Author: Ralph Katz
Date: 2003-04-09 16:28
The word "klezmer" is an abbrevation of the Hebrew expression "kaley zemer", literally "instruments of song" or idiomatically "musical instruments". It at various times refers to instruments, musicians, and a type of music. Klezmer is typically Jewish non-liturgical music from eastern Europe, but there is plenty of Klezmer material with liturgical roots. Traditional Cantorial modes figure importantly in Klezmer music.
In this country, through the middle of this century, the children of immigrants typically wanted to fit in and appear American, and thus gravitated to American popular music, pretty much abandoning this type of music.
The term "klezmer" was historically not a kind one when applied to musicians. It conjured up pennyless people walking from town to town, lugging their instruments, sleeping in barns, and looking for work. The term was reincarnated in America with a Jewish traditional music revival that got a head of steam in the late 1970's, with people like Andy Statman, who studied from and renewed interest in older, immigrant players like Dave Tarras.
The "freygish" or "hejaz" scale is used frequently, as it is in much near eastern (greek, bulgarian, etc.) music. "Yoshke, Yoskhe" a.k.a. "Tantz, Tantz, Yiddelekh", a.k.a. etc. is representative of this mode. See Henry Sapoznik's "Compleat Klezmer" from Tara Publications for a more extended introduction to the music and its various modalities. (I am not connected with them.)
There are a lot of sources of Klezmer music. A lot of it is genuine folk music, but there are also a lot of composed pieces which are mistakenly identified as folk pieces (such as the composed tune "Dona, Dona, Dona", or in another genre the Russian composed tune used in "Those Were The Days"). Many, many Klezmer tunes could be found in every Jewish community throughout Eastern Europe, but then again many tunes were found only locally. Some tunes were unique pieces, others were taken from other cultures and adapted. By and large though, lyrics in Klezmer songs are all in Yiddish, a derivative of Middle German and Hebrew, whose roots began about the year 900 CE. Up until and after World War II this was the lingua franca of Jews in the world.
Most Klezmer groups today have a lot of Israeli repertoire, which may or may not be considered Klezmer by purists and other grouchy people. For example, historically a Hora will be in 3/8 (this is also called Rumanian Hora or Zhok,) but Israeli horas are in duple meter. Modern Israeli lyrics are Hebrew, which was traditionally used for religious purposes only until the 1920's when it began to be revived in Israel as a secular language.
The big thing about this music is that it historically took and still takes material from a lot of different sources.