Klezreport, circa 1986

This was put in the Jewish library on the WELL back in early 1986. I had only recently discovered klez, so my ignorance occasionally runs rampant. I have edited out some local references. Some of my opinions have changed radically in the last six years (and some of this is just bad writing), but without doing an honest and extensive update, it doesn't seem right to anything but present what is. Anyone want to add to it? update it? Send e-mail to: ari@ivritype.com and let's talk!

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Klez. it's back. and it sounds good.

A Short Description of Jewish Musics and Who's Playing It [commentary and listings by Ari Davidow. ]

Klezmer, Ladino music, Yiddish Theatre tunes, and even contemporary pieces in similar spirit are finally popular again. (Or as I once stated in an ill-conceived promotion piece: "Klez. The music to which the Cossacks danced off their socks. It's back."). Thank G-d! It's such wonderful music. How did we make it through the Sixties without it?

My own active involvement with the genre began late one night. I had already bought a couple of Klezmorim albums, and been rather unimpressed, and I had the Andy Statman/Zev Feldman album, but it seemed like an isolated phenomenon, wonderful though it was. But no one _I_ knew listened to the stuff, much less played it, and it still felt like history. Then my friend Elissa came to town. One night, while I worked late, she headed off to check out some old friends. About two in the morning she showed back up at the door with a new friend. "Ari," she says,"look who I found--he plays in a new Santa Cruz klezmer band". So this guy comes in, and he has all of these tapes (it turns out that the main one was the Klezmorim "tryout" tape--the one they had prospective new members listen to). I was blown away. Itwas two in the morning and I was tired and cranky and as I started dancing around the room, I wasn't tired at all any more. This was REAL stuff. This was Jewish audial moonshine. Rootsmusic. In the years since, the number of bands playing klez and other types of Jewish music to concert audiences (as opposed to weddings and Bar Mitzvahs) has exploded. Keeping up with it all on a limited budget has even forced me to stop buying new blues albums. We are talking serious stuff here.

The modern "klezmer" bands tend to be a cross between traditional type bands and yiddish theatre tune revivalists. But the audiences have changed, too. The traditional klezmer would play only _simchas_ (celebrations). The concept of a sitdown (or even stand up and dance) concert is a new thing. And the burgeoning numbers of Jewish bands playing this music--and writing new stuff--is, for me, the most wondrous cultural achievement since the invention of pastrami and swiss on rye. It's important for politico-cultural reasons as well--this is our music, and we lost it. Klez. Now it's back.

Types of Jewish music

In keeping with my desire to get to the bands and albums themselves, the following thumbnail sketch is pretty sketchy. This is in large part due to my vast ignorance. I have no intention of covering every type of Jewish music. I really don't like some of this stuff! My primary interest is in the recent Klez/Yiddish Theatre descended bands. Per usual, I will be glad to correct any mistakes as people let me know where I display my ignorance most flagrantly.

Klezmer, short for "klei zemer" (musical instruments) refers to the conglomeration of Greek and Central/Eastern European music played at Jewish celebrations. A pure klezmer band has no vocalist--it just turns up the volume and swings the music faster. Unlike rock, or African-influenced music, klez is made for dancing while holding hands, or dancing with a partner. It doesn't bounce, it flows. It swings, it cries. Traditionally, there wouldn't even be a drummer (and, in fact, the difference between a modern "Bar Mitzvah band" and a good band of klezmorim often relies on just that distinction. Bar Mitzvah bands have drummers. Klezmorim create a motion and feel that doesn't fit easily into 4/4, and certainly aren't comfortable with "a one and uh two". It's no accident that when Jewish musicians abandoned the "old world" music and moved into the American idiom, many of them (most notably Benny Goodman) moved into jazz.

Jewish music encompasses more than just wedding music. There is a rich folk music tradition, encompassing both European and northern African traditions. European folk songs are in Yiddish, an amalgam of German, Hebrew, a bit of Russian and whatever else. The best source for information on the Yiddish music is the books and records by Ruth Rubin. Some well-known songs from this tradition include "Dona Dona", "Oifn Pfeferchik", and "The March of the Partisans". The latter is part of a rich collection of music that came out of the Holocaust period.

