Rhythm and Jews

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

Svigels, like so many of the Lower East Side klezmers who hang out at New York's art-rock Knitting Factory, came of age in New York during a period when there were radio stations that played nothing but Jewish music. They heard the music in their homes, many of their parents themselves Yiddish musicians who played the neighborhood weddings and bar-mitzvahs. When Svigels and her contemporaries, musicians like Kapelya's Sapoznik and others, got older they attended the KlezCamp in the Catskills and got day jobs working at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan--a job that afforded them the time to transcribe old klezmer 78s and study old sheet music, films, and photographs in the school's extensive collection.

But the new klezmorim didn't just get their training by slowing down the old echoes and committing them to memory. Andy Statman, who switches back and forth between klezmer and bluegrass like Deion Sanders between baseball and football, studied for years with Dave Tarras until the klezmer legend died in 1989. Statman even inherited some of Tarras' clarinets with which Statman now records.

Ironically, the klezmer renaissance (at least in the press) is tied, in large part, to the 1993 release of Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz--the African-American Byron being one of the leading figures in the avant-jazz movement. There was certainly precedent for a non-Jew garnering success playing Jewish music: The Andrews Sisters scored their first big hit in 1938 with a recording of "Bay mir bistu sheyn," originally written and performed by Sholem Secunda. But the attention given to Byron's album annoyed some of the long-time klezmorim--not because of Byron's skin color or because they questioned his love for the music, but because Katz's music was almost a parody of Jewish music. With songs like "Haim Afen Range" ("Home on the Range") and "C'est Si Bon," Katz represents those who are "making ourselves clowns and innocuous to make the wider society laugh and like us," says Svigels.

"The thing that's bothered me about the revival is that sometimes there has been this unfortunate tendency toward kitsch," Svigels says. "And I have a theory about that, which is it's internalized anti-Semitism--the old thing about Jews being cute, funny, sad. But if you listen to Naftule Brandwein's music, there's nothing cute or sad about it. It's emotional, interesting, and satisfying with the level of complexity and sophistication you'd get from Bach or Charlie Parker."

Indeed, that's the great stereotype of klezmer music--that it's "fun and zany," as Brave Old World's Michael Alpert says with disdain. There's long been a penchant for people to dismiss klezmer as nothing but dance music or a novelty, a second-class sound track for parties. The mainstream press often degrades the music by referring to it as "Jewish soul music" (Newsweek) or "that boom-de-boom-de-boom Yiddish pop-music sound" (U.S. News and World Report), failing to recognize the complexities and emotional significance it possesses.

But in the end, it's folk music as much as jazz or the blues. Klezmer--like jazz or rock, for that matter--is simply a genre, a term that encompasses so many styles, whether traditional "old world beat" of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, the avant interpretations of the Klezmatics, or the Yid-hop and would-be punk of Frank London's The Shvitz. Even God is My Co-Pilot, one of the avant-punk bands on the Knitting Factory label, blends some Jewish music among dissonance and growling.

The most high-profile klezmer release yet is the new In the Fiddler's House, which was released by the classical Angel label two weeks ago as an Itzhak Perlman album. But it's less an Itzhak Perlman disc than a record on which he guests; his name is placed above the billing, there for big-name draw and prestige, but the real stars of the album are the Klezmatics, Brave Old World, the Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band. Perlman is merely an invited guest--a student this time in the class of the professors.

Though Perlman often speaks in the accompanying documentary (which aired on PBS last week and is available on video) of how klezmer was the music of his childhood--his parents emigrated from Poland to Israel, where Itzhak grew up--it does not come to him "as naturally as breathing." In the film, he is shown struggling to keep up with Brave Old World during an "impromptu" performance in a Cracow courtyard; he grimaces during a session with the Klezmatics, thrown by that band's penchant for jazz-like improv and wild experimentation.

"In Brave Old World," says Michael Alpert, who served as musical director for In the Fiddler's House, "we're struggling all the time against the easiest thing for people to latch on to--that klezmer is fun and zany and the whole wild and crazy persona image the music has--the stereotype. That was Perlman's idea of it, too. He even said he realized there's a depth to the music and a lot of stuff that's very contemplative within the music rather than it only being the happy, up, freylach dance-music he expected.

"He wasn't wild about the [Klezmatics' experimental] stuff at first, and certain things Brave Old World did. We were surprised and disappointed even, all of us attempting to do new things. We thought the great artist in him would appreciate the great art we were making. But he wasn't looking to klezmer for that."

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