We are smack dab in the middle of a klezmer revival. The revival did not spring up overnight. Rather this renewed interest has been building steadily in the U.S. at least since the mid-sixties and began gaining momentum in the early 1970s. If you think you haven’t heard klezmer, you probably have heard its influences in vaudeville, jazz, and swing. Being the popular music of Yiddish culture, the music never really went away, it’s merely grown in popularity. Di Shikere Kapelye is a remarkable presentation of old village music by an immensely talented and erudite klezmer brass band. “Di Shikere Kapelye” means “The Inebriated Orchestra” or “The Drunken Band” depending on the mood of the translator and the condition of the musicians. Be warned, they’re out to get under your skin and I can almost guarantee they’ll get you bouncing.
As this record bears the subtitle “Jewish-Oriental Village Brass from NYC’s Lower East Side”, a little history is required to catch the drift. First, the word klezmer comes from the Hebrew “kley” (instrument) and “zemer” (song), but klezmer denotes both the type of music, and the musician who plays it. The traditional instrumental music of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe of the 17th through the 20th centuries is known as klezmer.
Because of immigration patterns of the 19th and 20th centuries, Americans are most familiar with music of the Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews. The Eastern European klezmer was gradually adapted from Polish, Hungarian, Rumanian, Rom (Gypsy), and Ottoman influences. Traditionally, klezmer musicians in the “old world” were itinerant working musicians hired to play acoustic music for special occasions like weddings and village celebrations. The early klezmer music was performed by string ensembles, the most popular instrument being the fiddle. Additional instrumentation was limited by law in many areas where Jews were allowed to play only “soft” music and prohibited from using drums or trumpets to make “loud” music. The clarinet appeared in Eastern Europe around the mid-1800s. The playing style at first doubled that of the fiddle or flute, but virtuosos carried the instrument into a more individual role. The clarinet came into its own because of the broad range of notes that could be played. As well, the instrument could effectively convey emotion much as the human voice does. In particular, the clarinet could mimic the keening sound of Balkan singing.
Competition for work was stiff because as you can guess in peasant societies there wasn’t a lot of money to throw around. Some villages were so poor, they would schedule their celebrations to coincide with those in a neighboring village and so use the distant music for their events. Additionally, the klezmorim as working guild musicians provided music for Christian parties and weddings, sometimes to the irritation of competing musicians. With the Russian draft in the 1900s, Jewish conscript musicians serving the Tsar got their hands on brass instruments like coronets and trombones. Now they could play “loud” music, which I am sure they played with a relish if only because they suspected how much their raucous playing irritated the military brass bands in the area.
Here knocking them down is “The Inebriate Orchestra”. Two trumpets, two trombones, saxophone, and a tuba are enough to make for any brass-kicking performance, but combined here with drums, pook, and clarinet, this is party music. Every player with this group has devoted a lifetime to klezmer. The repertoire is not merely the bulgars, doynes, freylekhs, and horas, but a rare rhythm known as “the Oriental,” a reflection of the musical influence from Odessa and the Carpathians. The material here culled from decades of research for this concept album. The entire album is devoted to libation, from the beginning “A Shiker iz a Bloyzer-Shipler” (A Drunk is a Brass Player) to “Tsu Der Kretshme” (Going to the Bar) and “Lign in Der Gasn Nign” (Lying in the Street Tune). There is nothing finer than “A Glezl Shnaps” (A Glass of Shnaps) as served here.
My personal favorite, “Hora mit slivovitz” (Crooked Dance With Plum Brandy). “Slivovitz” when literally translated into “Plum Brandy” may lend a refined connotation and allow you think of a fruity aperitif. The national moonshine of most Eastern European countries, this clear deadly liquor is always served in petite glasses. Nowadays, slivovitz comes in a round bottle shaped like a thick coin or like a large perfume decanter some say because it is reminiscent of the shape of a plum, some say because even a bottle can’t stand up straight if slivovitz is inside. The potion has been tamed down to 140 proof (that’s about 70% alcohol) for export, a single small glass will addle which accounts for the toast, “One sip of slipovitz.” Although you might have already guessed as much by the song’s title, you might now better know why this “hora” is played in 3/8 time as a rather slow, deliberate movement.
This record is a lot of fun, and you may want to play this for your friends who love brass bands.
// Notes from the Road
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