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Klezmer makes a comeback – but where'd it come from anyway?
Michael Endelman

Klezmer musicians6 Easy questions with not-so-easy answers

1) What is Klezmer?

Though "klezmer" originally meant simply a professional Jewish musician, it's now a generic term that is used to represent all sorts of Jewish instrumental music. The Yiddish word "klezmer" comes from the Hebrew words "kley," meaning vessel or instrument, and "zemer," meaning song. The tradition of klezmer in Europe dates back to at least the 16th century, and until the 1930s, klezmorim, or klezmer performers, were important players in Jewish communal life. They were hired to play at bar mitzvahs, weddings, and other gatherings. Since klezmorim were often hired to play non-Jewish functions, and non-Jewish musicians sometimes played Jewish events, klezmer music became a fairly eclectic mix of Eastern European folk styles.

It's difficult to pinpoint distinctive scales, modes, or rhythms which sharply differentiate Jewish music from the music of the surrounding communities. But there is a Jewish accent and character, which comes from the cantorial music of the synagogue, that defines the style. Expressive groans and cries, which often sound like wailing, along with instrumental sobs and laughter, are key to a Jewish interpretation of melody. The roots of klezmer can also be traced to the wordless nigunim, or melodies, of Eastern Europe's Hasidic movement.

When many of these musicians relocated to America at the turn of the 20th century, they began to play the extensive Vaudeville circuit and the Yiddish theater. The more successful musicians joined the newly formed recording industry. Because they played so many types of music, from ragtime, to Dixieland, to show tunes, the Jewish music began to absorb American influences as well. The recordings made in the '20s and '30s reflect this in the brassy arrangements and virtuosic style.

2) Is Klezmer Jewish-Jazz?

While Klezmer features improvised solos over a series of chord changes, it's far removed from what we know as jazz. Klezmer does bear some resemblance to the early New Orleans Dixieland jazz—in which all solos take place within a very tightly constructed framework—but while jazz continued to evolve with ever-increasing difficulty and harmonic complexity, klezmer remained a more static form.
There were, however, Jewish musicians who played both klezmer and jazz. The mixing of these styles led to a short-lived fad: Yiddish-pop crossover. Hits from this style include Benny Goodman's "And the Angels Sing," the Andrews Sisters' "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon," and Cab Calloway's, "Ot Azoy." But none of these songs could slow the tides of change. Young American Jews cared more for their new culture than the remnants of the Old World, and by the 1950s, klezmer was no longer a key part of Jewish life.

3) Then why is klezmer so popular now?

Klezmer's renewed popularity is mostly the result of archival work done by a core group of music students, folk-music aficionados, and ethnomusicologists in the mid-1970s. Most of this crew had backgrounds in blues, folk, and other traditional music, but had not experienced authentic klezmer. After spending time and energy studying the cultures of others, these young Jews began to check out their own by digging out dusty crates of klezmer records from attics and talking to their aging relatives. The result was a revival of an old genre, and the late '70s saw new klezmer records from The Klezmorim, The Klezmer Conservatory Band, Kapelye, and Andy Statman, among others.

Not only did these groups revive a virtually dead music, their records became popular with both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. The new klezmer fad was part of a larger resurgence of Yiddish culture that resulted, in part, from a backlash against an Israel-centric American Jewry. The influence of popular political movements like black nationalism—trends that stressed ethnic nationalism and a sense of personal-historical awareness—also led young Jews to define themselves in very non-'white' and unabashedly Jewish ways. Many young Jews in the '70s were determined to abandon their parents' craving to assimilate to mainstream America, and klezmer became a medium for their Jewish self-discovery.

4) What is 'Radical Jewish Culture' anyway?

"Radical Jewish Culture" is a tag that's used to portray the Jewish-themed music that has been emerging from New York's downtown jazz, contemporary classical, and avant-rock scenes since the early '90s. Describing musicians who use klezmer as a starting point for more unconventional musical exploration, Radical Jewish Culture is more about recontextualizing than recreating the music. Some of the groups that do this, like The Klezmatics, don't stray too far from traditional klezmer melodies, chord charts, or rhythms. Instead, they inject the music with electronic effects, amplified instruments, and a good dose of New York-style progressive politics.

Though The Klezmatics were already billing themselves as "the planet's radical Jewish roots band" in the late '80s, the Radical Jewish Culture movement is strongly associated with the incredibly prolific composer, musician, and label-owner John Zorn. Radical Jewish Culture was the title of a Zorn-curated art festival held in Germany in 1992. The name later became both the rallying cry for Zorn's new record label, Tzadik, and the catch-phrase for an entire musical genre. Zorn and a close-knit crew of musicians from New York's downtown scene began to compose Jewish-themed work, though most of them had little background in Jewish music. By mixing klezmer in with their own diverse musical experiences, they've recorded trip-hop, psychedelic rock, hardcore, and '60s-style free jazz under the Radical Jewish Culture banner.

5) Then what makes it klezmer?

The biggest criticism leveled against Zorn & co. is that their music is pure identity art. By using imagery, association, and their birthright, they claim Jewishness for their work, despite having little knowledge of the Jewish musical vocabulary. Most, including the artists themselves, admit that it isn't exactly klezmer, and the more vociferous critics argue that the music is not Jewish at all.

While I wouldn't take such an extreme position, the Jewish imagery in Zorn's work can be awfully heavy-handed. Although not observant, Zorn plays gigs with tzitzit dangling from beneath his shirt. And the Radical Jewish Culture series on the Tzadik label is usually packaged with very prominent Stars of David and Hebrew lettering. For Zorn's own groups, like the Masada Quartet and the Bar Kochba Chamber Ensemble, he has carefully chosen the names of great Jewish rebellions. The Masada discs, in particular, are packaged with ethnicity, complete with glowing pictures of the Judaean Desert and fragmented facsimilies of the Dead Sea Scrolls, together with quotes from Asher Ginzburg, Ahad Ha'am, and Gershom Sholem. There's no doubt that this music isn't klezmer, but it does have an undeniable Jewish quality to it. Zorn's music may be assimilated, West Village, avant-garde, 21st-century Jewish music, but I'll take it.

Zorn isn't the be-and-end-all of Radical Jewish Culture—he's just the most famous and well connected. Other groups have shown greater skill in using the klezmer vocabulary to attempt a more open-eared music. Naftule's Dream, an experimental, Boston-based group, also performs as Shirim, a traditional klezmer outfit. Their concrete knowledge of the traditional style, learned from years of playing weddings, makes their rambunctious klezmer-jazz fusion that much more convincing.

Andy Statman, another key player in the '70s klezmer revival, is still playing Jewish music. To get a sense of Statman's style, just imagine John Coltrane as an Orthodox Jew playing spaced-out versions of Hasidic nigunim on the clarinet. Other artists like David Krakauer, Frank London, and the New Klezmer Trio, have also been successful in bringing the two worlds together.

6) Is this just a fad?

The traditional klezmer revival, now over 25-years-old, has become so popular that klezmer groups can play Carnegie Hall. Izhak Perlman led an all-star klezmer tour that went around the world, and New York's Knitting Factory (see article page 35) just started a record label called Jewish Alternative Movement that's dedicated to adventurous Jewish music. Even my non-Jewish housemate makes a living playing klezmer gigs around Boston. These examples, plus plenty of other record labels, bands, festivals, and Web sites, paint a picture of a healthy musical genre that is continuing to grow and change. It's true that not everyone agrees which direction it should take, but if they did, it wouldn't be Jewish.