Klezmer is a traditional folk music of Jewish origin. This paper seeks to explain the origin and historical background of Klezmer music. The paper also explores the introduction and development of Klezmer in America, particularly in New York. From the study, it is clear that the music received wide acceptance in the US during its initial years of introduction. However, Klezmer was faced hard times in first half of the 20th century. Particularly, it was relegated in the 1950s due to assimilation and adaptation to other cultures and practices. The founding of the state of Israel in 1948 further weakened the position of the music of until due to the commitment of the Jewish community in the United States to the new nation of Jews in the Middle East .This marginalization continued until its revival in the 1970s. Since, its revival, Klezmer has become a popular genre and has found audience in both Jews and non-Jews living in America and Europe.
The word Klezmer is a combination of two Hebrew words, Kle, meaning instrument and Zemer, meaning song. Therefore, Klezmer is a Yiddish word used to refer to professional Jewish musicians associated with the Jewish traditional dance, hence the term Klezmer music (Strom, 2002). According to Strom, the meaning of Klezmer has however evolved to include many forms since its inception; it was used in Eastern Europe before the seventeenth century to refer to an instrument, and in the mid-seventeenth century to denote to a Jewish musician. By the eighteenth century, Klezmer was used to refer to a Jewish folk instrumentalist. Therefore, Klezmer music is a type of music associated with the Jewish culture and traditions.
Music and the Jewish culture can be traced to biblical times as early as the fourth chapter of Genesis where the first Jewish musician Jubal, the son of Lamech played the harp and the flute. It was biblically believed that music was a pure language before the ears of God and for that reason, Jewish forefathers and mothers chanted when they prayed and sung songs of sorrow and enthusiasm .They played instruments in praise of God. It is believed in the Jewish tradition that the sounds emitted from the ancient instruments were those of angels singing and that it was heard in the heavens (Strom 2002).
Apart from the biblical perspective, the origin of Klezmer music in the modern era dates back to the Middle Ages, and it was first heard in Eastern and Middle Europe in countries of today’s Ukraine, Hungary, Bosnia, Slovakia, Moldova, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia (Slobin, 2002). However, during the Word War II, there were massive killings of Jews and other people by the Nazis. These killings led to an almost extinction of Jews in parts of Eastern Europe which ultimately contributed to the decline of Jewish culture and eventually Klezmer music. In spite of the destruction of the Holocaust, there remained traces of Jewish cultures in some regions of Eastern Europe, and Klezmer music was considered an integral component of various rituals of the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian, Czarist, and Ottoman Empires in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries(Strom 2002)
The social and political unrests in countries of Eastern Europe such as Russia and Poland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries led to massive immigrations of Yiddish-speaking, Ashkenazi Jews to America. The majority of these immigrants settled in New York (Slobin, 2002). The arrival of immigrants led to the formation of Klezmer bands, Yiddish theaters, and Yiddish radios. The Yiddish theaters that were started between the 1920s and 1930s grew in popularity in New York. The Immigrant musicians were hired to perform in these theaters. During this period, a rise in popularity of Yiddish radio was also witnessed with more than twenty stations established in the Metropolitan parts of New York. The radio stations broadcasted Yiddish programs and hired Jewish musicians to play live Klezmer music (Card, 2002).
Klezmer music was originally a ceremonial type of music and was mostly played during Jewish wedding ceremonies. Klezmorims could play Klezmer music to guests and relatives at weddings and, most importantly, for the bride and groom. The music was played to entertain and stir the public, especially the young couple. Klezmer music was used to move the couples and help them to reflect on their past and the aftermath of their marriage hence the saying “as the Klezmorims played, so it went in life” (Strom, 2002).
Klezmer music was mostly an instrumental type of music than vocal. For this reason, the Jewish folk musicians played Klezmer with many traditional instruments throughout the seventeenth century namely;
• The Dudlezack; which was a bag made out of goat skin and had a melody pipe which was referred to as a chanter which the player blew into it.
• The Judenleir; the Judenleir was also known as the Jewish hurdy-gurdy. It was a lowly instrument most popular with beggars and was mostly preferred by poor Jewish musicians.
• The Positiv; it was a fixed device that stood on the floor or the table with its keys closed together.
• The Jadenharfe was known as Jewish harp or guimbard; it was usually played to accompany singers. The Polish Jewish musicians who played the instrument were called KharpeShpilers, meaning shameful players by the public because the instrument they played sounded lowly and unpleasant.
• The Zink (tusk); this device was made from a goat’s horn with six bored holes and wrapped in a black leather. It also had a trumpet mouthpiece. Playing the instrument was complex compared to other wind and brass instruments because the player had to use his lips to focus the pitch and equalize the notes.
