Posted Ian Shulman
While the word ‘klezmer’ still bears a strong attribution to Jewish community life for most of the people, Klezmer festivals are emerging in new less dominant Jewish places each year, proving that this connection is not able to regulate the ongoing revival.
Apart from the States, Israel, Western Europe and ex-USSR capitals, where large Jewish communities are present and there is a natural demand for such events, there is the new trend of playing klezmer in cities with a great Jewish history but currently small communities, which were almost eradicated by the Holocaust and often also post-war communist rule. Krakow, Vienna, Warsaw and small towns in Poland or the Czech Republic have some specific historical meaning for Jewish people, which turns any Jewish-related event there into a commemoration, the new beginning or rising from the ashes.
The name of the German town Fürth prompts some associations as well, keeping in mind that it was one of the Jewish centers of the Franconia region as well as the birthplace of the Jewish American politician Henry Kissinger. Should one mention that the town shares borders with the city of Nuremberg, which name is overloaded with negative historical connotations?
The Fürth International Klezmer Festival was bearing the risk of becoming a sorrowful reminder of the past culture, buried under the ruins of World War II. Instead, some 6,700 visitors to the event witnessed a sparkling show, where klezmer came alive as probably never seen before. Apart from the smooth organization, festival director Claudia Floritz and project coordinator Anna Sankowski managed to gather a stunning blend of very diverse bands, almost turning the event into a world music festival. Nevertheless, the klezmer flavour was always there, be it a hardcore music by young Israeli band Ramzailech, Soviet-kitsch pop by Opa! or a wild mixture of klezmer, hip-hop and funk by supergroup Abraham Inc., not to mention the artists playing the more traditional folk tunes which were well-represented on stage, or the legendary The Klezmatics.
Putting it metaphorically, klezmer seems to travel around the world mixing itself with other genres, trying out different combinations and is now on the stage, showing all its variety, power and liveliness. Klezmer has also become international: throughout the whole festival there were no direct connections drawn between klezmer and Jewish culture; nor was the significant number of visitors Jewish. The interviews with the musicians such as RotFront-leader Yuriy Gurzhy with his Klezmer-disco, The Klezmatics, Ramzailech and Abraham Inc. are going to reveal even more about the past, present and future of klezmer, as well as something about the artists’ music, stories and much more. Stay tuned.
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April 9, 2012 | 1:42 pm
Posted Ian Shulman
It starts with just two musicians in black t-shirts and really hard electric riffs and beats. You might call it hardcore or hard rock, but the word ‘klezmer’ will probably be the last to come to your mind. Not until a pale neat guy with a clarinet suddenly appears on the stage, starts his tune - and perfectly fits into the party. You don’t know how to label it, but seems like labeling is not necessary anymore. There’s a hurricane, hardcore klezmer hurricane, with musicians jumping all over the stage and all over the audience, inside and outside of the building. As wild as hardcore can be, and if you think about it, as wild as klezmer can be. It’s funny how this band reflects the Jewish and Israeli society in its own way: there are wild guys influenced by hard stuff and Arabic music; there are seemingly quite guys playing klezmer and being into the tradition. They are, still, one culture, and only together, improving and harmonizing themselves, they can reach the edge of magic. Three faces of Ramzailech - Amit, Gal and Deckel - tell the secret of their success.
Ian: Let’s start with an obvious question: where does the name come from?
Amit: Hmm, would you like the short version or the long version?
Ian: The long one, of course.
Amit: You got it. Go ahead.
Gal: So in 1922 there was a rabbi called Abraham Ramzailech; he taught Torah. Those days were hard, there were pogroms and different regulations against Jews, so instead of Torah the rabbi taught klezmer nigunim. So we decided to commemorate his life and name our band after him.
Amit: OK, the short version now. When we just started playing, we needed to print the word ‘klezmer’ in Hebrew; and the printer got messed up, because Hebrew and printers don’t go that well together. So actually the word ‘Ramzailech’ is the word ‘klezmer; spelled backwards. And as we actually looked at it we thought it could be a word in Yiddish. So we thought it should become our name
Ian: So this rabbi actually existed?
Amit: No, we made up this story. It’s just our name. But when we first started playing, our audience were people in their sixties or seventies, and some of them spoke Yiddish.
Ian: Meaning you started with more traditional klezmer and not the stuff you’re playing now?
Amit: Yes, it took us some time to get there.
Ian: You mix a lot of different genres. A bit of klezmer, a bit of arabic, a bit of rock. How do you combine in?
Dekel: That’s our influences, that’s what we like. There’s no formula. If we like rock, let’s do it in rock. This guy (Gal) brought us some klezmer spirit. All other things are the stuff we were listening at the high school. We were studying in high school together, and it was just a natural evolution of our influences.
Ian: But still, even though they are different, they sound good together.
Amit: We tried to pick some nigunim in the beginning and it worked. Then we started to write nigunim, and we set it in rock, we set it in disco, we set it in hip-hop. It all worked.
