What is Klezmer music?

Klezmer Music: A Short History

Neither the Holocaust nor the migration out of Eastern Europe nor assimilation could stop it. Klezmer music has undergone an enormous revival, which is also happily serving to help keep the Yiddish language alive. The revival has its origin, in part, in a renewed pride in their ethnicity that Jews began finding in the 70s, as a new generation of Jewish musicians forged connections across space and time with the musicians of 19th century Eastern Europe.

The term klezmer comes from the Hebrew words "kley zemer" (vessels of song), referring to the musical instruments themselves; gradually, the identities of the musician and his instrument merged to be covered by the one term. References to klezmer bands are found in surviving town records, memoirs, and historical accounts as early as the 15th century. Paintings and woodcuts from those times show Jewish musicians playing instruments similar to those of their non-Jewish neighbors.

The connections between secular and liturgical Jewish music are evident in klezmer scales and ornamentation, which derive from prayer modes and vocal styles used in cantorial music. This sets Jewish music apart, but there was also much cross-fertilization with non-Jewish music of the regions. Jews and non-Jews, especially the Roma (the Gypsies), often played together. Jewish musicians preferred for their wide traveling, broad repertoire, modesty, and sobriety were often hired to play at non-Jewish weddings.

The wedding was the best-known milieu for the klezmer. In addition to local peasant dance tunes, the klezmer played a repertoire that reflected traditional Jewish wedding rituals, providing processionals to accompany the community to the shul, as well as music for veiling the bride before the ceremony, seating her after, for paying respect to the in-laws, and for escorting older family members home after the wedding.

The huge movement of Jews who came from Eastern Europe to the US at the end of the 19th century included many klezmorim. The emergence of the recording industry, radio, and Yiddish theater in the US provided sources of work for the klezmer and produced many recordings that tell us what the music of the time sounded like. Jewish weddings still featured the traditional music. But as tastes changed and dance forms were forgotten, klezmer music became more of a nostalgia stimulator and the older klezmer repertoire diminished in size.

The 70s saw the revival of many traditional world musics (e.g., Celtic, Balkan, "Old-Timey", etc.) and fortunately klezmer music is among them. And, just as Jews have lived all over the world, the klezmer revival has been a worldwide phenomenon. Berlin alone boasts over 30 klezmer bands, and there are klezmer bands and festivals in Australia, Alaska, and Buenos Aires.

And so the revived klezmer music is hardy and continuing to evolve. We are fortunate to have cross-pollination between Klezmer and Balkan music, as well as crowds of enthusiastic dancers who enjoy both Klezmer and Balkan dance styles. In addition, the Sephardic strand which we celebrate at Nahalat Shalom in worship and history has a voice in our bands when they sing in Ladino as well as Yiddish. And KlezmerQuerque annually brings top name musicians to New Mexico to play, teach, and continue the evolution of klezmer music.

Naftule Branwein, King of klezmer clarinet in NYC