The Sephardic tradition is different. In this case the "lingua franca", Ladino, comes primarily from Spanish, with Hebrew, Arabic and whatever else thrown in where convenient. And unlike the familiar sounds of guitar of violin, Ladino song is often accompanied by Arabic instruments such as the oud (similar to the Greek bazouki). In fact, in many hands, Ladino song sounds very much like Arabic or Greek music sung in something Spanish-like. And that is the sum total of my knowledge (and perhaps a bit more).

During the height of the Jewish immigrant period in the United States, a new genre arose, that of Yiddish Theatre. In it, European custom and music met America, and out of it came some of the liveliest and most familiar Jewish tunes--"A Letter to Mama", "Roumania, Roumania," "Yiddle mit dem Fiddle" ... even "Bei Mir Bist Du Schein" (which was actually written much later). Many of these songs, in fact, were "yiddishized" versions ofpopular American songs (Mickey Katz's "She'll Be Coming 'Round The Catskills," for instance--actually just about anything by Mickey Katz. Sigh.) Stars of the Yiddish Theatre included Molly Picon, Aharon Lebedeff, and the already-mentioned Mickey Katz (father of Joel Grey, by the way). It may not be klez, but papa, it sure is gut. Or was. By the time we got to the Fifties, Yiddish song meant Eddie Cantor. A different kind of music entirely. But that was at the height of "normalcy" and the melting pot and "being American"--attitudes that our parents picked up from their parents. For many of us, our parents were the third generation--the ones with no memory of active tradition other than America. Partly as a response to external antisemitism and the felt need to conform, and partly because the "old ways" just weren't "modern", this heritage went underground until recently.

Not all popular Jewish music, however, was secular. Au contraire. Especially through the fifties, some of the most popular records were by the great Cantors (this is not meant to be a pun) of the day. Oi Vey. Some of the cantors were opera stars going to/coming from their roots. Personally, if you like opera and schmaltz (which I don't) you can't go wrong. Otherwise, however, this stuff is like breakfast at the Grand Ave. Dairy Restaurant in New York--good stuff, but way too oily.

The newest genre of religious music is Hassidic music. This stuff is the closest Jewish music comes to the art of the mantra. Hundreds of drunken Hassidim dance around singing "Bim Bam" for hours at a time. Over the past decade, youngish folkies have taken to recording this stuff, along with "spiritual" Jewish folksongs. Yukh. With them are older folky types who should know better, such as the undeservedly and incredibly popular Shlomo Carlebach. I don't want to trample on anyone's spirituality, but my personal feeling is that with the exception of the Fabrangen Fiddler crowd (a.k.a. The Country Klezmorim) the stuff is as stale and as awful sounding as Amy Grant.

And finally, I should mention Israeli music, which started from the European folk tradition and went commercial. Israel has more sensitive singer/songwriters than LA. The "product" is generally very well-crafted, and the words are often well thought out--there are very few Israeli pop songs of the "You broke my heart so I busted your jaw" genre. On the other hand, the prototypical Israeli folk/pop song was "A Man Within Himself" by Shalom Chanoch which was fairly sensitive for about three quarters of the song ... "a man within himself, lives within himself ..." and then gets to the bridge which summarizes to "so I'm glad you're here tonight baby to appreciate a sensitive,tortured guy like me." Willie Nelson has got some tough competition. Israeli music is seldom available in the United States. Good Israeli music is almost never available here. Good Israeli music is seldom available in Israel (and I was the Pop Music columnist for the Jerusalem Post for a blessedly short period in the Seventies, so I KNOW. -:)). If KPFA ever gets a Jewish program, I'll dig out some of the best and then you'll know too).

The first....the Klezmorim (But still a B-)

Well, the Klez revival started out here in the Bay Area when David Skuse and Lev Liberman put together the Klezmorim. The first two albums, "East Side Wedding" and the one with the R. Crumb cover were klezish, and in fact, pretty good. Gradually they got their schtik down to an entertaining stage show and now tour all over the world with such routines as "Russian Break-Dancing". It's not great theatre, and it's not great music, but, yeah, it's pretty good. Without the Klezmorim I don't know if there would have been a Klezmer revival. I'm not sure that gratitude is sufficient excuse to be a fan, however. The two recent albums ["Metropolis" and "Notes from the Underground"] are okay if you like Sidney Bechet and early Ellington, but not particularly notable for klez fans. Truth to tell, I can't remember the last time I listened to an entire Klezmorim album.

The current best records.... [A+]

(I've loved these ever since they were first released, and still do.)

