Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

An Insider's View: How We Traveled from Obscurity to the Klezmer Establishment in Twenty Years

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

An Insider's View: How We Traveled from Obscurity to the Klezmer Establishment in Twenty Years

Article excerpt

I first became actively aware of Jewish music around 1970. 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. We became cultural consumers. 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? It's interesting; people assume there's some connection, I must have been brought up Jewish-no, no. My parents spoke English. Any association I had with Jewish music was corny.

As was the usual practice of the day, all the band 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. It was insane, but you get through it. The concert was a smash! We, a group of students with a shared repertoire and knowledge of three-count 'em, three-Jewish tunes, were besieged with offers to perform at 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. It really started in the middle of nowhere: no search, no anything, three songs, a few gigs, you learn some more songs, and then we slowly became aware that we were part of a "scene," dubbed "the klezmer revival" by the media and others, with groups and individuals who had been researching and performing all aspects of Yiddish music, including 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. It's interesting that twenty years later, many of the newer bands contain alumni from that first generation of bands.

I believe that for myself, and many of my peers that I've spoken to, our focus was on trying to play the music, trying to play it well, trying to get better on the nuances, and others were saying, "Oh, that's not why you were trying to do it; you're carrying on your ancestors' legacy, you're reigniting this torch that went out" - they were getting very heavy about this. But no; we were trying to play some music, make some money, and have some fun. Many of the musicians who were doing klezmer music weren't Jewish, so they weren't discovering their roots. A lot of them were in it for technical reasons, particularly the clarinetists, as in the case of Don Byron. Here was a music that was technically challenging, fun to play, and there was a market for it.

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 shmaltzy, 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. …

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