The Klezmatics

Klezmatic Fantasy (A Suite Mostly In D)Rhythm & Jews
Fun Tashlikh (At The Casting Away Of Sins)Rhythm & Jews
Shnirele, PereleBrother Moses
Smote The Water
Bulgars / The KissJews With Horns
An Undoing WorldPossessed
Dybbuk ShersPossessed
I Ain't AfraidRise Up! Shteyt Oyf!
Klezmorimlekh Mayne Libinke / Kats un MoyzRise Up! Shteyt Oyf!
Goin' Away To SeaWonder Wheel
Come When I Call YouWonder Wheel



Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

The word klezmer literally translates from Yiddish to ‘instruments of music’ and is a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. The term klezmer comes from a combination of the Hebrew words: kli, meaning ‘tool or utensil’ and zemer, meaning ‘to make music’; leading to kli zemer literally ‘vessels of song’ i.e. musical instrument. The genre originally consisted largely of dance tunes and instrumental display pieces for weddings and other celebrations. In the USA the genre evolved considerably as the Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who arrived between 1880 and 1924, heard and assimilated American jazz.

Yiddish is a creole language of High German, Hebrew, Polish and Romanian. Klezmer is likewise a creole style of music due to the itinerant nature of the musicians (klezmorim), even more so with the addition of 20th Century jazz and other influences.

The Klezmatics formed in 1986 in New York. They have revived the klezmer tradition, recording in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. In 2006 their Grammy Award winning album, Wonder Wheel, fused Woody Guthrie’s lyrics with klezmer tunes. A diverse and eclectic repertoire includes the klezmer tradition; contemporary songs and songs familiar to attendees of Sabbath morning Synagogue services. My challenge was to reflect this diversity within the constricts of 10 tracks and then not write a book by way of explanation.

The Klezmatic Fantasy is an exploration of klezmer music in four parts; the slow opening, Der Yiddisher Soldat, the uplifting second and third sections, Bukoviner Freylekhs and Buhushner Khosid, and the final dance section Terkish-Bulgarish. Freylekhs and Khosids are types of dance. Bukovina is partly in modern day Ukraine and partly in Romania. Buhusi in modern day Romania. Terkish-Bulgarish is exactly as it implies, inspired by dance tunes from Turkey and Bulgaria.

These tunes draw from the very tradition of klezmer which would have been played at celebrations and, for the most part, on small string and woodwind instruments that were easily carried from place to place on foot, reflecting the itinerant nature of the klezmorim.

Fun Tashlikh (At The Casting Away Of Sins) pronounced as in woof rather than bun. Tashlikh is a ceremony that happens by a stream on Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) when Jews gather to say prayers and commit the sins of the previous 12 months to the moving water to be taken away. The ceremony is not usually accompanied by music but this tune beautifully illustrates the solemnity of the ceremony and the feeling uplifted spirit that accompanies it. New Year is the commencement of the 10 Days of Penitence that lead up to the 25 hour fast of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

Shnirele, Perele draws from the religious traditional strand of klezmer and is sung in Hebrew. The sung elements that are punctuated by the instruments sections are heard in the home during the Passover service when the story of the Exodus is told. The Last Supper was the Passover Meal although these songs were written in the 12th and 13th Centuries. In 2004 the band released a live album from concerts recorded with the African-American Jewish Gospel singer Joshua Nelson and jazz vocalist/organist, Kathryn Farmer. This is from that album which also included Black American freedom songs.

Bulgars / The Kiss fuses a traditional Bulgarian Klezmer dance tune with a contemporary tune written in the klezmer style and shows how the music transcends time when played on modern instruments.

An Undoing World is a totally contemporary love song but written in the minor keys of klezmer and with a very clever lyric. It illustrates just how relevant the music can be to the modern world. There is a twist in the last line.

Dybbuk Shers – a dybbuk is a soul that has not yet passed to the next world. One of the Jewish mourning rites is the Shiva (literally translates as seven). The burial is followed by seven nights of prayer in the house of mourning when the mourners (spouse, children, siblings and parents), are visited by friends and family. Some Jews believe that this is the time that the deceased say their final goodbyes to their family and friends. Tradition has it that if the soul stays longer than this week it becomes a dybbuk and will have difficulty crossing.

I Ain’t Afraid is a contemporary song written by Holly Near and Michael Wex. It expresses the sentiment that as a religious person I know that whatever your belief is, the underlying message of your religion is one of peace and goodness. It is how people choose to twist the message of their religious teaching for their own ends that scares me. It is a very powerful song for the modern age and is sung in both Yiddish and English. It will give you the opportunity to pick a small sprinkling of words.

Klezmorimlekh Mayne Libinke / Kats un Moyz translates as Beloved Klezmorim, My Dear Ones/Cats and Mice. The suffix ‘lekh’ to a word indicates love, thus ‘kinderlekh’ means my beloved children. Here is a traditional dance tune celebrating the klezmer musicians themselves that becomes a contemporary Klezmer tune which transmogrifies into modern jazz and back again. They show as two tracks on the album listing but are in fact a single piece of music.

I have to finish with two tracks from Wonder Wheel, the fabulous fusion of Woody Guthrie’s American lyrics with the eastern European phrasing of klezmer. I commend all 16 tracks that make up the extended CD but my favourite track is Goin’ Away To Sea, and Come When I Call You is simply a triumph.

If this listing has whetted your appetites, there is a plethora of Klezmatics songs on YouTube; also explore the work of Scottish multi-cultural band called Moishe’s Bagel.

The Klezmatics official website

The Klezmatics biography (iTunes)

Other modern exponents of klezmer music you may want to investigate include Brave Old World, New Klezmer Trio, John Zorn, Andy Statman, The Klezmorim, and if you already have investigated, toppermost wants to hear from you!

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