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The Klezmatics

Shvaygn = Toyt

(Rounder; US: 13 May 2003)

Berlin Heirlift

There is something startlingly (to stick in an overmisused counter) inauthentic about the performance here of Bavarian Zwiefacher dance and song. Where’s the sense of emptily dutiful cheeriness that surely had something to do with the late Hans Keller’s remark that all German folk music, without exception, is rubbish? There are traditions of playing note after note and tune upon tune on musical instruments observing every possible “don’t” which any stiff teachers worth their starch would mention. It ain’t music, and much Biergarten Oom-Pah is ritual rather than music, familiarities to be recognised as the beer goes down and everything swings but the band. Fortunately the Klezmatics, mistaking that sort of thing for music, have found music.


Hearing some sections of “Fun Tashlik” open the Klezmatics’ Rhythm & Jews CD, I imagined an expert Irish ceilidh band playing an Irish reel with imitation Klezmer phrasing, only unsure how much of what they were doing was parody—and how much was the sincerest form of flattery. Some performers are too good to escape honouring the original. They can’t avoid being at one with the music. There, as the Irish poet Austin Clarke wrote of another situation, “. . . soul / makes bold in the arms of sound.”


A couple of years before the recording of Rhythm & Jews, Shvaygn = Toyt, named with a different member of the same species of daftness, had for its rehearsal a concert in still-divided Berlin. I’m not sure what arrangements (of any sort) were involved, but the five titles “featuring Les Miserables Brass Band” sound spontaneous. Les Miserables just sound for the most part to have joined in, but expertly. It all sounds like one ensemble in which sometimes they all play, and sometimes only a few do. In some respects the same could be said about any jazz jam session, in other respects the same could be said of the Israel Philharmonic!


This CD opens with “Ershter Vals”—the First Waltz, bejabers!—as echt schmaltz. It’s a genuine affectionate send-up of dance-hall sentimentality in Yiddish. It’s bang on, expressing in its abandon a thorough innocence—pure modest amateurishness without exhibitionism which continues in the cod opening of “A Glezele Vayn”. Here each Klezmatic loves the things (s)he is spoofing.


Members of the Klezmer is [only] simple dance music prescriptive school might indeed be thoroughly put off by the folk-instrument version of Mahlerian desperation which ensues. They’d likely not listen on, poor souls, for the impression of feeling better into which the music moves—which it does without deserting its faithful friend, and mainstay, the vigour of a wild profundity. Did somebody say “the apotheosis of the dance”? If not, why not? There’s no law restricting that phrase to the last movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony.


Extreme riot is attained some way into the seven minutes and forty seconds of “Bilvovi”, representing not a jazz influence on the Klezmatics and Les Miserables but a capacity to play in a style the liner notes say was modelled on that of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. The flaring clarinet at the beginning—David Bjorling has since moved on and is distinctively different from the subsequent David Krakauer—explodes what I take to be Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in mid self-announcement: well before it starts to (as Constant Lambert wrote in Music Ho!) boast about its French lessons. The band then moves into a suggestion of the old tune “St. James Infirmary”, providing some evidence that it’s very much a Jewish foundation. The melancholy impressive solo tenor saxophone of Matt Darriau (one of Les Miserables) confirms these musicians’ ability to play jazz when required (which I’ve heard the Oom-Pah band of Munich’s Hofbrauhaus do too, if in an older less ambitious style).


“Bilvovi” toward its end goes into something I suppose international—a musical impression of dancers moving, frenzied with terror, to the sound of a descending howitzer shell/scud missile—which endows a final reprise of the theme with more than melancholy, maybe something of the knowledge underlying this remarkable item of repertoire.


A prolific complexity of meaning (not just for Berlin) is present also in “Dzhankoye”, glossed as the name of a village whose Jews in the 1920s rejoiced when the USSR granted them a right to hold land. I think the name is (also?) a western Slav (or dialect?) word meaning “thank you.” The Visigothic regime in Spain 1300 years ago banned Jews from farming (because the inherited Roman system of cultivation demanded use of slaves; and mostly only Christians were available and slaveholding was decent—but could be decent!!!—only if fellow-Christians weren’t owned by non-Christians). In astonishingly long-term consequence, the reunion of Jews with horticulture is an idea held dear today in Israel. The Stalinist orthodoxy which supervened on the earlier decree declared, however, that to be a farmer was to be a member of a different underclass: one whose members were handy punch and kick-bags when the youthful exuberance of the party boys’ club needed an outlet. So much for the 1920s Jewish Socialist anthem “Ale Brider” with which “Dzhankoye” is followed here.


“Czernowitzer Bulgar” (with Les Miserables) has trilling clarinets (one presumably a fiddle?) and “double drumming” and tubas, and sounds like a military band marching round in a circle, under perhaps some beneficent magician’s spell. The following two dances have even more fresh air than normal (now the regimental band are sleeping off their late enchantment!). Then there’s the Zwiefacher with which this review opened. On more hearings this “music to booze to” begins to sound naughtier and naughtier, so that it becomes less a surprise to see it followed by wedding dances (from the repertoire of Abe Elstein’s orchestra: even the sources of this music have a remarkable historical interest!). Quietly lyrical in the opening, affectionate and tender, these dances express what might be fond thoughts of the past, followed by resumption of the rhythmic vigour sometimes essential to surviving such recollections-reflections.


This symphony I seem to have been describing closes with the unaccompanied solo singing of Moshe Leib Halpern’s 1919 poem “Di zun Vet Aruntergeyn”, recorded again with instrumental accompaniment on Rhythm & Jews a couple of years later.


The sun will set. To loneliness, sitting sad on a golden stone, love will come. The golden peacock will come and flying take us all to the place we are yearning for, night will sing its lullaby over eyes that are closing.


The last line’s “Tsu schlafen in eybiker ru” is so close to the refrain of the Austrian carol “Stille Nacht” that a Berlin audience might be touched beyond both belief and unbelief.


At the time of Shvaygn = Toyt‘s recording some forty years had passed since the rubble and the transport planes which defying Stalin kept much of Berlin fed rather than starving (when “Schweigen”, silence, would really have come near death: some of the planes were recorded along with Yehudi Menuhin performing in the cinema which took the place of the old, bombed-out Philharmonie). The Berlin Wall was still standing when this music was set down—nobody knew it would fall so soon after. This very different Berlin airlift was the sound of a homeland which is Lower East-Side New York and a few other places. This music comes out of a great deal of tradition, of culture, which rather than being an imposition on reality embodies, in feeling, thoughts too little thought, impressions of facts too little regarded, in 1989-‘90. Or whenever.

Tagged as: the klezmatics
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