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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

KLEZMER (article first published : 2002-06-2)

Some time back Myron Panovka, general manager of the Beth Shalom retirement home, asked Hristo Kardjiev, concertmaster of KZN Philharmonic Orchestra, if the KZNPO could perform klezmer music on some future occasion.

Hristo immediately contacted one of the biggest music publishers and distributors in South Africa to ask for more. “The lady in charge did not know what kind of music this was,” says Hristo. “After my explanation, very surprised, she told me that she is Jewish but had never heard about this type of music.”

Following this incident, Hristo has this to say about klezmer music, what he describes as “a phenomenon in today’s musical life.” NB Portions of this description were sourced from http://webscript.princeton.edu/~klez/klezmer.shtml, which is no longer on line.

“The Yiddish word “klezmer” referred to professional Jewish musicians, whose activities were recorded as early as the 13th and 14th centuries. They were generally of a high standard and during the 19th-20th century, besides entertaining the gentile public, these “klezmorim” commonly played at weddings in the “shtetls” and religious celebrations in the close-knit Jewish communities that speckled the eastern European landscape up until World War II.

“The language of these Jews was Yiddish, and today Yiddish songs comprise a large part of klezmer repertoire. The ensembles were very diverse, usually performing flute, violin, clarinet, trumpet, and drums. The word klezmer comes from the Hebrew words “kle”, vessel or instrument, and “zemer” which means song. Klezmer music, which originated in the Jewish communities of eastern Europe is echoing the sounds of its long lost homeland and mirrors and interweaves with the musical kaleidoscope of many other musical styles and national trends.

“Introduced in the 1900’s in the USA, it did not take on the new soil, as younger generations of musicians and listeners rejected their roots, turning to more American musical styles. Klezmer music in America was thus quickly disappearing and as the war wiped out the remnants of Yiddish life in Europe, the prospects for klezmer music seemed bleak.

In a famous anecdote, Henry Sapoznik was interviewing the old-time Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell, who asked him, “Don’t you people have none of your own music?” Sapoznik proceeded to become a founding member of the klezmer revival.

In the 1970s a new generation of Jewish musicians set the stage for a klezmer revival in the world. Long established in new countries and eagerly searching for their lost roots, they feverishly sought out to uncover old scores and records, anxious to capture the disappearing tradition.

With the fall of the iron curtain, pilgrimages to long-lost eastern European ancestral homes became a fashionable and almost obligatory form of vacation for many Jews from all over the world and one could see them hopelessly searching for great-grandma’s shtetl and visiting ancestral burial places. To them, klezmer provides a way of connecting to their forefathers and finding their roots. In that sense, the rich tradition of this music unites Jews of all persuasions in a collective yearning for the romanticized old world of their ancestors.

Today klezmer music is at the peak of its revival, with bands numbering in thousands all over the world. There are radio-stations, performing mostly klezmer music, magazines, music festivals, websites and societies dedicated to the development and problems of this music. CD recordings and videos flood the markets. Universities are organizing seminars and courses for research and study. Despite its inherent roots in tradition, klezmer is evolving. It’s being infused with jazz, ragtime, blues, bluegrass, new age and many other musical traditions. Many musicians take a great interest in this “new” musical style and start to research and perform it. Some of them are not Jewish and others have had very little connection with Jewish culture.

“In general, the world musical scene is becoming increasingly open to eclectic, diverse styles in the politically correct move away from the western canon. Celtic, African, Indian, you name it, ethnic music is enjoying great interest and popularity.

“One of the most interesting aspects of the klezmer revival is its popularity in Germany. This country has become one of the few places in the world where musicians can make money performing Jewish music. In an ironic twist of fate, Germans flock in thousands to hear the music their fathers nearly destroyed. Some people see it as well as “Gels (Yiddish for money) for guilt.”

“Klezmer music’s breath-taking, exhilarating rhythms propel you onto the dance floor, and its simple, sincere melodies touch your heart. The quasi-improvisational form allows for great freedom of expression. It is music of uncontrollable joy fused with irrevocable pathos. On the other hand there are many songs with breathtaking sadness and tragic melancholy.”




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