Art Works Blog

Klezmer Music and the Harvard Rowing Team

Michal Shapiro. Photo by Bernard Levy

There's a joke about a Jewish rowing team. They practiced obsessively, hoping to compete one day, but they could never break the records of the big colleges. When one of their members got accepted to Harvard, they told him, "Observe how they row, report back, and that way we can improve." When he came back they all gathered around and asked him, "So, what is their secret?" He answered, "First of all, only one of them yells, and all the others row."

I first got wind of the Klezmer revival in 1978 when Old Timey banjo player/producer Henry Sapoznik started talking about how he was putting a band together that would play an exclusively old Jewish repertoire. Having a very wise-cracking relationship, we traded possible humorous names for the band, from the simply punnish The Honorable Menschen to the more daring (and darker) The Holocats. But in 1979, the band formed and its name was Kapelye. And soon I started to hear more and more about this music called "Klezmer." Another American folk musician, the virtuoso mandolin player Andy Statman, had gotten steeped in it, and was being mentored by the clarinetist Dave Tarras, who it was rumored had even given Andy one of his clarinets. Soon I was hearing more and more about it, with bands like the Klezmatics becoming positively prominent, and tapping into a Jewish community, eager to find its hitherto neglected musical roots.

In 1996 I was asked to produce a book and CD package of Klezmer music. I did not consider myself to be an expert on the genre by any means, but by then I certainly knew my share of musicians who were playing it, and had a number of leads I could follow. My research started with Zev Feldman, since it was his LP with Andy Statman that had entranced me back in 1980. It was a far cry from the big band-styled Klezmer music that I used to hear as a kid listening to the car radio on Sundays. Instead, just a tsimbl and clarinet conveyed most of the music, which had an otherworldly, stately sound.

Zev agreed to meet with me to get my feet wet with the subject, and it was a night to remember. He had many trips to Central Asia under his belt as he was in the process of researching the music of Bukharan Jews. So I entered his flat, took off my shoes, sat down on a carpet, and was treated to a meal of lamb and kasha, and he pretty much gave me a good number of leads. He also made some cryptic allusions to certain disagreements I might find among the various klezmorim.

In hindsight I believe that he was trying to warn me of the disputes that would accompany my project, that made me feel as if I was walking through a cultural mine field. My goodness, what was Klezmer???? It became quite an issue to try to define exactly what the term meant. Because like many of the grammatical rules that I was raised with, (like never start a sentence with “but” or “and”) the goalposts had moved, or were in the process of moving. During World War ll, a generation of European musicians had been carted off and killed during the Holocaust, leaving a gap in the music’s development on that side of the pond. Over here in the USA, musicians trying to assimilate melded the old songs and nigunim with the popular big band sound, and made a living by playing weddings within their own communities, and entertaining the Greek community up in the Catskills. (According to Andy Statman, Dave Tarras told him that he would not have survived as a musician if it were not for that particular audience!) Along the way, what was once a purely instrumental music started to include Yiddish popular songs, all lumped under the heading of Klezmer.

That was why so many of the Klezmer revivalists I was dealing with had heated debates about what was “traditional,” what was not, and who was acceptably pushing the envelope. Here I was trying to put together a compilation that would have some breadth and credibility, and I felt as if I were standing on shifting sands. I had encountered the debate in world music circles before---between those who felt that music must be played in a way that they (subjectively) felt was authentic, and those who felt the need to innovate (also subjectively) in some way so as to keep the music evolving. But I had never encountered it in quite so passionate---and sometimes vitriolic---a form. After a month or two of this, I developed an approach-avoidance to my telephone and e-mail, because the interchanges frequently brought me near to tears.

One of my most vivid memories involved a track I chose from Bob Cohen's wonderful Hungary-based band, Di Naye Kapelye. It was a wild and woolly dance track with a pounding drum, a scratchy violin, and Cohen's far from bel canto voice singing "Ot Azoy." I was told that one of the musicians I really wanted on my production could not possibly appear in the compilation if this track appeared on it too, because "This track is not Klezmer music; it's just a bunch of people having fun!!" Fortunately a major Klezmer luminary weighed in on the subject and proclaimed the track to be Klezmer, and the incident was resolved. Somehow in the end I managed to produce a compilation that was well received by the critics and by the klezmorim, too. No small feat!

But much of that michugas is ancient history. Now, so many years later, Klezmer is being played by a myriad of bands, and as Frank London wrote to me recently, “The separation between Yiddish and Klezmer has been lifted.” Along with the stalwarts I dealt with way back when, there is a new generation of musicians who bring formidable technique, imagination, and joy to the genre, who don't seem to be as burdened by the angst I encountered 15 years ago. Many have been nurtured by the various KlezKamps---KlezKamp prime (Mr. Sapoznik's baby) KlezKanada, Klezfest London---and Klez classes and programs all over the place. They've been brought up with it. It's all around them; it’s not as hard to find as it once was. Even the old recordings that used to be so painstakingly unearthed and ingested can be bought on iTunes now. Perhaps all this has brought along with it a sense of relaxation and ease with the genre. At any rate, Klezmer is alive, well, and becoming an ever-expanding and growing umbrella for remarkable talent and music.

And that's because of all the worrying, fretting, arguing, and shouting of those klezmorim who drove me royally crazy, but who made such wonderful music.

Michal Shapiro is a painter, producer, musician and videoblogger. From 1995-2000 she produced several critically acclaimed CD/book compilations, including Klezmer Music; a Marriage of Heaven and Earth. She currently has her own videoblog covering world music and culture on the Huffington Post.

Master musician Andy Statman is among the 2012 NEA National Heritage Fellows. Visit our News Room to learn more about this year's honorees!

Want to learn more about the contemporary Klezmer scene, check out this list by Frank London by way of Michal's blog

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