Andy Statman. Andy is a mandolin/clarinet player who put in some good years with the likes of Dave Grisman and the new bluegrass crowd. In fact, his first(?) solo album included the incomparable "Flatbush Waltz"--one of the few klez revival songs to make it into _everybody's_ repertoire. Over the last few years he has had a group called the "Andy Statman Orchestra" which has put out a couple of good albums, but the best, absolutely one of the best klez albums ever, was an acoustic album he did featuring himself on clarinet, with Z'ev Feldman on Tzimbalom (an Eastern European hammer dulcimer), and some occasional acoustic bass by Marty Confurious. The album gave rise to an entire new genre (and remains the only entry worthy of mention) ... Jewgrass. Andy, by the way, was a student of the great clarinetist Dave Tarras (see later), along with Naftuli Brandwein one of the great stars of the original klez explosion.

Yiddishe RenaissanceThe Klezmer Conservatory Band. Okay, dig. It's a group from Boston. Until very recently, the lead clarinet was this black guy who looked like he should have been playing with Charlie Parker (until he started to play--then everything was perfect klez). The bandleader looks like a preppie. The lead singer dressed up for a concert in San Francisco looking like a Brooklyn hooker. But their first album blew everyone away. No one had a right to sound this good. At the time, the klezmer revival bands were all resurrecting Brandwein tunes. Judy Breslow, the lead singer, was out to give Molly Picon a run for her money. She even recorded a version of the Yiddish Theatre tour de force "Roumania Roumania" that approached Lebedeff quality. The next two albums, "Klez" and "A Touch of Klez In the Night" are good, but not as good [B) each]. Or maybe it was just the time and the daring of the first album that were impossible to follow up. Their current album is from a radio broadcast and is called "Hanukka" [B+]. Predictably, perhaps, the highlights of the current album are not the music, but the story of Hanukka, and the reminisces of the two older participants. As a Hanukka album, or even as a quick primer on Hanukka, or as a folklore document, this is good. The music didn't move me. And I don't want to hear "Doina Doina" again.

Miriam Dvorin. Miriam lives in Petaluma, where she hosts a Jewish music show on one of the local stations. Plays a mean violin. Appeared briefly on one of the early Klezmorim albums. A couple of years ago she recorded an album for Arhoolie called "Grandma Soup". Unusual for Arhoolie, it is well recorded.

When I first heard it, I was offended. This wasn't really klez. It was too, uh, too modern California folkie (my least favorite tradition). But it isn't. And unlike twenty other bands on record, she knows how to sing "Doina Doina" and get away with it. She also reintroduced the wonderful Yiddish rent protest song "Dire Gelt" (now also over-recorded). Listening to Miriam is similar to listening to Aharon Lebedeff. No matter how often or how badly these songs are covered by other people, her versions, on this album, set the standard.

Aharon Lebedeff. One of the stars of Yiddish theatre, I know of one Lebedeff album in print, on the justly-maligned Banner Records (they who do not believe in liner notes, recording info, or other "ephemera"), available occasionally at Down Home Records. The first track is "Roumania Roumania" a theatre song about the fleshpots of Roumania. As he describes what a wonderful place it was, and especially the amazing delicious foods, he does things with his voice that would put Ella Fitzgerald to shame, finally ending up in a blast of pre-scat singing that is nothing but human voice played at its best. There are some other good songs, too.

Recent Releases

(All ratings in this section are temporary. I reserve final judgement for the time when I put the albums away, out of the "current listening" pile.)

Maxwell St. Klezmer Band [A]. This Chicago-based ensemble has put out the nicest album I have heard in years, perhaps the best since the ground-breaking first by the Klezmer Conservatory Band. As has become customary, this "Klez revival" band is more a "Jewish music revival" group, with a well-selected group of songs from klez, yiddish, and Israeli folk traditions. The vocals are excellent, including an awkwardly sung yiddish tune featuring the male vocalist (believe me! it's good). Openingwith a soft flute version of the Hanukka tune "Mi Yimalel", the Maxwell Streeters are clearly not trying to blast the listener away (a welcome change from the usual klez revival fare). The mood is slightly quieter, slightly more serious than the average. The musicianship, which tends to the jazzier (as opposed to the klez bombast), is also on a higher level than one would expect. Easily the best from the huge group of albums released over the last year by Global Village Music.

