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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Klezmer Music On Our Minds

The word "Klezmer" is believed to have come from a melding of two Hebrew words, "Kli" -- instrument -- and "Zemer" -- music. Klezmer music has come to characterize the style of secular musical entertainment which is played in Ashkanazi communities.

Klezmer music evolved in the shtetels of Eastern Europe, some say as early as the 13th century.  By the 15th century Jewish writers were writing about "klezmorim" who travelled from community to community, playing the tunes that combined the feelings of despair that Jews felt in their insecure lives with a specifically Jewish joy of life. Klezmer music as it is known today evolved in Bessarabia in the 19th century as secular instrumental music based on synagogue liturgy, specifically on hazzanut -- cantorial music. The Klezmer music was also heavily influenced by the Roma -- gypsies -- both musically and linguistically. The Roma influenced the klezmorim in other ways as well and most klezmer musicians became wanderers, moving from town to town as they transverse the countryside to play their music wherever they could find jobs. In return today's Roma music includes vestiges of Yiddish-speaking klezmorim's influence. 

Early klezmer music generally involved violins, clarinets and other stringed instruments with an occasional accordion or additional keyboard instrument. The choice of instruments was not accidental -- until 1855 Jewish musicians were forbidden by Ukrainian authorities from playing "loud" instruments. Later, when that ruling was dismissed, brass and percussion instruments joined klezmer bands.

Klezmorim often broke religious strictures. They played in churches and provided instruction for other, non-Jewish musicians. These sorts of activities did not sit well with the communities' rabbis who discouraged their followers from listening to the Klezmer music or hiring the musicians but the rabbis' disapproval didn't stop the shtetel Jews from listening to, and enjoying, the music. 

Klezmer musicians joined the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews to the new world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The new world, however, was not conducive to klezmer music and few klezmer musicians were able to make a living as klezmorim in America. Jews wanted to integrate into the mainstream American culture and were no longer entertained by Klezmer music, especially with its connotations to "old-fashioned" Yiddish and shtetel culture. 

Today's music critics acknowledge the klezmer influences in the compositions of some of America's greatest Jewish composers including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Ira Gershwin. They also point to some of the clarinet stylings of swing jazz bandleaders such as Artie Shaw and Bennie Goodman who seem to have been influenced by the klezmer music that they heard in their youth. One other -- non-Jewish-- composer who was vocal in acknowledging the influence that Klezmer music had on his work was Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich included Klezmer chords in a number of his works which included the Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor and Piano Quintet in G minor. 

Klezmer music began to experience a revival in the late '70s and early '80s. Artists including Giora Feidman, Zev Feldman, Andy Statman, the Klezmorim and the Klezmer Conservatory Band drew their repertoire from surviving klezmorim of Eastern Europe and from recordings of the early 20th century klezmer bands.  These recordings proved to be vital in the Klezmer renaissance. Such recordings and transcriptions enabled the new klezmer performers to capture, not only the right notes of the original klezmer tunes, but the nuances, gradations and distinctions that would have otherwise been lost to history.  

In their "Rebirth of a Folk Tradition" the Lowell Milken Archive adds to musicologists' efforts to archive Klezmer music. The Milken Archives were created by education philanthropist Lowell Milken to preserve and disseminate music related to the American Jewish experience, encourage the creation of the new music that speaks to the American Jewish experience compile and publish historical documentation that illuminates the cultural, historical, political, social, and religious contexts of American Jewish music.  

The Milken Archives' fifth volume, Rebirth of a Folk Tradition, includes ten tracks under the titles "Kli'Zemer" and "Celestial Dialogues," These archives will help to ensure that Klezmer music can continue to develop and evolve, and Radio Free Nachlaot will continue to feature Klezmer music as part of our regular lineup during our "Israeli Soul Afternoon" programming, Monday through Friday from 1pm through 6pm Israel time.