In the timbre of the clarinet, you can hear stories tell themselves: boisterous, spirited, painful and proud. Yiddish klezmer is a sound full of color and poetry, laden with history and sung by knowing voices; voices of memory, full of struggle, full of family. In this context, the experience of a concert is not simply about the music, it’s about singing along—thumping your feet, tapping your knees, clapping your hands and reveling in the camaraderie of community. Such is the quality of A Yiddish Night.
And this night was especially unique because I was reunited with a friend from college and we shared an art unlike the art we’ve shared before (experimental film), but it was imbued with a personal quality layered with our own Jewish histories. Tucked into the intimate blackbox of CalArts’ REDCAT theatre at Walt Disney Concert Hall, we watched in joy as Argentinean clarinetist Gustavo Bulgach and his Grammy-nominated band Klezmer Juice performed a sold-out set of back-to-back shows featuring film, tango and klezmer.
Gustavo’s off-kilter wisecracks served as relief from the emotional weight of the music, but the prize piece of the night was the flamboyant and fascinating Divina Gloria. An Argentinian actress, she sang her rich and raspy blend of Yiddish and Spanish with the full force of her soul. Her wild and eccentric personality coupled with his casual banter created a seamless repartee - a highlight and a hoot. And then, there was the highly erotic tango dancing, a true pleasure to watch…
My talented friend, filmmaker Aylon Ben-Ami wrote his thoughts about the show:
My thoughts drifted. They ranged, but remained Jewish. Started off with guilt as usual, “why don’t you buy some raffle tickets and help us support this event we brought for you?” Then it went to Jewish history, the South American stories…
All the klezmer instruments were there - accordion, clarinet, drums, trumpet, tuba, bass and so on. And then Divina came on, and took the show to another level. Her voice was mesmerizing; it had the texture of Jewish struggle and identity, and you could feel how far the voice has traveled from its original home. Worlds came closer together and collided on stage.
The band played traditional songs, reinterpretations, and Jewish tangos. And, of course, there was dancing. This element worked in two ways for me, or maybe didn’t work. First, it changed the musical performance to one of theater. Second, it took the music away from special consideration and brought it down to everyday levels - the tango, the hora, occasional celebration. I heard these Jewish tunes and thought of them as the blues - as happy music in rebellion against hard times, as festive music to celebrate the faith and get through the reality.
Eventually the performers grabbed audience members and brought them to the stage, while the band played on. Tangible Jewish character came through - tradition, history, family, community and hope.
The music was on point the whole night. The band played effortlessly, causing me to wonder how many gigs they get a year, and how much Yiddish music is heard by non-Yiddish ears. I know nothing about Yiddish language. I wonder if it’s like Hebrew, a language I find to be very strong and succinct, one that mirrors its people’s mentality perfectly.
This moving performance was co-sponsored by Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, who are planning a citywide biennial celebration of Latin klezmer music. Stay tuned to The Calendar Girls for mas noches interesante!
(photos courtesy of CalArts Photography)