The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground is an intimate portrait of a Grammy-winning ensemble of six musicians who have been creating klezmer magic for 24 years. They are the considered the most successful klezmer band to emerge since the revival of this musical genre began in the late seventies. They have collaborated with Theodore Bikel, Itzhak, Perlman, Chava Albertson, Arlo Guthrie and other luminaries to explore new dimensions to a centuries-old tradition. Amid the accolades and the tours throughout the U.S. and Europe, they struggle to keep their lives and their careers in balance.
Before proceeding further about The Klezmatics as revealed in the film, let me sketch the background of klezmer music. I met klezmer music and dance guru Michael Alpert when he was leading a dance program here. An ethnomusicologist and senior research fellow at the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York, he founded the ground-breaking klezmer band Brave Old World in the early years of the klezmer revival. “Klezmer music, the music of the East European Jewish world, represents a meeting of Eastern and Western European elements as well as Northern and Southern European elements,” Alpert told me in a phone interview. “You’ve got (influences) from the Slavic world, from Jews who were coming from Western Europe, in particular the German lands. And then you’ve got a very strong current coming up from Southeastern Europe, from the Ottoman Empire which at that point controlled a lot of the Balkans.”
These musical threads wove around the central thread of Jewish music, the chanted prayer, especially the chanting of the cantor in the synagogue. It is said that the lead role the violin played in early klezmer kapelye (ensembles) stemmed from its similarity to the emotive human voice. The earliest kapelye included a prominent violin, a tsimbl (hammered dulcimer), often a second violin playing rhythm and chords, and then a bass instrument such as a cello or bass. However, in the course of the 19th century, wind instruments began to join the ensembles and gradually took precedence over the strings.
“One of the main reasons for this was the rise of the military bands,” says Alpert. “With the beginning of conscription into the large armies of Russia, Austria, and Hungary, you had musicians of all cultures, not just Jews, playing wind instruments. A similar thing happened in the U.S. where you had the precursors of jazz in the American South with a string style that turned into a wind style. What you had in the East European Jewish world was a period of mixed string and wind ensembles.”
In Galicia, the area which today is southeastern Poland and western Ukraine, as well as along the border of Ukraine and Romania, string ensembles or mixed ensembles continued into the 20th century. Yet even in places where the clarinet supplanted the fiddle, the image of the fiddle remained a powerful symbol. “You have the survival of the fiddle as the romantic, ideal Jewish instrument, which it was. Where you see it survive is in popular images like fiddler on the roof, decades after the clarinet was the prime instrument and wind bands were de rigeur for East European Jewish wedding music.”
In keeping with that image, The Klezmatics feature both a prominent violin and a host of wind instruments and more contemporary additions, played by the multi-instrumentalist members. Violinist Lisa Gutkin bows passionately while Matt Darriau oodles up a storm on the clarinet, saxophone or kaval (end-blown flute of Balkan origin). Frank London plays mightily on trumpet or keyboards while Paul Morrissett specializes in the old traditional tsimbl (hammered dulcimer) and bass although he can play numerous East European instruments. Richie Barshay plays percussion and Lorin Sklamberg sings lead vocal and plays guitar, piano, and accordion – a 19th century addition.
Their music also owes a debt to the encounter between klezmer music and jazz. With the waves of East European Jewish immigration to the United States early in the 20th century came encounters between klezmer from the old world and non-Jewish African-American and Anglo-American musicians from the budding genre of jazz. Scholar-musician-filmmaker Yale Strom says that musical cross-pollination was inevitable. “Okay, so you come here. You’re a Jewish musician,” says Strom. “But if you’re only going to play Jewish music, it’s hard to make a living. There were those who could, but there’s more competition and just like the klezmorim from…the old country, they didn’t only play Jewish music. They played Roma music, Romanian music, Czech music, Hungarian music, Russian music. They played some classical music. Why? Their customers liked it and if you want to get hired more often, learn a wider repertoire. So then they (encounter) something called American music…Some of the structure of jazz -some of the minor keys and the rhythms – they felt they recognized. For some really good Jewish musicians, the crossover to jazz was not hard…So there was definitely some crossover of Jewish musicians who went into particularly swing. There was early jazz of the 1920s and 1930s but particularly the swing era of the 1930s and 1940s.”
