The trouble with The Rough Guide to Klezmer Revival isn’t so much the 18 vivacious tunes packed onto the CD—it’s the packaging itself, which, typical for a Rough Guide press mailer, comes in a flimsy sleeve bereft of liner notes, substantive background information, critical analysis, or any kind of “guide” to help the uninitiated fathom this carnival of Jewish orchestral kitsch. How to contextualize its making? What to listen for? Of what subject matter do these carolers sing, and would it break the World Music Network bank to include a lyric sheet? The proverbs tell us that music is a universal language, but Klezmer Revival proves that, at the very least, it sometimes comes in a heavy Yiddish accent, weighed down by exotic modes and uncommon arrangements, all signifying little to the unseasoned palette.
Luckily, yours truly has a spectacular set of Rough Guide books on his bed stand, and a habit of joyriding on Lexis Nexis, where this kind of background info likes to hang out. Turns out that the Klezmer Revival is all about Eastern-European-American Jews modernizing the secular standards of their ancestral past, when convivial troubadours would perform these celebratory tunes at weddings—mazltov!—and other such occasions. With its free-wheeling and high-spirited mix of jovial woodwinds, and somersaulting piano trills, it sure beats the “The Funky Chicken”, a totalitarian form of group exercise that contributes to 25% of all divorces. Betcha there’s all kinds of suffering encoded in the mix too: in those trembling strings on “Flatbush Waltz”, in the Gregorian-like chant on “T’hay Yeshua Zoys”, even in the shenanigans of those kooky clarinets that bounce through inexplicably tragic modes on “Tsu Der Khupe”. “Ode to Favouritism & Corruption” is an unusual choice for a wedding reception, and a hootenanny of rapid-fire call-and-response strains. Fun, fast, seemingly flippant. What could it mean? Alas. Without that lyric sheet, the world may never know.