Gal: The next step was lyrics in Yiddish, so we started to write in Yiddish. The thing we’ve done afterwards was setting up this entire show so that to bring our music to the world
Ian: I haven’t seen the show element yet; I’ve read a lot about it and hope to see it tonight, but still, what exactly the show is about?
Amit: Well, there’s nothing like dancers and cages there. We are just doing a big party with the music we are playing. It’s a very wild show, and it’s also very natural for us to do it. We play with wireless microphones, we can jump on the audience, we can do whatever we want on the stage, we try to make people feel as if they are at home.
Ian: A nice approach.
Amit: Exactly! It’s very nice to have a beautiful stage, but it makes a distance between the performer and the audience. Which is a good thing sometimes, but we would rather have a choice to jump around, have a good time and do whatever we want to do. This is very liberating and has a party-vibe. Although it’s somehow more natural to look down; that makes more sense. Playing together, like marching men is impressive and almost impossible to do today because of so much electronics and wires between the instruments. But we can do it!
Ian: So for how long are you playing already?
Amit: Six years.
Ian: You said you were starting with a whole different music and then you started to play what you play now. What are the plans for the future?
Gal: we just grew up. We were kids. With a fresh and new idea, but that was nothing more then an idea. To develop it you have to be more mature and finally bring your idea through all the step to the snow. In the future we gonna go more and more mature, so the show will be wilder and happier, ‘freylakhier’.
Dekel: We are here just six years. It’s a lot for a band, but it feels like we just started today.
Ian: I honestly wish you to feel the same in another six years from now. How does your music goes with klezmer; can you attribute yourself to the klezmer style?
Dekel: Of course. It’s just not traditional. We call it ‘hardcore klezmer’ because we feel this is what we’re doing. We never feel as we have to name our music for any reason, it just includes many different things. Things from backgrounds, cultures and stuff like that.
Ian: How does the story with klezmer music in Israel look like? Can you describe its development? Is it somehow different from the klezmer music in Europe or the States?
Gal: In Israel, klezmer is more associated with Orthodox Jews, all different celebrations, rabbis, holidays. Klezmer which we are speaking about, meaning Eastern European klezmer, almost disappears, almost vanishes in Israel. There are some groups, like for example, emigrants. who came from Russia during the 1990s, continue to play such kind of music. But this is not the music to become famous with; it’s rather a music for going to a party, wedding, bar mitzvah or this kind of stuff. There’s of course a revival, but unfortunately this revival is not directly connected to the klezmer roots; it’s rather a part of the Balkan revival, which goes worldwide. I think that today the Balkan period is almost gone, so we would like to bring some more klezmer to Israel, so that the people say: ‘we want some klezmer’.
Ian: Are there other bands in Israel which you would say are doing the same thing?
Gal: Sure, Oy Division is a good example. They are famous, if we are talking about secular people among us playing such music. There are also people playing very traditional things but bringing their own, unique show. We are three secular guys from Kvar Saba; we know how to do the traditional music and would like to bring in something new.
April 9, 2012 | 1:30 pm
Posted Ian Shulman
Frank London of The Klezmatics: ‘We can really live with the tradition. We don’t think it should be mummified’
Just like there’s rock and classic rock, there’s klezmer and classic klezmer. The Klezmatics are often being called ‘The Rolling Stones’ of klezmer, which is no wonder for one of the first and the most successful contemporary klezmer bands with two Grammys in their pocket. We expect the revelation from the concert, we expect the guru opinion from one of the band’s founders, Frank London. Frank told us about the future of klezmer, tricks of history, Jewish poems of Woody Guthrie, the story behind the ‘world music’ and many more.
Ian: Here, at this festival, there’s a huge variety of music, which all goes under the same name ‘klezmer’. For yourself, what klezmer actually is?
Frank: Basically, there are two definitions of klezmer: sort of technical and correct linguistic definition and a practical definition. The correct linguistic definition is that klezmer is an instrumental music, so basically anyone who sings is not klezmer. It is also the music which is written by ashkenazi Yiddish speaking Jews in Eastern Europe, which broadened out to other places, to the Americas and other places in the mid XIX century. But then of course we know that nowadays, just like jazz, rock and other genres, any time the genre is established, the name is used in many ways. It’s the case of klezmer as well, and hopefully they all have some relationships to klezmer, to that real meaning of the word klezmer, but probably this relationship is different for each one. So similarly, klezmer get used to talk about as the music of the same people, Yiddish speaking Jews, so Yiddish songs are called klezmer. So that what klezmer is: certain rhythm, certain style, certain ornament.
- As far as I know, the main thing about the Klezmatics is that the band managed to turn the klezmer music into something more contemporary, more acceptable. It managed to add the tunes from other genres, according to my impression at least. Do I perceive it correctly?
- We don’t think of this this way. If you look at any music you can see that it grows and changes. Just be careful not to put anything into a little box. Because we are not the first band in Jewish/Yiddish music with mixing influences, we’re not the last, and it’s not like we only do that. You have to understand: the audio recording started around the 1890s. Commercial recording started in around 1905. Some of the first recording of klezmer music in New York City in 1911-1912 was a disk with two sides and two songs. One of them was called ‘The Yiddishe Charleston’. What i say is that from the very beginning you had a strictly East European klezmer and a fusion klezmer. Immediately, from the very beginning.
