Klezmer music originates even further than the 15th century when large communities of Jews in Europe began to create secular music. While traditional Hebrew cants were sung in the synagogue, many Jews felt the need to express themselves in song outside of their faith. As with any form of music, klezmer has grown and morphed with the times, often reflecting issues within the Jewish community while still remaining a cultural expression that carries millennia-old rhythms and instrumentation predating the Jewish diaspora. As a style of music that is highly reflective of its performers, klezmer feels very Middle Eastern, yet European in composition at the same time.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that klezmer saw a major revival outside of Europe. With many Jews having migrated to the United States after the horrors of the Holocaust or to Israel in search of their roots, a new wave of Jewish youth felt it was time to simultaneously resurrect a part of their history and carve out a new identity for it and themselves. This new wave of klezmer found itself harkening back to its core as a voice of collective, community-based protest as well as a vehicle to entertain and relate to one another.
With klezmer’s rich history and current direction in mind, World Music presents The Rough Guide to Klezmer Revolution, a compilation album featuring various artists within the genre. Both Yiddish and English are the prevalent languages sung on the album, although a command of either or both isn’t necessary to enjoy the material.
The Rough Guide to Klezmer Revolution seems to be divided into two sections; the first half devoted to upstart performers who are visibly re-inventing the genre and the second, slightly more traditional in its selections’ approach. The second half features mostly instrumentals and choral singing, though by no means relegated solely to the realm of traditional.
Established names like pianist Marilyn Lerner appear on the disc with the instrumental sonata, “Fun Tashlikh/Throw Your Sins to the Wind”, a traditional folk song which she flavors with jazz. A younger artist whose style resembles Lerner’s is clarinet player Michael Winograd who makes his appearance on the disc with the traditional-leaning “Nayer Khusid Tanz”. Like Lerner, he subtly injects popular music overtones to his piece.
Bridging the gap between old and new on a single track is “(Rock The) Belz”, a duet between octogenarian actor/singer Theodore Bikel and SoCalled, a Jewish rapper who has spearheaded klezmer’s foray into the 21st century by merging it with danceable hip-hop. Bikel’s rich baritone is layered over danceable beats in addition to weaving a tale about not only the Ukranian town of Belz in this revamp of a klezmer classic, but proclaiming why he finds it so important to sing Jewish songs and preserve his heritage.
SoCalled also makes another appearance on the disc, guesting alongside Oi Va Voi violinist, Sophie Solomon on the song “alt.schul Kale Bazetsn”. Beginning with a traditional overview of Jewish weddings and the role of the badkhan (“wedding jester”) as told by a well-meaning yenta, the piece kicks into high gear by taking the institute of matrimony to task. Easily a standout track on the album, SoCalled channels The Wedding Crashers with the line “We got glasses to smash / We can get trashed”. With the typical SoCalled humor firmly in place, he notes “Sure it’s a puffed up institution / An economic solution… Hype the hetero norms.” Solomon and SoCalled eschew tradition with this track, running down all the right and wrong reasons for marriage before shrugging their shoulders and giving the “eh, go ahead” to anyone who chooses to abide marital convention or take their own route.
One good turn deserves another and Sophie Solomon appears yet again on Oi Va Voi’s “Yuri” would merit the Mel Brooks “Jews in Space” seal of approval as futuristic, robotic vocals run through a processor against the pulsing beat.
The Rough Guide to Klezmer Revolution‘s strong suit is the array of material that isn’t just con. Many of the artists creatively merge it with other, more unexpected strains of sound. Klezmer-goes-country with the legendary Wolf Krakowski’s sandpapery voice on “Frilling (Sprintime)” which features a slow, slide guitar groove that would make Duane Allman green with envy. Similarly, Shtreiml’s “Uncle Tibor’s Spicy Paprikash” is flavored with bluegrass with the harmonica taking center stage on a Hebrew hoedown.
Other genres touched upon include dub, scat, and gospel. Two of trumpeter Frank London’s bands appear on the disc on distinctly different tracks. His Klezmer Brass Allstars serve up “In Your Garden Twenty Fecund Fruit Trees”, raucously backed by a Big Band sound. At times, the piece can be shouty and slightly annoying. (Then again, I’ve never been a big fan of scat music, anyway, so I could be biased.)
London’s other offering with the Klezmatics, however, sums up the ethos of the compilation nicely. A cover of Holly Near’s “I Ain’t Afraid” is a modern-day Hebrew spiritual blending gospel influences with traditional Jewish rhythms and a call for spiritual elevation regardless of creed and a statement on not living in fear of those who choose intolerance.