Klezmer music

by | Aug 13, 2016

Recently, in 2014 to be precise, I discovered another world of music. It happened to be the music of my own people(!), Klezmer music, East European Jewish wedding music from before the holocaust.

Jewish life in Eastern Europe was hard: a lot of poverty and severe persecution. All they had was their holy books, traditions and music. They were not allowed to own land, go into professions or join guilds so trades were quite restricted. For some, money lending for profit was one of the only options. At that time when the lender died, the debt was wiped out. So it was not surprising that there was a lot of violence towards Jews. In Russia, the massacres were called pogroms. There was also the threat of boys being conscripted into the Russian army.

Weddings were the happy times… and there was music and dancing! Many left Eastern Europe and went to the West in search of safety. The musicians in the “old world” would play mostly their own traditional tunes for weddings but often shared tunes with local musicians and gypsies who also had to work outside of mainstream society. The musicians played for all celebrations and also played for non-Jews. They were not limited to Jewish music. They played anything that paid.

Around 1890-1910, many Jews left Eastern Europe to make a new life in America and Great Britain. The klezmer musicians among them adapted to the musical fashions including Tango, Jazz and Swing. It might have been that they preferred not to remember the old life or just that they wanted to blend in, but in any case so their own music was left out. So great was their musical talent that they made a huge contribution to popular music in the West. This is demonstrated by names that are recognisable highly in music such as Irving Berlin, Benny Goodman or George Gershwin and classic tunes such as Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Buddy Can You Spare a Dime, I Got Rhythm and even White Christmas!

Klezmer music was only heard rarely at Jewish weddings in the Western world and even then, only the same few tunes were performed… While I was growing up I saw and heard nothing of this music, there was no information and no recordings. Nobody noticed the decline of Klezmer music as everyone was enthusiastic over the new music brought to them through the radio or wireless as it was called. My dad was a musician. He knew of this music but that was all. There was no access to it. Most of us knew only one tune that was carried on from the old tradition, Hava Negila.

Klezmer music was rediscovered in the 1970s in the USA by enthusiasts studying very old European recordings. With the coming of computers and the internet, information about it became available over here. I discovered Klezmer music in 2014, fell in love with it and started adapting it to the guitar. About half of the Klezmer music I play is from very old recordings of East European bands. I found it easy to adapt my old blues style with its oom-pah bass because I had been playing blues for many years. As Klezmer sees something of a revival maybe it has not died, just been patiently waiting to be heard again and make people happy again.

Let me describe some of the features of Klezmer music. The instrumentation usually has clarinet or violin leading. In the old days, there was an instrument called the Tsimbl (Cimbalom to Gypsies), a kind of hammered dulcimer. The scales, which often sound very Middle Eastern rather than European, give a strong sense of where they originated. The rhythms are varied but are mostly designed for dancing or accompanying various stages of the traditional Jewish wedding. There is often also an element of improvisation, subtler than Jazz and sometimes witty especially as the listener becomes accustomed to the genre. And lastly, players of expressive instruments like the violin and clarinet often embellish some notes with characteristic ornaments. These can sound like chirping, laughing or sobbing for example.

Nowadays we can find old recordings transferred to CD. Some of these old European recordings were made on discs before World War 1, at a time when America was still recording on cylinders. We can also hear on CD the bands and especially the phenomenally talented clarinet players of pre-war New York – names like Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwine. This, in my opinion, is when the art reached its peak. There are now many players who can recreate the old sounds and some who blend Klezmer with other genres. Who knows where it will go next…

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