But is it Klezmer? Rock, Jazz, Punk, Hip-hop, and Techno Bring New Sounds to the Jewish Mix

Written by:
Seth Rogovoy
Summer 2011 / 5771
Part of issue number:
Illustration by David Cowles

Read Seth Rogovoy's piece "But is it Klezmer?" And join Seth, Yidstock's artistic director and the author of "The Essential Klezmer," at Yidstock when he takes festivalgoers on a multimedia journey through klezmer, from Old World shtetls to New World stages, providing historical context for the music you'll hear during the four day festival. (July 13-16) Learn more and purchase tickets.

Because I wrote one of the first full-length books about klezmer, I often get asked by well-meaning people to talk about where the music is headed or what’s new and exciting in the field. It’s a question I shy away from, because any answer I proffer inevitably opens a Pandora’s box begging other questions, ones I dread because they are ultimately fruitless, playing more into people’s emotions and preconceptions than into any real analysis, critical or otherwise, of the music. They are more about psychology than musicology. And perhaps I can be forgiven for feeling that I already fully explained my ideas about what constitutes klezmer in the pages of The Essential Klezmer.

Nevertheless, it’s been over 10 years since that book was published (quickly followed by several others on the topic), and since then there have been some significant trends in the music that are worth noting, especially as I think they reflect precisely the point I had hoped readers would take away from a fair reading of The Essential Klezmer—that is, that klezmer has always spoken in the particular language and accent of its time and place.

These thoughts are sparked largely by one of the most exciting recordings of the past decade: Abraham Inc.’s Tweet Tweet. It’s the single album I come back to the most; it’s the one favored by my eighteen-year-old, beat-making son and by my jazz and rock-musician friends; and it’s arguably the culmination of the two-decade-plus career of klezmer clarinetist and visionary David Krakauer. This recording teams Krakauer with his frequent collaborator of the past few years, Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled, another klezmer and Yiddish music visionary who is a multi-instrumentalist, a beat-maker, a vocalist—sort of the Puff Daddy of contemporary klezmer—and Fred Wesley, the legendary African-American jazz trombonist best known for his work with funk luminaries including James Brown and George Clinton, and whose résumé also includes collaborations with Van Morrison, Ray Charles, Maceo Parker, Lenny Kravitz, Pee Wee Ellis, Lionel Hampton, and the Count Basie Orchestra.

The stew cooked up by these three musical geniuses on Tweet Tweet—aided and abetted by Bronx rapper C Rayz Walz, Sonny Rollins bassist Jerome Harris, and musicians drawn from Krakauer’s ensemble Klezmer Madness, a longstanding project of which Abraham Inc. is really the logical culmination—is a delectable gumbo of funky, hip-hop-laced party klezmer, with rapping in Yiddish courtesy of Socalled (on “Baleboste: A Beautiful Picture”) and old-time klezmer melodies rendered with state-of-the-art techno beats (“Moskowitz Remix”), with Wesley’s trombone and fellow horns punctuating and dancing around Krakauer’s virtuosic, jazzy clarinet swoops and trills.

I know what you’re thinking, because I’ve heard you muttering it over the past 20 years on your way out the doors of concerts by everyone from Andy Statman to Naftule’s Dream to the Klezmatics—“I don’t know what you call that, but that’s not klezmer.” If I had a dollar for every time I exited a concert by Brave Old World or Golem and overheard someone saying this, I’d be, as the saying goes, a rich man. I hate to disappoint you, but yes, it is klezmer. And not only is it klezmer, it is part and parcel of the klezmer tradition; indeed, it is traditional klezmer, because klezmer has always spoken in the idiom of its time. And that time is now, and the fusion of hip-hop, funk, and jazz is our musical currency. People like my son and my college-age daughter—for whom, after all, this music was always intended, having its sociocultural roots in Old World wedding music (and not music for the concert stage, which is an utterly anomalous, late-20th-century phenomenon)—want to hear this music at their weddings, not 1940s-style Yiddish swing, which was already old hat by the time klezmer great Dave Tarras recorded Tanz! with a small combo led and arranged by his modern-jazz-inclined son-in-law, Sam Musiker, in 1956.