Strom has analyzed some of the similarities and differences between klezmer music and jazz. “You have an ABA structure in jazz and that was very common in the freylekhs (upbeat klezmer dances). And being able to improvise – (in) jazz, you improvise over the whole chordal structure of the tune whereas in the klezmer repertoire you would improvise over the key of the tune. So if the key is E minor it’s an open free improvisation in the key of E minor, whereas in jazz the change is E minor, D minor and so on. If klezmer did that kind of chordal improvisation (it was because they were influenced by jazz). And the (klezmer) improvisation was natural coming from the prayers. When you’re listening to a (cantor) singing, sometimes he’d go 30 bars on one word…and that melisma, which is key to all Middle Eastern Folk Music, –and we are Semites, we are from the Middle East – is the DNA, the true building blocks of Jewish music.”
In keeping with the tradition of diverse cultural influences on Jewish music, The Klezmatics feature guest artists representing different traditions. For example, the film shows them whipping up a musical frenzy with Joshua Nelson, an African American Jew whose “Kosher Gospel” style draws inspiration from Mahalia Jackson. In fact, the group’s first live audience album, Brother Moses Smote The Water (Harmonia Mundi, 2004) features Nelson as well as jazz vocalist/organist Kathryn Farmer. On stage, The Klezmatics are an emotional powerhouse, giving and receiving musical energy from their guests.
Off-stage – as shown in the film – The Klezmatics are like a loving, dysfunctional family. Each member has other and sometimes competing musical commitments as instrumentalists or composers yet somehow honors the tour commitments of The Klezmatics. If you renege on a gig, you risk the wrath of the whole group. In fact, no one is the leader of The Klezmatics, as the film eloquently shows. Through a process of discussing, analyzing, squabbling, and temporarily resolving problems – often over bagels and coffee – the family manages to stay together. But sometimes the cohesion of The Klezmatics seems as shaky as, well, a…Never mind.
The economic situation of The Klezmatics has some similarities to their East European forbears. According to Yale Strom, whose Book of Klezmer explores the social history and folklore related to klezmer musicians and the communities where they performed, klezmorim were professional musicians who worked as cohesive ensembles as much as possible. However, when gigs were few, individual members would go and play with a kapelye in another town or fill a spot in a Rom (Gypsy) or Gentile band.
Unlike The Klezmatics, the klezmorim of Yiddishland were part of the very fiber of their communities. Often at a wedding, a klezmer served as a kind of comic master of ceremonies known as a batkhn. The social standing of the klezmorim was not high, but their role in the celebration of weddings and other happy events was assured. This is evidenced by sayings about klezmorim that Strom researched and presented in his book. Here are a few:
* A wedding without klezmer is like a funeral without tears.
* A batkhn makes the whole house merry and has trouble in his own.
* He bothers me like a tsimbler (klezmer player of the hammered dulcimer).
* Marrying a klezmer is like a groom with hardly any yikhes (pedigree/lineage)
Another major difference between the klezmer revival and the original culture is that now the band has been elevated from the dance floor to the stage and the music is not primarily dance music but concert music. Strom, a violinist who leads the klezmer band Hot Pstromi, admits that it can be difficult to bridge that gap.
“I enjoy playing with my fellow musicians,” says Strom. “I’m doing it for them and for myself – selfishly, in a sense – and for the audience. But the energy has to make it from the stage to the audience…I like when people get up and dance…because it’s not about me. It’s about the rhythm, the music, the energy in the room. It’s about them being happy. It’s about them vis a vis who they’re dancing with, smiling with. It’s about them having a flashback of a memory that’s coming to them from the music and the movement. There have been concerts where we have a set list and after the third tune, I throw it out the window and start calling out tunes and I have to get (the audience) up and exhort them. At the end of the concert they’re dancing and laughing and crying…”
Yet, even the most intimate concert setting cannot replicate the community connection that existed in Yiddishland before the Second World War. In the final section of the Book of Klezmer, Strom presents extracts from memorial books about Jewish communities in Eastern Europe that perished in the Holocaust. Written by survivors, they were meant mainly for other survivors from those towns and for historical purposes; they are housed at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. One of the reminiscences I found particularly touching was from the Memorial Book of Pultusk, Poland by Dan Aronovitsh:
In the synagogue my father led his twenty-two member choir with four instrumentalists. The klezmorim were Leybke Skarzhepitse on first violin, his deaf son on contrabass, Leybke’s grandson on flute, and on second violin it would either be Leybke’s son-in-law or other grandson. Leybke’s grandchildren became known musicians in Warsaw playing light music at cafes…Leybke Klezmer was such a virtuoso that he was offered to play in the Warsaw opera orchestra. But he refused and said, “I won’t be able to eat any tsholnt (a traditional East European Jewish dish) then.” (pp. 302-303, The Book of Klezmer)
The dozens of excerpts presented from these memorial books underscore the magnitude of the cultural loss wreaked by the Holocaust. In The Klezmatics film, each of the band members deals with this tragedy as they prepare to play a concert at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland. Violinist Lisa Gutkin is particularly affected, wondering whether she can make it on to the stage. It is only when she meets a young Polish woman who shares that she, too, feels the loss of the Jewish community to her country, that Gutkin finds a way to make the concert an uplifting experience.
