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Not the same old song.

Klezmer music's festive rhythms, emotive strings and wailing melodies may seem straight out of the shtetl. But like the bar/bat mitzvah party and the exchanging of gifts at Hanukkah, the designation of Eastern European Jewish folk music as a genre known as "klezmer" is distinctly American.

Ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin of Wesleyan University puts it more bluntly: "There was no such thing as klezmer music" until the 1970s when the songs and style of Eastern Europe's Jewish musicians experienced a revival. Around 1980, he and fellow scholar Walter Zev Feldman began to refer to the music as "klezmer." Scholars and musicians may debate whether the contemporary American revival was indeed a unique phenomenon--or simply a continuation of a tradition that had never died. But all agree that the use of the word "klezmer" to describe the music itself is of recent vintage.

Klezmer is a Yiddish word formed from the biblical Hebrew words for vessel or instrument--klei--and song or melody--zemer, says Miriam Isaacs, a Yiddish scholar and sociolinguist in Washington, DC. The word is centuries old, but its meaning has undergone a major transformation: Since the American revival it has referred to a style of music, but in the old country it referred to the musicians themselves. Klezmers or klezmorim were men who traveled to perform, mostly at Jewish weddings. They were the professional musicians of their time, the inheritors of a tradition passed down through their families for generations. The dance-centric, instrumental music they played borrowed from both the synagogue and local culture--Romanian, Russian, Polish and Ukrainian. There was no one definitive word to describe what the klezmers played, other than the individual song types--like the doina, a Romanian folk song, or the dancier freylekh, Yiddish for "happy" or "festive." The ensembles were known by various names, such as khevrisa or kapelye, meaning "orchestra."

Their music varied greatly, says Mark Kligman, a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA, but it had some recognizable features. There were the distinctive rhythms--such as a three-beat pattern, with the first and third beats emphasized; scales and phrases reminiscent of Jewish liturgical music of the era; and common instruments including the violin, cello, trumpet, accordion, bass, flute and the tsimbl, or hammered dulcimer--a percussion/strings hybrid in the shape of a trapezoid. "There was no one defining element to it," says Kligman. But the "essence of klezmer music is that it should sound like a chazzan"--the singing prayer leader of the synagogue.

With the massive waves of emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe, followed by the near-complete human and cultural eradication of the Holocaust, the music performed by the klezmers nearly died out in Europe. Thanks to immigrants it stayed alive in North America, but just barely. With assimilation came new kinds of music, and the old dance tunes were frozen in time on 78 rpm records filed away on attic shelves. That's where it was discovered by Jewish baby boomers who came of age in the 1970s. Inspired by the larger folk revival movement, they dusted off the old recordings in search of an authentic Jewish music that wasn't necessarily tied to Israel, or even to religion. Frank London, a trumpet and keyboard player who in 1986 co-founded the Klezmatics--a Grammy Award-winning band that remains the revival's biggest success--attributes the music's rediscovery to the rise of identity politics. "There was such a hunger from American Jews," London says. "What is this stuff, why haven't we heard it before? Where have you been hiding it?"

The klezmer revival was born, and with rebirth came endless reinvention. The new performer-pioneers, and there were hundreds, explored what documentation was available and absorbed the traditional features of the music. Some preferred to stay as true to the old world as possible, but most added their own sounds. In modern klezmer, an interest in the old doesn't preclude the new, says Henry Sapoznik, who played a key role in the klezmer revival and in 1984 co-founded KlezKamp, a Yddish arts festival that has inspired festivals and gatherings the world over. "We've passed the point of traditional Yiddish music. Most musicians today ... are influenced by a larger non-Jewish movement including avant-garde, jazz, rock and roll. The older generation with its traditional culture is now a minority," says Sapoznik, now the director of the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. American influences on klezmer include bluegrass, Cajun and ragtime. Groups like The Klezmatics have also added lyrics, which were not generally part of the tradition. Newer groups have even incorporated salsa and punk twists.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, klezmer music made its way back to Europe. It met a need for an authentic, pre-communist and pre-Third Reich Eastern European music, says Kligman, which sprang from a "collective guilt" that mirrors the way Americans look with regret at the decline of Native American culture. The result has been a flourishing klezmer scene in countries such as Poland and Germany that doesn't necessarily include Jews. Like North American klezmers, these musicians haven't shied away from adding their own fusion touches.

The music may have a new name--and may now be considered a genre--but in some ways, klezmer has never changed. In its original form it reflected the music heard in individual communities. In its modern form, it too reflects its surroundings, albeit free of geographical constraints. What has remained constant are the klezmers, the passionate musicians who absorb the cultures around them, binding these sounds up into the currents of Jewish music history.--Anna Isaacs with additional reporting by Eileen Lavine
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Author:Isaacs, Anna; Levine, Eileen
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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