Monday, March 19, 2012

A Brief History and Reflections on KLEZMER Music

contributed by Bill Brasile* 

Klezmer is “music of uncontrollable joy fused with irrevocable pathos. Echoing the sounds of its long-lost homeland of Eastern Europe, it mirrors and interweaves with the musical kaleidoscope of its new home in America.” (Inna Barmash, Why Klezmer? -

After the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD the rabbis said that Jews should be in mourning and would no longer have music in the church. Church musicians were suddenly without a gig. Jewish musicians recalled that the Bible said weddings must have music and rejoicing, and asked the rabbis if that was permitted. It was, and Jewish musicians found a new gig.

Klezmer has its roots in the dance music played by Jewish musicians at weddings in the shtels or close-knit Jewish communities in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. But this music was for more than just dancing, it was also for listening – to express the joys and sorrows of the people. The word klezmer is derived from the Hebrew words, kle for vessel or instrument, and zemer for song, and groups of these professional musicians were called klezmorim.

In Eastern Europe this music has roots in the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, Poland and Russia. Wherever the Jews lived they appropriated some of the local music. When Jewish immigrants came to America in the early 1900s they brought this music with them. However, like many immigrants anxious to assimilate into the mainstream culture, they soon lost interest in this “old world” art form.

The klezmer sound was used as instrumental accompaniment for Yiddish songs and for the Yiddish theater. Klezmer musicians in show business and big bands brought this sound with them, where it began to fuse with popular American music and lost much of its original form. By the 1940s it had practically disappeared as the young people were not interested in this music of their parents from the “old country.”

In the 1970s a new generation of Jewish musicians were searching for their roots and new musical ideas. They sought out old scores and records, and discovered a musical tradition that was almost gone. Henry Sapoznik was a founding member of this klezmer revival. He collected old 78 sound recordings of the early 20th century Yiddish music, and in 1976 with Michael Alpert formed Kapelye, one of the first klezmer bands on the east coast. Other east coast revival groups that formed about that time included the Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra and the Klezmer Conservatory Band. In the mid-1970s, Lev Liberman discovered his musical roots in a stash of old Yiddish 78s in Oakland, CA. He formed the first west coast revival band Klezmorim in Berkeley in 1976.

* Article extracted in part from Stewart Hendrickson, Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, and guitar)