How to Sound Like a Geezer
In-Frequently Asked Questions

By Bob Cohen

Why play "traditional style" klezmer and, more importantly,
what the heck is "traditional"?

Di Nayes choose to play in our way because we live in East Europe, where Jewish musical traditions did not reflect the American immigrant Jewish tradition. Klezmer music has always been evolving, but in it’s original context it was a dance music for weddings. Table songs, instrumental versions of Sabbath zmiros, and accompanying vocal songs filled out the repertoire. In one sense, this means shrinking the ego-role of the performer as center of attention. Traditional music is the music of a community – the guy wailing away on clarinet has to serve the community’s taste if he wants to get paid. However, most traditional klezmer today is played in a concert setting, not at a wedding. Tastes have changed. Egos have grown. The pay is about the same.

Dr. Walter Zev Feldman’s article "Bulgareasca/Bulgarish/Bulgar: The Transformation of a Klezmer Dance Genre," in the journal Ethnomusicology 38:1 (1994), 1-35. is probably the best study of "archaic" klezmer there is. If you can’t find it, Dr. Feldman’s sonorous voice can be heard in a excellent 1997 lecture on the topic (with musical examples galore) at the Virtual Askenaz sound files:

Why don’t you play your own compositions or use modern elements?

Because other people do that better. Among the best traditional klezmer players are Brave Old World and the Klezmatics, but in order to serve a modern concert audience they utilize modern arrangements and elements. Hey – people want art. When they kick back and just pound out the old tunes, however, there are probably is no better old style klezmer bands than BOW and the Klezmatics. Why? Not only do they have amazing musical chops, they have the yikhes – they did their homework, they searched out and met the older generation of musicians, they spent more time learning and researching Jewish musical tradition and have earned the right to "express themselves in a klezmer medium".

Isn’t the klezmer repertoire rather narrow?

There were thousands of Yiddish records published during the gramophone era. A small fraction of that has been reissued. There is a huge amount of fresh stuff to find, not to mention field recordings and music remembered by older Jews. Please try and avoid including "Monti's Csardas" or "The Lark" on your klezmer CDs.

Why don’t you sound like a chamber orchestra?

Because Belf was not a chamber orchestra. Among the bands playing traditional or old style klezmer, there are basically two categories. One "school" approaches the repertoire and playing style as a "classical" music. This is fine – it makes really beautiful music. Khevrisa, Budowitz, Australia’s Closet Klezmer, Alicia Svigals, and the Chicago Klezmer Ensemble are the best in this realm. And there was a tradition on attending actual "Jewish Musical Academies" in the pale of settlement. Di Naye Kapelye, however, being ornery, hard drinking, chain smoking, meat eating bastards (it’s true – we are not nice people, we all speak horrid guttural languages, we would be jailed or institutionalized if we lived west of the Danube) take our cues from living folk music traditions around us in East Europe. There were lots of Jewish bands who played in a folk manner, but these were not the bands that got on record.

To illustrate the difference, compare the approaches of two of our favorite musicians, Emil Bruh and Prince Nazaroff. Bruh, a classically trained klezmer fiddler from the Carpatho-Ukraine, used an exquisite sense of tone and pathos to render beautiful arrangements of Jewish music in the late 1940s. Nazaroff, at the same time, whacks out the tunes, didn’t give a hoot if his mandolin was tuned, sang love songs about vodka, and punctuates his performance with bird calls, foot stomps and whistles. Who do we listen to more? Nazaroff. And Nathan Hollander.

Who was Nathan Hollander?

Nathan Hollander was a klezmer harmonium player in the 1920s and, perhaps, the worst musician ever to record. Predating techno by over seventy years, he began his musical career by owning a recording studio, and then issuing his own 78s mechanically pounding out Yiddish songs and dances on a pump organ. He makes mistakes, his rhythm is absolutely crap, occasionally he stops and forgets the tune Ein a word, wonderful! Nobody will ever reissue a Nathan Hollander 78.

