What is Klezmer?


I wrote a review recently for North West End about a Klezmer concert held at Manchester Jewish Museum and in my opening line I noted that very little was known of its history other than it was an Eastern European musical tradition largely consisting of dance tunes and instrumental pieces used for weddings and other celebrations. OK, no great shakes there, at the end of the day my remit was to review the concert which I did – it was great by the way, read my review here – Klezmer Concert at Manchester Jewish Museum

But it got me thinking: what is Klezmer, what’s it all about and why do we know so little about its history. Now there could be a book in this – and there probably is somewhere – but that is not my intention. I just want to pull together an informative piece that can be easily digested alongside your breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea and make you think ‘how interesting, I never knew that’, or even prompt you to explore a little bit further. So here goes!

Klezmer is a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. Jewish communities were spread far and wide throughout the world from as far back as Biblical times as a consequence of occupation, unrest, famine and plague. In the Middle Ages two distinct communities had established themselves in Europe – or more correctly the Holy Roman Empire: the Sefardim on the Iberian Peninsula (modern day Spain and Portugal) and the Ashkenazim in central Europe (modern day Germany). The Iberian peninsula was under Moorish control during the early Middle Ages and the Sefardim community prospered  between the 10th and 12th Centuries until their expulsion in 1492. But that’s another story for another time. The Ashkenazi, who made up about 3% of the Jewish population back then, similarly experienced moments of acceptance and opportunity followed by emigration further east in response to civil strife and upset where they were to go through a similar cycle followed by pogroms. It is under such pressures and challenges that the culture and heritage of a community holds it together and that is where Jewish customs including Klezmer come to the fore. These were communities that chose not to integrate and by retaining their core beliefs and values ensured their survival. It allowed certain traditions to be observed and ‘borrowed’ by other communities such as their music which is why Klezmer can be seen as an Eastern European musical tradition rather than specifically a Jewish one. But the lack of integration also makes one stand out and why Jewish communities could be valued one minute and despised the next.

Continued centuries of persecution saw the Ashkenazi truly fulfilling the ‘wandering tribe’ status and many fled to other parts of the world, in particular America. Ashkenazi Jews represent probably between 70 and 80% of modern day Jewry. But prior to the Holocaust that number was closer to 90% and therein lies much of the answer to why we know so little of Klezmer. Possibly in response to persecution those who fled from Europe whilst retaining a community spirit chose to assimilate more and certainly in America were presented with opportunities that fostered this. Those that remained continued to travel throughout eastern and central Europe, unable to settle, but their identity reinforced by their traditions. The Holocaust effectively wiped this out. Not just a people but anything to do with them and their culture including their history, literature, and music. We must be mindful of the limited technology available up to the middle 20th Century and as with many civilisations, much reliance was placed on the oral tradition. Take out the people and you take out the voice and it can be lost forever, not even leaving enough of a footprint for a subsequent archaeological record.

Now that was not the end of Klezmer, a travelling musical tradition as we know it had been adopted in various Eastern European states and in the Balkans but in effect had become part of their folklore, not that of the Ashkenazi. And bearing in mind that hostility that sadly continues to bubble away under the surface to this day, who would want to admit to that connection?

But survive it did, and ironically as a result of its integration. There was a high level of immigration to America at the end of the 19th Century/early 20th Century from Russia and with sometimes whole communities travelling all aspects of their heritage came with them. America at that time was beginning its own musical revolution with the advent of Jazz and Klezmer became caught up in as part of that genre’s growth and development although works by Gershwin and the stylings of bandleaders such as Benny Goodman gave a distinct nod to Klezmer. Fast forward to the 1970’s New York and some very early surviving vinyl records of Klezmer were discovered that showed it being played in its original form and gave a strong indication of its earliest stylings and a nostalgic interest flourished into revival. Musicians began to track down older European Klezmer, by listening to recordings, finding transcriptions, and making field recordings of the few Klezmorim left in Eastern Europe. And then in the 1990’s musicians began taking it into new territory often combined with newer funk and jazz styles.

So, what of the original Klezmer musicians – the Klezmorim? Well we know from Biblical records they were typically frowned upon but any celebration such as a wedding demands entertainment and that was the role for these minstrels whose choice of instrument reflected the wandering nature of their existence: violin; cello; trumpet; clarinet; double bass; trombone and the ability to rely on a piano being an ever-present of a venue. Little is known of the roots of the music other than its expressive melodies reflect the singing from Jewish religious rites and the use of ornamentation captures the raw human emotions of laughter and crying, shouting and weeping in a style that genuinely touches your heart. But what was the original Klezmer? I’m not sure we will ever know. Field research suggests that Klezmer absorbed influences from Eastern Europe and in particular Romania which leaves us with the stylised Horas, Doinas, Sirbas and Bulgars that make up the Klezmer musical repertoire that we enjoy today. For a non-Jew who loves Klezmer, I find it equally refreshing that the Klezmer musicians of old who were so often looked down on by their own community in all likelihood were playing for anyone and everyone to make ends meet and in doing so ensured the longevity of this wonderful musical form.

So where does that leave is in relation to our original question: what is Klezmer? Well this is the history as best we know it but ultimately it is a music that is alive and well and so the best answer has to be to listen to it. Here’s a couple of links where you can sample a selection of tracks from two great Klezmer ensembles – enjoy!

L’chaim Kapelye a seven-piece ensemble based in Manchester and who all started out as music students at The University of Manchester playing in the Klezmer ensemble. They play at variety of events with local Jewish organisations as well as private functions.

Hard Times Kapelye – a Manchester-based six-piece Klezmer group playing a mixture of traditional Klezmer tunes and original numbers inspired by the music of the Balkans.


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