A simply dazzling scene in the film shows Lorin Sklamberg, along with other members of The Klezmatics, in a park teaching a group of Polish schoolchildren a Yiddish song. Hearing them all happily singing the “Oy-oy-oy-oy” refrain in the sunshine, you wonder how the thousand year-plus old culture that gave birth to that song could have been virtually wiped out only about 60 years ago.
Yale Strom made a film that is like a book end to The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground because it honors the beauty of that lost Yiddish culture. I saw The Last Klezmer: Leopold Kozlowski, His Life and His Music last July at the International Jewish Geneology Conference where Strom screened a number of his klezmer-related films. In The Last Klezmer, Strom ushers us into the world of a life-affirming elderly musician who has chosen to remain in Europe after the Holocaust. Kozlowski re-visits the haunts of his youth, reunites with old pre-war friends, and relives the last happy years before his internment and escape from the Nazi terror.
What happened to klezmer in the United States after World War II ended? As the State of Israel took root, American Jewish interest in Yiddish culture diminished. Rather than focusing on preserving what was left of it, there was an emphasis on the robust and courageous image of the Israeli, Hebrew songs and the continued Westernization of the synagogue liturgy. Why, then, in the seventies, was there a surge of interest in reviving klezmer music?
Michael Alpert points to a seminal book and television mini-series. “The publication of Roots made being ethnic cool again,” he says. “It gave everybody permission to get into their roots. It was a really important work. African-Americans, in a sense, were leading the way for many of the developments in American culture in general.”
According to Alpert, the klezmer renaissance is still on the upswing. “There’s a lot of really interesting new composition being done. You’ve got music in the traditional style being composed – it sounds like music from 100 years ago but it’s new. You’ve got the hip-hop stuff happening which is, of course, also taking elements from the neo-traditional music and even the old traditional music because it’s not just hip-hop, it’s sampling, looping, sequencing – it’s taking music from the old recordings and combining them. You’ve got new composition in Yiddish. Klezmer music has led a lot of people to become interested in Yiddish. Younger people are learning Yiddish who wouldn’t have learned it otherwise… At the same time, you’ve got people taking Yiddish folk song and other Yiddish compositions and creating English versions and not hokey English versions…Something’s lost and something’s gained. You’ve got people accessing the music and the lyrics through English rather than through Yiddish directly and that makes it a very different phenomenon.”
A Klezmer Listener’s Starter Kit
Impress your friends at parties with your in-depth knowledge of klezmer culture.
* A Klezmatics Classic – Rise Up! Shteyt oyf, 2002, Rounder, available on amazon.com
* The Cream of Revival Musicians with Itzhak Perlman – In the Fiddler’s House, 1995, available on amazon.com
* Groundbreaking CD by Michael Alpert and his band Brave Old World –
Klezmer Music: Brave Old World, 1990 Rounder Records, available on amazon.com
* Yale Strom’s Latest CD – Hot Pstromi: Borsht With Bread Brothers, 2010 ARC Label, England
The Last Klezmer: Leopold Kozlowski-His Life and His Music, New Yorker Film at Jlopez116nyc.rr.com
The Book of Klezmer by Yale Strom, 2002 Publisher: A Cappella Books, Chicago available on amazon.com
Dave Tarras: The King of Klezmer by Yale Strom, 2010 Publisher: Or-Tav Music Publications, Israel
Upcoming Klezmer Concert:
YALE STROM & HOT PSTROMI will perform at KSDS 88.3 FM Jazz
a live concert at the Saville Theatre of City College Lyman near Balboa Park, San Diego on Oct. 12th at 7:00pm
Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of traditional and world music.