Crazy for klezmer
Reinventing Jewish soul music
(CNN) -- The age-old tradition of Klezmer takes its name from klei zemer, or "musical instruments" that were played at Jewish weddings in Central and Eastern Europe.
That sound headed to the United States early this century as waves of immigrants took these traditional Yiddish melodies with them to a foreign land. There, an old sound assumed a new form.
Since the '70s and '80s, the music has fused with jazz, rock and punk, crossing cultural and religious barriers into one musical melting pot. One of the biggest practitioners these days is the Klezmatics, which has recorded two albums with classical violinist Itzhak Perlman.
Klezmer resonates with Jews and non-Jews alike, says Lorin Sklamberg, accordionist-keyboardist-vocalist for the group, formed in 1985.
"It has both a happy, upbeat quality -- almost frenetic at times -- but also this amazingly sad and poignant quality," he says. "It both laughs and cries at the same time."
That duality -- the sweetness and the sorrow -- reflects the atmosphere at weddings in shtetls, the old Jewish villages of Eastern Europe.
"The weddings were an extremely happy time, but a happy time within the context of life in the shtetl, which was pretty rough ... not a lot of cause for celebration," " Sklamberg says. "So that's why it's happiness tinged with heartbreak."
Discovering what's in the attic
Klezmer in the United States became dormant after World War II. American Jews wanted to assimilate, and the music just didn't fit in, Sklamberg says.
"It represented a painful history, one ... they wanted to leave in the past," he says. "As far as Jewish music went, Israeli music became much more of the rallying point for American Jews and that was different from klezmer music."
That began changing in the 1970s, when people began to explore and take pride in their ethnic backgrounds. The major discussions among musicians of the time were about Alex Haley's book and the TV miniseries "Roots," Sklamberg says. They started asking, "Where's my music?"
"They discovered their music in the closets and attics of their parents and their grandparents on the old 78s recorded in the 1920s," he says.
A new generation of musicians started listening to the scratchy records and experimenting. By the mid-'80s, they were able to not only re-create the old sound, but make a new sound, too -- something that would speak to contemporary audiences.
"It's ... now getting more to become a jazz and improvisational music," says Seth Rogovoy, author of "The Essential Klezmer."
"Just like jazz musicians improvised on the blues or pop standards today, musicians of all stripes are finding this really rich deep core in klezmer melodies."
Andy Statman, an accomplished bluegrass mandolin player, was one of the first to bring klezmer back in the 1970s, Rogovoy says.
Acclaimed across the world, "he was guy who grew up in Queens, New York, says Rogovoy. "He told me, when I interviewed him for my book, that as deep as he got into bluegrass -- and he loved it -- eventually he kind of hit a brick wall, and he knew that this wasn't his music."
Then Statman came when he came across old Yiddish records in his parents' closet. He would go on to form the Andy Statman Klezmer orchestra.
Another klezmer pioneer is Hankus Netsky, chairman of the jazz studies department at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 1980. He formed the Klezmer Conservatory Band to perform an evening of Jewish music. The band knew only three songs, and he intended to perform one concert only.
"They were the hit of the night," says Rogovoy. "By the end of the evening, they got three offers for three gigs: The Klezmer Conservatory Band was thus born. To this day, they're probably one of the most lasting klezmer bands."
The generations of bands that follow are what Rogovoy calls "the renaissance." The most notable example: the Klezmatics.
"They had a very strong solid foundation in that traditional music and the music of the '20s and '30s," Rogovoy says. "But then they ... tweaked it subtly. It was still very strongly rooted in the tradition, but with some rhythmic tweaking in the base and the drums (and) with a little downtown attitude."
The Klezmatics' contemporary klezmer almost sounds like rock 'n' roll, Rogovoy says.
"That's what really grabbed me. My epiphany was going to the Knitting Factory (nightclub in New York) and seeing the Klezmatics, and it just blew me away," he says.
"We're kind of like the second wave of the revival," Sklamberg says. "It allowed us to start at that place and go one step further, which was to integrate our musical personalities into the music."
Perlman makes klezmer 'kosher'
Perlman, the renowned violinist, gave klezmer cachet, Rogovoy says. Journeying to Poland in the mid-'90s to discover the music of his ancestors, Perlman took with him some premier klezmer musicians. They included Statman, members of the Klezmatics, the Klezmer Conservatory Band and Brave Old World, a group formed in the early 1990s.
"They made a documentary. They made some recordings, and they went on tour with all those bands and it was the biggest thing that ever happened to klezmer," Rogovoy says.
"By having someone of his stature come out and play the music made it kosher, gave it respectability, " Statman adds. "You couldn't get a higher endorsement."
Klezmer -- Cajun style
Since the 1970s, klezmer has fused with reggae, soul, metal -- you name the genre, Rogovoy says.
"It's really a style which freely absorbed influences, but reinterpreted it and used it express its own emotions and its own aims," Statman says.
The New Orleans Klezmer Allstars spice their music with Cajun rhythms. The band couldn't help but adopt the flavor, accordionist Glenn Hartman says.
"When you play music in New Orleans, you get real used to this heavy dance groove," he says. "And I think that that sort of comes through in our music, more than in other klezmer bands."
Yet, no matter where it goes, klezmer never strays too far from its roots.
"The energy that our band creates, even though it might be modern and loud and electric, is exactly the same energy that these bands were creating 300 years ago," Hartman says.
New Orleans Klezmer Allstars
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