Volume I, Issue II Winter 2002

Klezmer — the second generation

Virtually unheard of in mainstream circles just two decades ago, today klezmer is one of the most popular styles of ethnic folk music and is considered one of Judaism's great cultural contributions to the world.

Clarinet, by Kate Gressitt-Diaz

© Copyright 2002 by Kate Gressitt-Diaz

See "The changing face of klezmer," an overview of recent klezmer and other Jewish musical releases.

And, just 30 years after the great klezmer revival rescued this Eastern European folk-art hybrid from extinction, it's being carried forward by another generation — a generation that is both preserving and changing the music, thrusting it into the future while maintaining its ties to the past.

Perhaps the one factor most impacting the future of klezmer is its growing geographic decentralization. While the original klezmer revival of the 1970s was centered along the Eastern seaboard, in cities with large Jewish populations, today nearly every mid-sized and larger American city has a decent klezmer band.

Michael Friedmann, leader and reed player for the Long Beach-based Rabbinical School Dropouts, argues that "Klezmer in America is as dispersed as Jews are in America. Just go to Klezmershack.com and search 'Bands by Location' and you'll see what I'm talking about."

This geographic expansion is reflected in an equally massive musical expansion.

While the original klezmer revival bands by and large tried to preserve the music as it had existed before the Holocaust — to keep it from disappearing — today's bands, perhaps because there are so many of them that the music is no longer endangered, are just as interested in re-shaping the music to reflect their own experiences as they are in preserving the past.

Friedmann said he and his bandmates hew to both paths.

"I have the old recordings memorized to the point that I don't even have to listen to the records anymore to hear them. When the Rabbinical School Dropouts play 'covers' of the old tunes, we do so with respect and careful attention — both to the music and our audiences. But when we're asked to play our own music, that's what you're going to get, take it or leave it."

Bruce Burger, who plays a wide variety of Jewish music — including klezmer — under the stage name of RebbeSoul, says "One thing I do find interesting in today's klezmer music is the combination of different elements and styles. Frank London, for example comes up with great arrangements that reflect a fusion of things."

But Burger also said that the previous generation of musicians possessed a spirit in their playing that he doesn't always hear today:

"The older klezmer players who were the pioneers of the style had a certain kavana that is not so common now. It's a bit like listening to Dizzy play 'A Night In Tunisia' or something like that and then listening to Wynton Marsalis. Wynton is cleaner and more precise, but Dizzy had a certain magic in his music. There are some contemporary klezmer players who can really burn, though. Andy Statman and David Krakauer have a lot of fire in their playing."

Musical intersections

Klezmer is distinct, of course, with a decidedly Jewish flavor. Yet it is not so dissimilar from the other great folk chamber musics from around the globe — America's jazz, Argentina's tango, the fado of Portugal, the chanson of Paris, or Spain's flamenco. Like each of them, the klezmer tradition values virtuosity and improvisation in equal measure, with the soloist and the ensemble also given equal weight.

Perhaps it is these somewhat contradictory themes that gives all these musics such power to evoke our deepest passions: when one must master not only the discipline of technique, but also the freedom to extrapolate from the melodic theme, the results are unlikely to be predictable.

Given the similarities between klezmer and these other chamber musics, it should probably be little surprise that there is an enormous amount of cross-pollination between klezmer and the others. Jazz, especially, has influenced klezmer in the States, with John Zorn's Tzadick label providing a fertile and stable environment to encourage the experimentation of melding klezmer with different styles.

Among other klezmer artists Burger listens to, he listed Brave Old World, Kol Simcha and the Klezmatics.

It was the Klezmatics in the early '90s who first proved you could meld klezmer and rock 'n' roll. And with album titles like "Jews With Horns" and "Rhythm and Jews," the Klezmatics also showed themselves willing to create marketing opportunities with smart word play that also tackled ethnic stereotypes.

The Klezmatics' rock 'n' roll sensibilities also spoke to an issue of assimilation that Burger pointed out from his own exposure to his family's Jewish traditions during his youth:

"Our family attended a conservative shul in upstate New York and the music was Ashkenazi cantorial. Of course, when I was a kid, it bored me to death because I wanted to be playing baseball and going skiing instead. It wasn't until much later that I became interested in Jewish music."

The American influences that led Burger to hunger for baseball and skiing during synagogue have undoubtedly played a part in the musical development of klezmer as it incorporates strands from many different traditions.

Rabbinical School Dropouts cellist and guitarist Jon-Jon Friedmann (Michael's brother) said that in his band, "We call our brand of klezmer 'esoteric space klezmer' as a disclaimer for 'purists' who can't resist saying that our music isn't klezmer."

Of course, while many Jews are not only klezmer musicians and a large part of the audience, Jon-Jon Friedmann pointed out that there are a lot of gentiles digging the groove as well.

"As the saying goes, music is a universal language. And with the popularity of 'world music' in our politically correct and (at least superficially) open-minded society, it seems that many non-Jews are drawn to klezmer. Music is just one branch of 'multi-culturalism," Friedmann said via e-mail interview.

"Music is music, and if it sounds good to you, listen to it," he added. "I mean, I ain't no Sufi Muslim, but I like the music of Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan, and I'm no Mormon, but their Tabernacle Choir is nice to listen to."

As for the future, Jon-Jon Friedmann said he thinks there will always be preservationist bands as well as the young lions straining forward.

"I think it is important that both forms of klezmer exist. Preservation is good for matters of history, and innovation is good for matters of progress."

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