmer all my life. I don’t know if there’s a profession in the world that sees what a musician sees, that can describe characters the way a musician can. What time did you come here? 7:30? It’s now 2:30 A.M. and I could spend another 72 hours with you, and talk, and talk, and talk and it wouldn’t get old. That’s art, that’s magic, eh? We have a very productive friendship. I mean, I was sitting at work today, I didn’t have any customers. I knew you were coming over, and you had asked me all these questions, and I as I remembered things, I write them down. The dancing, the instruments, the girl with the kerosene... It’s a really great thing. I’m twice as old as you, right? History repeats itself, reboyne shel oylem, L-rd in heaven! But if I had known back then that you were going to come along 50 years later and ask, I’d have taken a better look at everything!
Copyright 2004 Jewish Community Radio