The klezmer revival of the 1970s relied heavily on the impulse toward musical excavation and preservation that grew out of the folk and blues revival of the previous decade and a half, and was fueled in large part by sentimentality and nostalgia for a lost world—call it Fiddler on the Roof syndrome. Of course, both that sentimentality and nostalgia were based on a false premise, that the Shoah had somehow destroyed a thriving, Old World-style Yiddish culture in Eastern Europe preserved in Marc Chagall paintings and Sholem Aleichem stories. The twin pillars of emigration and modernity, with their close cousin, assimilation, had already accomplished most of that dirty work years before Hitler.

But as anyone in the entertainment field can tell you, nostalgia is a powerful lure that defies reason or historical accuracy. The strains of klezmer that evoked sentiment for a vague shadow past were enough to lead many, for example, to insist that the klezmer played by such top revival-era artists as Andy Statman and the Klezmorim was wrong. Of course, what the naysayers really meant when they said that was that they had just heard something that they hadn’t heard before. They didn’t just hear, for example, Yiddish swing circa 1942, or the sort of upbeat, straightforward freylekhs or bulgars one might have likely heard at wedding or bar mitzvah parties in the 1950s or 1960s. It’s an understandable reaction; upon first hearing bebop pioneers Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk in the late 1940s or early 1950s, many dismissed them, saying, “That’s not jazz,” because the music they played didn’t sound anything like that of the Benny Goodman or Count Basie orchestras they counted as the flagbearers of the genre.

Of course, Benny Goodman and Count Basie didn’t sound anything like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives or Hot Sevens of the 1920s, either. Nor did recordings by immigrant-era klezmer clarinet greats such as Dave Tarras or Naftule Brandwein sound anything like what their forebears played back in the Pale of Settlement. Their music—the music that’s now considered the very chromosomal matter of klezmer DNA—was truly innovative and, to invoke the most frequently overused album title of the klezmer revival, most literally beyond the pale. But why should that get in the way of some self-styled klezmer critic dissing Frank London or David Krakauer (the Charlie Parker and John Coltrane of modern klezmer), who in fact have more in common with and who arguably embody the very tradition, melodies, and breath of Tarras and Brandwein more authentically than any shmaltzy Yiddish dance band of the pre- and postwar years?

Again, what our well-meaning but hapless listener fails to appreciate is that klezmer—a music that actually never existed until it was revived, a tautology that will be explained henceforth—has always spoken in the particular language and accent of its time and place. Recordings by early-20th-century klezmer ensembles from the pre-jazz era are heavily influenced by the prevailing aesthetic of John Philip Sousa-style marching-band music that was popular at the time, with brassy horns and military-style drumming overshadowing the plangent, poignant melodies of the Old World violin inspired by cantorial vocal techniques and Hasidic nigunim, or wordless vocal melodies.

The swing-era fusions of Yiddish dance music and jazz, arguably the most popular style of what we now refer to as “klezmer,” revived and repopularized in modern times by the Klezmer Conservatory Band, founded by Hankus Netsky at the New England Conservatory in 1981, has served as something of a training ground for many of the leading lights of the klezmer revival and renaissance (among them Frank London, Alan Bern, Jeff Warschauer, Ilene Stahl, and Don Byron) and is probably what most people think of when they hear the term “klezmer.” It was as much a product of its cultural context as today’s klezmer/funk and klezmer/hip-hop fusions. They are no more “traditional,” however, than the sprightly renditions of old Hasidic melodies jazzed up by Tarras and Brandwein in the 1920s in arrangements that bear little to no resemblance to those played in the mid- to late 19th century, if we are to give any credence to the scholarship of contemporary musicologists like Josh Horowitz, Merlin Shepherd, Kurt Bjorling, and Joel Rubin in their various bands and projects, including groups such as Budowitz, Brave Old World, and the Joel Rubin Jewish Music Ensemble.