Emil Bruh "Klezmer Violinist and Instrumental Ensemble". [B-] The packaging of this cassette set a new low for Global Village Music. There are no liner notes whatsoever, no personnel listed. Nada. Who is Emil Bruh and where does he come from? The cassette didn't even have a label. The music is definitely not current--it may have been recorded recently (the copyright is from 1985), but it sounds like old Tarras records. In fact, it sounds like gypsy music, but a cut above your average B movie soundtrack. My guess is the Emil is an old-timer who got together with the band and made a new cassette. On the other hand, he is a good, occasionally inspired violin player. The material is relatively typical, but not deadingly so. In a lot of nice ways, this is a "blast from the past" recording--music played in a style and steadiness of beat that is seldom heard in the young bands. If I had to pick between one of the retread compilations or this album, I'd pick this one. If nothing else, production and sound quality are better.

Seattle Romania coverMazeltones. [C+] "Seattle Roumania". An okay album with an awful version of one of my least favorite songs, "Tzena Tzena" and a wonderful new set of words to "Roumania Roumania" ....Seattle Seattle Seattle Seaaaaaaaatllle... Side two, apparently recorded in a studio (the first side is live at some folk festival) is a bit more lively, but if Down Home is out, I don't know that I'd bother to special order it from Global Village (distributor of many recent Klez recordings-- see address below).

Klezmer V'od "Klez Encounters of the Yiddish Kind". [A-] This Colorado band gets my vote for both worst name of a klez band AND worst album title. Surprisingly, the contents are a cut above. In fact, for a band that is trying to be a local Klezmer Conservatory Band, and that dares to take on Molly Picon, these people aren't bad at all. Pretty good. A lot of credit goes to the band for choosing songs that HAVEN'T been over-recorded, and for doing many types of material ranging from vintage Tarras and Brandwein to Ladino to that Israeli Folk Chestnut "Dodi Li")--which they do surprisingly well for a folk chestnut. Some of the instrumental klez/jazz piano is rather well done, too. Although the musicianship is not quite top-rate--the lead singer is no Judy Breslow (much less Molly Picon), for instance, it definitely "approaches" that level. In fact, the piano is quite extraordinary (and an unusual instrument for a klez band). The selection of material, the new instrumental compositions written by members of the band, the translated verses of the Yiddish songs, I dunno. I'm listening to it for the fourth time tonight, and I'm not even remotely tired of it. In fact, each time it comes around, I up the grade a notch.

Alhambra "Performs Judeo-Spanish Songs" [B-]. Neither understanding Ladino, nor knowing much of the culture, I have a lot of trouble evaluating this album. What is striking is the use of Arabic instrumentation throughout, including the oud. There is a violin-like instrument called a _vielle_ (which may just be Ladino for violin--what do I know) and frequent use of something called a _dumbek_. The music bears more resemblance to Oum Khultum and other Arabic music to my ears than anything with which I am familiar. But it sounds pretty good, and I do like Arabic music. I may raise the grade once I've listened to this for a while. On the other hand, this may turn out to be one of those albums fun to listen to every so often, but of which none of the songs stick in my memory.

Worth mentioning

(This category will grow)

The Original Klezmer Jazz Band. [A-] I don't know why I don't come right out and give this album a full "A". I guess because you don't rate a funky, fun-filled "Dixieland-klez" album that high. It's too embarrassing. But I sure do enjoy this album. The personnel are from around the New York Klez scene, and this is clearly something put together on the side, to have fun. Every Klez cliche in the book is on this album, and I love them all. "Palesteena", "Egyptian Ella", "Bagle Call Rag", "Yiddishe Charleston". You know what, this is the Henry Sapoznik gang recording all of the songs that aren't dignified enough to fit on a Kapelye album. Actually, there isn't any Dixieland on the album, I just always think of the genre when I play this. Which is often.

Kapelye "Levine and His Flying Machine" [B+]. My friend Laurie, who nit picks each new klez album with me, considers Kapelye a great band. To me, they lack a certain excitement. The band was possibly formed around Henry Sapoznik, who is the East Coast equivalent of the Klezmorim's Lev Liberman-- except that Henry is much more dry and less interesting in concert. This is their second album. I like it marginally better than the first, but I refuse to get excited. Hey, guys just like to have fun, but these guys seem to feel that having to much fun on a record wouldn't be quite, kosher. The title song is a fun novelty item, however, and most of the other cuts are interesting and worth hearing at least once or twice.