- As for Klezmatics, one of my favourite albums is the one with the songs of Woody Guthrie. I was wondering how did the idea appear?
- That’s a great question, the one when you can never think of it. So much about our careers and our lives are just about giving act into some history, and it’s kind of amazing. So what happened was that we met Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, and she told us about these amazing stories about her father Woody Guthrie. His mother in law was famous Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. So Woodie Guthrie was living with his Yiddish mother in law and he wrote these Jewish songs. His daughter said: ‘We don’t know which music he was using, so we would like to write these songs on his words’. So it’s not as if we thought of it; it happened, and we did what we did.
- But do you see any connection between your music and Woody Guthrie music or country music in general?
- Well, that’s funny, because if you listen to the two recordings we’ve made as well as the third part we haven’t recorded yet, ‘Wonderwheel’ and ‘Happy Joyous Hanukkah’, you hear a very big spread of style of music, more than on any other records, and that’s because we didn’t decide anyone’s strategy, like ‘we gonna write Jewish music’, ‘we gonna write country music’. We just looked at the words and wrote songs. Some songs have some kind of influences, some other. And that what’s great about this project - the diversity of it.
- You just mentioned the third part of the this album series; can you tell a bit about that?
- It’s just that we have more songs than those on two CDs; we have a third set of songs which we haven’t recorded yet. We feel like we shouldn’t waste stuff which we have there. I think that the band is anxious to move to the new Yiddish material, but I feel like we have it and we shouldn’t let it go away.
- Is it also mainly unrecorded material?
- Yes, and what interesting is that Hanukkah record contains all Hanukkah songs, and Wonderwheel is about certain more adult songs, there are also a lot of kid songs, a lot of funny kid songs on there.
- If drawing some connection between klezmer and jazz, or rock music, we can say that jazz originated as a music of a certain cultural group. Do you think that klezmer, just like jazz, can also become a very widespread music which everyone enjoys and not like it’s now, when klezmer is mainly known among people who have a certain connection to Jewish people and is perceived exclusively as Jewish-related music.
- Well, it is a Jewish-related music. The difference is between where does music comes from and who either enjoys listening to it or playing it. When a music comes from a community, then it has a certain function and role in this community. You can’t say klezmer has a certain function and role for Jews, because if you go to a rocky Jewish community, klezmer means nothing to them. It’s not about Jews, it’s about a certain subgroup, if not a subgroup of a subgroup of the Jewish people. That’s the functional thing, but it has nothing to do with who’s interested in hearing it or who is interested in playing it. Just like you said jazz is not precisely African-American music. So your question ‘how big will klezmer get’ - it’s already got to something. It’s interesting in the way how in the last 25-30 years klezmer has an effect on the world music scene.
- How would you explain that?
- ‘Cause it’s great. They all actually are.
- But why didn’t it happen before for some reason?
- Well, there wasn’t a world music scene before that. The world music as a genre was invented in 1986 more or less. There was a bunch of people in the music industry in London. I met one of them and he told me about their meeting in a pub and their discussion on how they are going to market this burgeoning interest in a different music from allover the world, which is both popular and folkloric. They were choosing which term to use, and they were talking about ‘global beat’, ‘world beat’ etc. Finally they decided at that meeting to call it ‘world music’. There was a certain group of people at a certain time and a certain place. Then they started world music festivals. At that time there were record stores, which had signs like ‘pop’, ‘rock’, ‘jazz’, ‘classical’ and ‘world music’. The goal was to have a sign there, so that to have a section so that people could come and see it. The simultaneous resurgence of klezmer music, with the Klezmatics being formed in 1986 and the world music being started in 1986 is just a trick of history. Our career is just parallel to the rising of the world music. That’s maybe why we had an effect, and klezmer music had an effect on world music. The klezmatics was formed right at the same time and had the right to be seen as the part of world music. We had some authenticity; they say ‘Oh, they are Jews, they are from New York!’. Of course, we are not all Jews, and whether or not we are authentic is another story. They also say: ‘they are playing traditional music, world music, we didn’t hear it before, they are playing with contemporary edges, they would fit nicely into our world music festival’. And what happens at the world music festival is that everyone goes and hears everyone’s concerts. So all of the sudden pignic groups, caribbean groups, aboriginal groups are looking at klezmer bands and we all are affecting each others music. My personal opinion is there’s the way a lot of American klezmer musician are getting attracted to the people all over the world, and it’s not unique for Americans. It’s a dual respect for the tradition. We really love our tradition; and we go, investigate, really trying to know it good. But on the other hand, we can be free with it, add to it; we can really live with the tradition, we don’t think it should be mummified and kept in the museum. That kind of the relationship and the process of how you do it is literally the process of learning world music, and replicating it is the process which has been done to all the world music.