Woodshedding in Poland
One of the main strengths of this year's Jewish Cultural festival in Krakow was undoubtedly the numerous daily workshops that allowed festival-goers to immerse themselves in Jewish culture.
These included Hebrew and Yiddish tuition, singing and dancing instruction and an introduction to the delights of Jewish cookery. As I am a musician, I naturally opted to attend the free daily klezmer workshops led by Dutch accordionist, Sanne Moricke and German clarinetist, Christian Dawid. Together, they have released three critically-acclaimed albums as the duo Khupe.
The morning workshops were designed for musicians with little experience of Jewish music and focused on learning tunes and rudimentary theory. The afternoon sessions were largely aimed at professionals and experienced amateurs who wanted to improve their technique and feel. For those who were looking for constructive criticism, there was the opportunity to take part in 'masterclasses'
Jewish music is traditionally learned by ear. In the past, this often meant that many budding young musicians picked it up from the local maestros, painstakingly trying to capture every nuance on their miniature, hand-me-down instruments. Many later graduated to the wedding and the bandstand, where they were able to perfect their techniques and in a minority of cases even make a respectable living.
Unfortunately, despite enclaves of bustling Klezmer activity dotted around the world in places like New York, Berlin and Montreal, much of this aural tradition has been lost.
Of course attempts have been made to notate the music, but these can only offer a glimpse of the way the music should sound. Clarinetist Sid Beckerman once put it in a nutshell : “Admitting that you learned to play (Jewish music) from a book was like admitting you learned to have sex from a manual!”
Musicians who wish to learn more about the intricacies of ornamentation, harmony and style only really have three choices. They can move to one of the current centers of the klezmer scene, they can meticulously analyze scratchy records from the early part of the last century, or they can take classes with masters of the genre at the various camps and festivals that are springing up all over the world.
Unsurprisingly, many musicians based in Europe have chosen the third option and are flocking to festivals in Weimar, Paris, London and Krakow to learn the finer points of ornamentation, theory and style from the masters.
Several of the musicians who were attending the advanced classes in the afternoon were gradually working their way around the European festivals, often running into colleagues from previous workshops en route.
Inge Pijnacker-Hordijk from Groningen in the north of Holland plays violin in a formation called Klezmer and Co, with the unusual instrumentation of tuba, trumpet,Yiddish singer, accordion, violin and oud. She told me that she had taken a four-month sabbatical from her day job to tour the European festival circuit. She chose to come to Krakow for the first time after hearing that the festival was gaining a strong reputation.
Anna Janssen, who comes from Maastricht in the south of Holland, plays in a trio called Mejoeches, which means 'aristocratic' in Hebrew. The word has an ironic connotation in Dutch Yiddish. She is a seasoned festival-goer. who has only missed one festival since 2000. She feels a strong attachment to Krakow, which she described as a 'special' place. Her violin was made by a Cracovian instrument maker and she has even started to learn Polish.
I also spoke to Miroslaw, a young but accomplished clarinetist who moved to Krakow from his native Ukraine seven years ago. The klezmer trio he plays in, who are called Inejnem, have regular evening slots in a restaurant in the heart of Kazimierz. They can also often be seen in the summer playing in the Main Square. He came to the workshops to learn more about the finer details of style from Christian Dawid, who of course is himself a clarinetist.
Other students at the workshop included an American marimba player, an Australian french horn player and a Polish clarinetist who had recently started playing again after recovering from a motorcycle accident that had stopped him performing for two years.
Anyone who had attended the workshops expecting an easy ride was in for a shock. All tunes were introduced and learned by ear. This became quite nerve-wracking for some when a TV crew from Israel and cameramen from various publications turned up unannounced and started plunging cameras into the students' faces as they played.
Christian explained that he uses an aural approach, because he felt the natural evolution of klezmer had been 'interrupted' by being taken from its natural surroundings in Eastern Europe. The only way to 're-learn' or 're-connect' with the tradition is through gaining a deep understanding of the ebb and flow of the music. The only way to understand the music in sufficient depth is to listen to it very carefully.
Christian broke the tunes down into aurally digestible chunks and demonstrated how each phrase had an emotional and culturally significant resonance of its own.
After these fundamental principles are instilled, the klezmer performer can then concentrate on interpretation of a tune. Like all good teachers, Christian and Sanne drew from their students rather than imposing fixed ideas on them. Students were gently urged to discover where to ornament, where to inject momentum, and where to be mysterious. The end result in all cases was a convincing musical story.
Sanne is an instinctive musician who sees klezmer music as a language that expresses a culture. Rather then getting bogged down in technicalities, she often gropes for metaphors. Hearing klezmer music for the first time almost knocked her head off (this accompanied by a graphic gesture). She explained the primary importance of melody by claiming that over-ornamentation will reduce the impact of a melody as effectively as extravagant seasoning will destroy the flavor of a soup.
Christian is a natural entertainer who peppered his explanations with anecdotes and convincing impressions of famous klezmorim.
Together they were able to create an atmosphere which allowed musicians with differing levels of experience to make great music together. More than once, one of the members of the small audience huddled at the back of the room spontaneously applauded, or exclaimed 'Wow !' when they heard the motley collection of students perform a tune they had just picked up by ear.
After nearly every lesson, Sanne and Christian were surrounded by students eager to ask further questions. It seems very probable that many of these students will be enthusiastically continuing the voyage of discovery they have embarked on for many years to come.