Rhythm and Jews

he modern-day klezmer revival jazzes up the music of tradition

Did you hear the one about the Jew who played in a bluegrass band?
This Jewish musician was proficient at his trade, a banjo player highly respected among his peers, many of whom had grown up in Kentucky and were reared on a steady diet of traditional music. The bluegrass musicians liked the Jewish musician well enough, shared many stages with him, and they never once begrudged him playing their music. Or so this young Jewish musician thought.

One day, while they were playing an old Bill Monroe standard, or some such thing, one of the old-time regulars looked at the Jewish musician and asked him, "Don't you have any of your own music?"

Henry Sapoznik's "conversion" is a fabled story in Jewish music circles, but it's no Jewish joke. From that day on, Sapoznik--like so many Jewish musicians of the late '70s and early '80s--started playing his music again. He became a klezmer, the Yiddish word for "musician," and began exploring the music of his ancestors, the sounds of a tradition relegated to wedding and bar-mitzvah bands in the Catskills.

Sapoznik, an ethnomusicologist born to Holocaust survivors who spoke nothing but Yiddish, began researching klezmer--the music of the Eastern-European immigrants, a tradition of religious and secular music that dates back as far as the 15th century. In 1979, he formed the band Kapelya with other Jewish musicians who had similar backgrounds. They were dedicated to preserving the "authentic sound, energy, and humor" of klezmer. Kapelya (itself Yiddish for "band") became one of the first groups to launch and nurture the so-called klezmer renaissance that has been flourishing in New York City's Lower East Side since the mid-'80s and has even begun to take root in Texas.

Klezmer--a term that once meant "musician," is the music of weddings, the freylachs (dances) played as the bride and groom are placed on chairs and carried above the exuberant guests; it's the music of celebration and community, the vibrant call of the clarinet or the soft whine of the violin; it's the music of Jewish theater and of old black-and-white cartoons, the sound track to the Diaspora containing hints of Russian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, and Polish music.

Klezmer is to the Jewish community what jazz is to the African-American community--the music of immigrants, the heartbeat of a culture that struggles to retain its identity in a society of assimilation.

"I'm skeptical of this term 'revival,'" says Alicia Svigels, violinist for the Klezmatics, perhaps the most innovative of the new klezmer bands. "As my Uncle Dinky said at my cousin David's wedding, 'Revival, schmevival. I've been playing this music for 60 years.' The word revival gives the impression this is ancient Greek. This isn't just a revival. It's the tradition."

In his liner notes to the 1993 CD Klezmer Pioneers: European and American Recordings, 1905-1952, Henry Sapoznik describes the klezmer recordings of the first part of this century as "a disposable commodity to be sold in an ethnic market"--78s released on small labels, printed in tiny quantities for Jews and Jews only; there thus exists only a small portion of the original recordings made by such first-generation Jewish-American klezmers as Joseph Cerniavsky, Michi Michalesco, and Alexander Olshanetsky. What few dozens do remain easily accessible have been preserved by Sapoznik on three indispensable CDs--Klezmer Pioneers; Dave Tarras: Yiddish-American Klezmer Music, 1925-1956; and Jakie Jazz 'Em Up: Old Time Klezmer Music--that chart the evolution of the music from its old-world roots as wedding and dance music to something far more evolved and complex.

When Jews began coming to America at the end of the 19th century, then flooding Ellis Island by the beginning of the 1900s, they found themselves immersed in a culture beginning to find its own sound. The New York Jews, especially, were exposed to the burgeoning sounds of jazz that filled stage productions and nightclubs.

Such musicians as Mishka Tsiganoff (known as "The Gypsy Accordionist"), clarinetists Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras (born in a Ukranian shetl in 1897 and renowned as the "Benny Goodman of Klezmer"), pianist-arranger Sam Medoff (who fronted the Yiddish Swingtette), and the classically trained sax player Sam Musiker assimilated the sounds of jazz while maintaining their own Jewish music. Listening to the recordings of the Yiddish Swingtette or the Abe Ellstein Orchestra, recorded in the late '40s and early '50s, it's difficult to discern where the two styles intersect.

The so-called klezmer revival has been slowly unfolding in New York City (specifically, the Lower East Side) for almost two decades. It has garnered attention in the Jewish press and in the smaller Manhattan weeklies, articles appearing since the late '80s predicting a renaissance led by such artists as the Klezmatics, Andy Statman, Brave Old World, the Klezmer Conservatory Band, Kapelya--all artists who manage to embrace tradition but do not suffocate in its arms.

For the most part, the new klezmers came to the music to express their Jewishness, to make them "feel Jewish," Statman says. When Alicia Svigels speaks of klezmer, she refers to it as "our music," and points out that so many of the young Jewish avant-garde musicians in New York have begun playing klezmer--even the likes of John Zorn in his Masada side project, and part-time Elvis Costello guitarist Marc Ribot.

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