Klezmer Music: A Marriage of Heaven and Earth
1996 Ellipsis Arts...
How Did This Happen
by Frank London
Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of playing a furious freylekhs at a wedding and the crowd is a sinuously snaking hora-line, tossing bride and groom aloft from chairs while the band plays a medley of songs that are over 100 years old and whose origin is thousands of (physical and psychic) miles away, although the dancers are in their thirties and have never been further east than Long island and the closest connection they have with old East European Jewish culture and rituals is a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Deli, I ask myself: How did this happen?
I first became aware of Jewish music around 1979. Majoring in Afro-American trumpet at the New England Conservatory of Music, I was part of a larger scene loosely centered around Ran Blake’s Third Stream Music Department. We studied a mixture of classical and jazz, as well as lots of other stuff – pop, folk and ethnic musics – while developing a practical philosophy that still guides my own musical life and that of many of my peers. The idea is that one can study and assimilate the elements of ANY musical style, form or tradition by ear. You listen over and over to a Charlie Parker solo or a Peruvian flute player, and learn to replicate what you hear. (We went through lots of tape players – especially those with the ability to play music at half speed.) The next step is a dialectical integration of one’s own personal style and musical identity with the musical tradition being studied.
No music was off limits. Assorted theme concerts were organized including a concert of Jewish music. Hankus Netsky invited me to join in an ensemble performing a few klezmer and Yiddish vocal tunes. I was already playing salsa, Balkan, Haitian and other musics. Why not Jewish? As was the usual practice of the day, all the members received cassettes of the songs – repertoire or "rep" tapes – from old 78s whose level of surface noise made the task of learning parts akin to deciphering hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone.
The concert was a smash! We, a group of students with a s shared repertoire and knowledge of three – count 'em, three – Jewish tunes, were besieged with offers to perform concerts, parties and weddings. Newly named the Klezmer Conservatory Band, we rolled up our sleeves and got down to the serious work of learning the style and nuances of Klezmer and Yiddish vocal music. We slowly became aware that we were part of a "scene" – dubbed "the klezmer revival" by the media and others – of groups and individuals who has been researching and performing all aspects of Yiddish music that included Kapelye, the Klezmorim, Andy Statman, Zev Feldman, Giora Feidman and others. More often than not, they had come to Jewish music after playing other American or East European folk musics.
There seemed to be an unquenchable thirst for Yiddish music, as if it could fill the void created when American Jews divested themselves of their ethnicity in order to assimilate into the mass culture. Much of our work was playing weddings for young Jews who, in the wake of Roots and the rise of identity politics, were seeking to redefine their own cultural and religious heritage. They were alienated aesthetically and politically from an American-Jewish tradition that seemed overly schmaltzy, dominated by Israeli culture and ideas, and unrelated to the rest of their lives. This "klezmer music" played by people to whom they could relate perfectly fit the bill. Although the focus for most of the new klezmorim was on the music itself, others – non-musicians – were contextualizing our effort differently. More than just a bunch of musicians playing a cool, old folk music, we were supposedly "carrying on the legacy of our ancestors" and "reigniting a torch whose flame had been extinguished." The cultural critics who made these claims didn’t seem to care about certain facts: many of klezmer’s practictioners were not Jewish and many musicians were drawn to it by basically technical, musical or economic motivations. No, they insisted, this was a "sociological phenomenon!"
While I once scoffed at these ideas, they seem to have turned out to be true. A little over twenty years have elapsed since this scene and its first recordings emerged, and now there are dozens if not hundreds of bands playing Yiddish music. A new generation has emerged who say they "grew up listening to his stuff!" – a statement that used to apply only to people over 60 whose parents were from the "old country" and who grew up hearing Yossele Rosenblatt and Molly Picon 78s. It now refers to college-age people who are as familiar with Yiddish music and culture as I am with the rock and roll and hippiedom of my youth. They feel comfortable radically reinterpreting their identity: writers create queer Jewish 'zines and thrash bands deconstruct holiday songs. I worked with a writer whose poetry used the word "klezmer" as a metaphor, a symbol as rich and intoxicating as "jazz" was for the Beats. Yiddish culture has become one very string, visible component of our postfeminist, postmodern artistic/musical/cultural/political environment.
On the downside, a combination of self-serving commercial interests and basic ignorance has led many music critics, record labels, concert promoters and even certain musicians to jump on the bandwagon and use klezmer as a buzzword that refers to anything that is remotely Jewish-identified or features a clarinet or sounds exotic or Oriental.
(Musician’s warning: inclusion of an augmented second interval may lead to your music being labeled klezmer!)
However, there is no need to panic. Many of today’s hard-core klezmerists are serious about studying all aspect of the music – its history, performance practices, sociological context and more – and are creating a wide diversity of music that is both enjoyable and can creditably be labeled klezmer, a sit is clearly derived from the instrumental music that East European, Yiddish-speaking Jews performed for their simkhes and other rituals. There will always be those who claim that certain klezmorim play the music more "traditionally," more "authentically" than others, but these terms are themselves open to a wide degree of interpretation.
For me, "tradition" is not a fixed reference point, but a continuum. The exact, conscious replication of an historical music, while wonderful to listen to, is not traditional. To be "traditional" is to be "in the tradition": connected to the past, living in the present and moving toward the future. Moreover, "traditional" does not always equal good. Today’s crop of bad disco songs about Moshiach – ubiquitous at all religious Jewish weddings while unknown to the outside world – are totally traditional Jewish music, but who really wants to listen to them?
Often, what we think of today as "traditional" Jewish music was not perceived as such in its own time. Jews at a khasene in nineteenth-century Poland requested that the klezmorim play the contemporary, non-Jewish polka-marzurkas and waltzes so popular at the time. Today, because they’ve been around long enough and recorded by the older klezmorim, these songs are perceived as being part of the klezmer tradition and repertoire. Maybe, in a hundred years, Kool and the Gang’s "Celebration" – one of the most request songs at many simkhes I play – will be perceived as klezmer.
And what about authenticity? Don’t get me started. Suffice to say that if (as some allege) only Jews can authentically play klezmer, then only people born 150 years ago in Europe can play Classical or Romantic music, and Yo-Yo Ma should throw away his cello. But rumor has it that he, too, is starting to play klezmer.
Copyright 2004 Jewish Community Radio