New York Klezmer Ensemble [B]. Every few months I drag this one out of the racks and play it off and on for a few weeks. It's good solid klez. It's a set organized by another old- time klezmer musician, put together now that klez is sellable again. Unfortunately, as I become more enamored of the newer bands, I am less interested in hearing an instrumental album of old-timey klez. I enjoy the variety of the current bands. Still, the musicianship is excellent, and these guys will always be worth a listen.

THE RETREADS: "Jakie Jazz 'Em Up", "Klezmer Music: 1910- 1942", etc. There are at least four re-issues of original 78's. I don't like any of them. I just don't like old 78's. I even have trouble pulling out my old Bessie Smith albums. The music sounds dead to me, even when I recognize musical brilliance in there somewhere. As an aside, the album covers are often interesting. The truth is, I don't want to listen to the originals. I want to dance to that music NOW, played in a contemporary fashion. If anyone wants to tackle these differently, I'll stand aside. There is also a fairly recent Dave Tarras album put out by, I believe, the Balkan Cultural Center, in New York. Dave is one of the outstanding klezmorim of all time, one of the two all-time amazing clarinetists, so the musicianship here is outstanding. But I don't find myself listening to it often. I don't know why. It's probably the same problem as with the NY Klez Ensemble (see above)--45 minutes of nothing but old-fashioned klez can become a bit deadening.

Zmiros "Huckleberries with Cholent(?)" [D-]. This band has recorded two albums. The intentions are definitely good (which saves them from an "F" rating) but the musicianship is abysmal. Maybe worse. It's worth mentioning only as a "must to avoid."

Local bands (San Francisco Bay Area)

First, the ones with records

Ellis Island Old World Folk Band "Mostly Klezmer" [B+]. This is a good solid klez band. The album is well- recorded,includes some very good Greek stuff. Has a bit of a lighter-weight, brightish klez sound, as opposed to effusive over playing on many current revival bands. No mustiness here. In concert, Ellis Island gives a great dance. At the more formal events, however, when the whole dozen of them get together, there's a bit too much schmaltz and "these are the songs our parents listened to" for my taste. I'm not so fond of the lead singer's voice, either, although she does blow a mean flute). For info on gigs call (510) 524-3293.

Dire Gelt "Heart Will Carry On" [B)]. Strictly speaking,the cassette is Gerry Tenney and friends playing blue grass and a bit of klezish stuff. Dire Gelt, on the other hand, is Gerry and friends playing just klez. They are not outstanding musicians, but they give a better show than most, and Gerry does a version of "Hard Days Night" in yiddish (it's on the cassette, too) that will knock your socks off. The cassette, however, palls fairly quickly. Along with "Hard Days Night" there is an excellent song, "New Underground Railroad" (also recorded by HollyNear/Ronnie Gilbert), some ok rock 'n roll and bluegrass and kids songs. I guess it was the kids songs that did it. I'm an adult. And even the kid part of me gets very tired very quickly of folkie kid songs. Like the _Mazeltones_ cassette, this one is worth getting for the two excellent songs, but not worth going out of your way for. For gigs, blue grassy, kids concerts, or klez, call Gerry at (510) 465-7911.

Where do you get recordings?

The best source, and frequently the only local source of any of this music is Down Home Records on San Pablo Ave. in El Cerrito, CA. Since they are also the best source for general folk music, R&B, early jazz, world music, Country, Blues, etc., this should be your principal source of recorded music, period. Down Home also does mail order. Unfortunately, I don't have their mail address.

Shanachie Records, and some related labels, come out of upstate New York and often have good material. Andy Statman either founded the company, or is an integral part, which means that the label is a must for blue grass fans, too.

Global Village Music is a distributorship in New York. All I know about them is that virtually every obscure klez or Jewish cassette that I have picked up over the last six months has been on their label. My suspicion is that they do not record any artists on their own, but rather provide reproduction and distribution services--the Book People of the "ethnic" music world. You can send away for a catalog by writing to: Global Village Music, Box 2051 Cathedral Station, New York, NY 10025. Ijust did so myself, so I'll probably revise or add to this entry when I know more about them.

You can also check out the online vendors, or consult addresses listed for bands on their reviews. [Added 3/17/96]

Notes by Ari Davidow

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Copyright (c) 1995-1997 by Ari Davidow, ari@ivritype.com. All rights reserved. Last revised 8/23/97.