• The Hackbrett (Cutting board); it was a portable instrument that was made out of wooden bars that were laid horizontally on a bed of cylindrical wound straws. It was diatonically tuned and played by hitting the bars with small wooden sticks (Strom, 2002)
However, the above-mentioned traditional instruments are no longer used in Klezmer performances today. They have been replaced by modern instruments. The modern instruments are categorized into two classifications, namely; melodic instruments and rhythmic instruments. Melodic instruments comprise the clarinet, violin, trumpet and the accordion while the musical instruments comprise trombone, string bass, drum set and piano. The older instruments fell out of favor because they could not compete with modern instruments in several aspects. For instance, the viola da gamba could not compete with the violin while the dudlezack and Judenleir produced discordant sounds. The shawm and zink were difficult to play, and the kettledrums were too heavy to carry around. Besides, the lute, flageolet and the hackbrett were too soft to be heard when played in festive occasions (Strom, 2002).
How to play Klezmer
The skills and techniques known as dreydiekhs of playing Klezmer are passed from one generation to another through listening and mimicking due to the lack of Klezmer manuscript because of the traditional and cultural nature of Klezmer. A Klezmer first needs to learn and master the dreydiekhs and have the ability to incorporate them to produce Klezmer tunes or Klezmer-like tunes from adopted melodies. The core klezmerdreydiekhs include;
• The glitshn, a skill by which violinist rapidly slides his finger from the lowest to the highest note.
• The krekhtsn, a skill employed by violinist and clarinets to produce e groans and moans that give Klezmer its unique sound.
• The tshoks, which is the ability of a Klezmer to produce laugh like sounds that are more cackle than giggle.
• Flageolets, flutes produced by the violin that helped the Klezmer player evoke whistling sounds (Strom, 2002).
Strom notes that Klezmer music being an instrumental and celebratory mode of music, it is mostly accompanied by song and dance. The dances include the Bulgar, a sher, khosiddl and hora dances. These dances are mostly performed in line, square, and circular forms.
Characteristics of Klezmer
Arno Nadel, a musicologist has identified seven characteristics or components that describe Klezmer music though not all the seven traits can be found in a single song. They include Klezmer melodies are recitative and melismatic, they are based on a diatonic tone, they are meditative, have mixed different voices and incorporated fifths and octaves. The Klezmer melody includes improvisation, and its rhythm is strong (Strom, 2002).
Hybridity of Klezmer with other forms of Music
The Klezmer music has however not been static but is subject to change because of interaction with other genres of music. Scholars have used the concept of the hybridity of the Klezmer music to explain the changes that this type of music has been subjected to. Sarah Weiss, a scholar, uses the concept natural and intentional hybridity to explain how Klezmer music has been fused with other genres of music. Natural hybridity is, according to Weiss, is a natural and gradual change of a genre of music due to its prolonged interaction with other forms of music. On the other hand, intentional hybridity is the deliberate choice of musicians to adapt other types of music into one (Anklewicz, 2002).
According to Anklewicz, the majority of scholars are of the opinion that Klezmer music has traditionally been a hybrid genre because of the longtime interaction of Jewish and Italian musicians. Klezmer’s natural hybridity is attributed to the performance of modern repertoires by Jewish musicians in Europe and America in their attempts to satisfy the tastes of their different audiences who subscribe to different ethnicities and religions (Strom, 2002). For instance, there is evidence of incorporation of foreign elements in ‘bulgar’ a song genre as early as 1900 (Anklewicz, 2002). The performance of cosmopolitan repertoires in America in the 20th century is a reflection of the assimilation of Jewish musicians to the American culture. These musicians wanted to become more American and less ethnic. The musical adaptation of Klezmer music in the early 20th century can be evidenced through the comparison of recordings of American groups such as the Abe Schwartz Orchestra and Kondel Orchestra with records of European groups such as V.Belufa’s Romanian orchestra (Strom, 2002)
There are several instances of the hybridity of Klezmer music with other genres. For instance, the recording of “Yiddish Blues” by Joseph Frankel in 1919 that blended Klezmer with rhythms of ragtime music from the 1920s.Klezmer is also blended with other popular forms of music as can be evidenced in the recordings of Harry kandel’s orchestra of “Jakie, Jazz em up” in 1926. The hybridity of Klezmer music with other forms of music further continued through the 1930s where there was a widespread popularity of songs like “Bei Mir Bistu Schoen” and “And the Angels Sing” and a different configuration in music is seen in the Tanz album of Dave Tarras and Muskier Brothers. Another instance of Klezmer assimilation by American music can be evidenced by the Recordings of the New York-based Sam Musiker in 1950 which are influenced by an element of Jazz music (Anklewicz, 2002).The fusion of Klezmer music with to 1970s and 80s where Klezmer is fused with jazz, rock and punk music so as to marry cultural and religious differences into one musical outfit (CNN, 2000).