The final irony is that it’s not much of a stretch, if something of a quibble, to say that there is no such thing as “klezmer music” at all. The term “klezmer” as applied to a genre of music is a wholly modern phenomenon. The Yiddish word, as used in Eastern Europe, was roughly analogous to “musician,” applied particularly to those who played music at weddings—the upbeat dance tunes, the processionals, and the reflective music for listening that has formed the foundation of what we now think of as “klezmer music.” (The word itself is a contraction of two Hebrew words: kley, meaning “vessel,” and zemer, meaning “song”; hence, a klezmer—a musician—was a “vessel of song,” which hinted at the spiritual aspect of his role as one who channeled something greater, something ecstatic, perhaps.) This is precisely how the greatest modern jazz improvisers, people like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler (who seminally influenced klezmer revivalists including Andy Statman and Lev Liberman) saw their own relationship to their music.

No one ever called the music played by wedding musicians or their immigrant descendants “klezmer.” It was merely referred to as wedding music, or Jewish music, or by the names of dances such as freylekhs and bulgars. Or just, “Hey you, play Jewish!” But when all this repertoire was being revived in the 1970s and 1980s, it needed a name, just as a name was needed for the repertoires of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany that came to be grouped under the term “Celtic music.” Several of the pioneer revivalists adopted the term “klezmer”—Andy Statman’s first album was called Jewish Klezmer Music, and Hankus Netsky dubbed his group the Klezmer Conservatory Band—and the name stuck. It was as good as any, historically apt, and Yiddish to boot.

But given how arbitrary the label is—and given the fact that Netsky’s group’s repertoire has always included Yiddish folk and theater songs, and that other revival-era bands like Kapelye and Brave Old World also incorporated novelty tunes and vocal music in their programs—the need to define klezmer as strictly instrumental music played at Jewish weddings, or a style of music specific to a certain time or place, is niggling at the least or tendentious at best. It’s also totally unnecessary. Much better to follow tradition and embrace a wider approach, as the musicians often did, incorporating “co-territorial” and “cosmopolitan” influences into their music, including local Russian and Ukrainian folk melodies, Polish and Central European waltzes and quadrilles, and the influences of Roma (Gypsy) musicians, who often played alongside Jewish musicians at weddings or in the marketplace. By this standard, more progressive groups like the Klezmatics (with rock music), the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars (with New Orleans jazz), and Golem (with punk) are actually at least as or more traditional than bands that stick to an artificially or arbitrarily prescribed aesthetic, which isn’t only historically incorrect but downright fetishistic—to say nothing of not much fun. And klezmer, if anything, must be fun. Indeed, it’s a religious commandment, a mitsve, for klezmer to be fun, as it is the duty of the musicians and the wedding guests to spread joy at the union of a kale and a khosn (a bride and a groom).

This isn’t to say that just anything goes. No matter how different their sounds or approaches, be they neotraditionalist or avant-garde, purist or recklessly cosmopolitan, the common denominator among the best klezmer bands and artists is twofold: they have done their homework, meaning they know their stuff—from Belf’s Rumanian Orkestre to the Boibriker Kapelle, to Tarras and Brandwein, to Julius Epstein and German Goldenshteyn—and they are virtuosos. An unskilled and unschooled group can play a Bill Monroe tune in a Freygish mode and make it sound like a car crash; Andy Statman can pull out his mandolin and convince you that bluegrass was handed down to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Another band can attempt to juice up a Yiddish waltz with a cha-cha beat and sound like a novelty act from the 1950s; pianist Anthony Coleman can play “Mayn Shtetele Belz” and convince you that the Buena Vista Social Club from Havana is the house band of one of the Ten Lost Tribes.

This is why when you get together a group like Abraham Inc., with David Krakauer, Socalled, and Fred Wesley playing their fusion of klezmer with state-of-the-art hip-hop and funk, you get the most outrageous attempt at pushing the klezmer envelope while at the same time you get the most historically correct, traditional approach, the most plainly obvious way that klezmer should sound for audiences in the 2010s. You get klezmer that, as always, speaks in the particular language and accent of its time—music that, as always, is rockin’ the shtetl.

Seth Rogovoy is the author of The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000) and Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet (Scribner, 2009). He lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.