Why don’t you lavish praise on Giora Feidman?

The father of "Euro-klezmer". Living in Europe, one hears a lot of "klezmer music" that consists of stylish new age Kenny-G clarinet "taking klezmer to new horizons". How many ways can you spell "commercial crap"? For one thing, Europe loves Giora Feidman. Giora comes from a Klezmer family, but face it, he is a classical clarinetist selling composed Jew-Pop. He was a TV celebrity in Germany, and this was the first exposure to klezmer for many Europeans. He may compose out of traditional ideas, but basically he makes it up. More power to him, but he is not "The King of Klezmer". If I want to learn about klezmer music, I would rather listen to Nathan Hollander.

Then who is the King of Klezmer?

Klezmer musicians have been ruled by a democratically elected assembly since the passing of the former king, Dave Tarras. Our present motto is "we serve no king – can we get kosher meat in this town?"

Why are so many klezmer musicians ornery bastards?

Some are frustrated classical musicians who are vegetarian and armed and dangerous. Frequent raids by the more aggressive classically trained klezmer musicians against the more peaceful jazz-trained klezmer musicians have resulted in widespread casualties and loss of livestock. It is unfortunately true that some klezmer musicians today learned their behavior at the Idi Amin School of Charm for Young Klezmers. In the case of Di Naye Kapelye, we don’t really rate as world-class nasty bastards, although the managers of many German motel breakfast nooks would debate that.

Nuts and Bolts: So you want to sound like an old geezer?

  1. Listen to the older recordings of klezmer music: The Belf Orchestra, early Abe Schwartz, Leon Schwartz, Naftule Brandwein, Shloimke Beckerman, early Dave Tarras. Listen to them a lot. Too much, in fact.

  2. Listen to groups like Brave Old World, Khevrisa, Chicago Klezmer Ensemble, Joel Rubin, and Budowitz… compare to the old records… they did their homework!

  3. Find old folks. This sounds easier than it is, but it helps to have somebody who was raised in the Yiddish tradition as a mentor, especially if you are not Jewish. See if any Jewish old age homes are nearby, ask if they would allow you to visit and inquire about music. Always ask around to see if there are any older musicians in your area – you never know what you may find. There aren’t many left, but we don’t always know who or where they can be found – geezers have a habit of disappearing and then popping up unexpectedly. For example, the Gypsy musician Mishka Baranov from Ocna Slatina in the Karpatho-Ukraine mentioned that there was a Jewish fiddler from his town who emigrated to Australia in 1992. We still haven’t been able to track him down. He could be fiddling for Hasidic kangaroos for all we know.

  4. Learn Yiddish, especially if you intend to sing in it.

  5. Read everything Zev Feldman has ever written. Go out and buy Khevrisa’s CD on Smithsonian Folkways.

  6. Use the same musical tools that the old generation of Klezmorim used. Remember that Klezmorim played in a multi-ethnic milieu, and those folk traditions are usually quite intact in East Europe. It helps to have a background in Romanian, Ukrainian, Polish, or Hungarian music, if only to avoid the steady 4/4 clump-clump rhythm of an American international folk dance orchestra. Take a cue from Dr. Feldman and learn Turkish classical modes and musical practices – they are important sources of klezmer theory and repertoire. Listen to as much Hasidic and liturgical music as possible. If you want to "imitate the sounds of Jewish prayers" you have to know what you are imitating.

  7. BIG IMPORTANT RULE OF THE MONTH: Klezmer is not just a "klezmer melody". Klezmer is ornamentation, phrasing, instrumentation, arrangement. A krekhts is not just a "weird noise" on a clarinet. The trill you use in Irish fiddle is not the trill you use in klezmer fiddle. Naftule Brandwein was not Ornette Coleman.

  8. Listen to the Belf Orchestra recordings again.
For more on krekhts and other technical elements of Jewish music....

Read Bob Cohen's article on Jewish fiddle style.

>>Jewish Music in Eastern Europe


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