If you want to hear klezmer music at its most exciting, do yourself a favor and pull up next to a copy of Frank London’s soundtrack to the 1993 Jonathan Berman film The Shvitz. Track four, a London original called “Emma Goldman’s Wedding”; it starts in what sounds like a double-time wedding march that can barely contain itself until the reception. Roughly two minutes in, a brisk snare drum cadence explodes an already defiant little tune into a tangle of clarinet, trombone, trumpet, and violin leap-frogging around a sweet and rambunctious melody that splits off into four distinct rounds of eight-bar solos on each instrument before drawing each one back into a skerling, swirling resolution that will have you sweating with excitement, earnestly considering the merits of taking up the clarinet (I mean, how often does that happen?) and scampering to get your grubby hooks on any klezmer recording you can find. It’s just terribly exciting.
Klezmer is, quite simply, Jewish soul music—the music of pre-war Ashkenazic shtetl culture in eastern Europe that was largely liquidated during the 1940s. Although klezmer traces its roots back hundred of years, it was largely unknown outside the shtetl until the invention of the Edison cylinder and, even more importantly, the development of flat disc recordings by German-Jewish émigré Emile Berliner made recording a true mass-market industry. Popular entertainment as a profession in the Jewish world was largely nonexistent (the earliest klezmorim, or klezmer musicians, were itinerant bands wandering the countryside, always invited to play weddings but never encouraged to stick around afterwards), but the advent of recording technology and the loosening of social strictures regarding secular entertainment made it possible, if not exactly lucrative, for gramophone companies to bring klezmer to market for the first time.
You’ve probably heard klezmer music, even if you think you haven’t. It pops up in period movies when the filmmakers try to set their narrative against, say, the teeming pluralism of the turn-of-the-century Lower East Side. Liberal use of the two so-called “Jewish scales” (a major scale with the second note flat or a minor scale with the fourth note sharp) imparts the proceedings with an immediate Hebraic flavor, as does the loving attention lavished on playful clarinet and violin solos.
New York City, with its flourishing Jewish population, was a logical New World bridgehead for the music of the old country; the arrival of clarinetists Shloimke Beckerman and Naftule Brandwein in 1913 infused klezmer with a sophisticated compositional style that made it very popular with Yiddish-speaking American audiences. And there klezmer stayed, for the most part, both geographically and compositionally, until London and his Klezmatics got hold of it in 1986.
Schooled in the klezmer revival of the late 1970s, the Klezmatics have practically made a manifesto of broadening klezmer’s palette by incorporating classical, jazz and rock (their 1997 album, Possessed, contains perhaps the only Yiddish reefer song ever written!) into, as Harvey Pekar suggests in the liner notes of The Shvitz, something more akin to a compound than a mixture. It’s one freaky freylakh, and a night with the Klezmatics is one you won’t soon forget.
The Klezmatics play the University Theatre on Thursday, May 4 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $18 general, $16 students. Call the University Theatre box office at 243-4581.