The word "klezmer" is derived from "kley" and "zemer," Yiddish words that mean roughly "instrument of song." It was a ubiquitous part of weddings and other festive occasions during the 19th and early 20th centuries, providing a lively soundtrack to the earthy and difficult realities of rural shtetl (Jewish villages that once existed throughout Russia and Eastern Europe) life. Groups of itinerant musicians, ranging from small combos to large orchestras, traveled from place to place, their large repertoires of freylekhs, bulgars, horas, sÓrbas, and doinas at the ready. But even though no party was complete without them, most musicians were considered to be little more than shiftless tramps and this social attitude persisted among Jewish populations, no matter where they lived. Not many families were terribly supportive when a child chose to pursue music as a career.
Klezmer (the word describes the music and the musician) was brought to the United States by homesick Jewish immigrants. Along with Yiddish theater, the style enjoyed an American heyday during the early 20th century but as succeeding generations sought a more assimilated lifestyle, klezmer gradually fell out of favor.By the forties, aspects of klezmer and Yiddish theater turned up in big band tunes or became hits for pop stars, but most people, even Jews, had no idea where the tunes came from. By the seventies, although the lost folkways were glorified by the musical "Fiddler On The Roof", prewar Yiddish culture was nearly extinct in the United States. It was then that an entire generation of young "cultural Jews" began trying to figure out who they were and where they came from. David Krakauer was among these.
Like many of his contemporaries, Krakauer has strong Ashkenazy (Eastern European Yiddish) roots, but these were not emphasized during his formative years. Although the traditional cuisine made it through, the high holidays were observed, and he had a Bar Mitzvah celebration; hard-core religion and traditions from another time and place were almost entirely absent from his upbringing. Thus, his route to becoming a latter-day exponent of a music that his grandparents probably loved was circuitous and indirect. His family always listened to classical music and the young Krakauer was first attracted to the clarinet via that repertoire. By the time he made it to Juilliard, he was also heavily involved in the New York jazz scene, which led to still more discoveries.
Chatting over lunch at a Cuban-Chinese restaurant on New York's Upper West Side, Krakauer describes his initial attraction to klezmer. "My grandmother had a heavy Yiddish accent," he recalls, "so, when I first heard klezmer music, I said, 'this is totally familiar, it sounds like Grandma talking." When I started to play, I had to study carefully because the style is so specific. There are tunes, ornaments, phrasing and inflections; what I call the 'laws.'" He sought out the few remaining living masters; "I heard Dave Taras play down on Grand Street in 1979. This was a famous concert and as soon as he played a note, I got goose-bumps all over my body. So I listened to records by old clarinet players like Neftule Brandwein, tried to master the style. Then I added in my own influences." He says that the esoteric tunings and scales that are the basis of klezmer and Balkan music had to be approached from the inside. "There are three basic klezmer modes. To improvise freely and have fun, you have to get them into your blood."
As a jazz man, he was surprised and delighted to discover that American big band musicians had been influenced by klezmer or played it outright, even prior to the Andrews Sisters' hit, "Bei Mir Bist Du Schein". Krakauer relates, "Benny Goodman's band played 'And The Angels Sing,' and this is actually an old klezmer tune called 'Der Stiller Bulgar!' And one time while I was on tour in Germany, I was flipping through TV stations after a gig, trying to unwind. I saw this movie called 'On An Island With You,' and there was Xavier Cugat playing a klezmer song! I thought 'Krakauer, you're losing your mind!'"
As Krakauer's private version of klezmer evolved, he began to perform with the Klezmatics, an avant-garde ensemble who bring barbed social commentary, sexual politics, and other anarchistic twists into their sound. Krakauer reminisces, "We were on tour in East Germany. It was 1990 and the wall had just fallen. We were with this English punk band called 'The Men They Couldn't Hang' so we were saying, 'We should call ourselves 'The Jews They Didn't Burn!'" Later on, he met and collaborated with John Zorn, a jazz and new music icon who also expresses his rediscovered Jewish heritage in an inventive, non-nostalgic manner. "Zorn invited me to play when he was recording his piece 'Kristallnacht,' which was also performed at the Munich Art Project in 1992. It was a historic moment - that was the first time the phrase, 'radical Jewish culture' was brought up. I mean, we had Lou Reed on the same bill, outing himself as a Jew! Shortly after that, Zorn said 'Hey, Krakauer, you ever record under your own name?' and I said 'No.' A couple of days later, we were at the Knitting Factory and Zorn rummages through this bag of mouthpieces, reeds and microphone cables and pulls out a check. 'Here's a few grand,' he says, 'now go and make a record.' It was so beautiful!" Krakauer eventually released albums with his trio and a group he calls "Klezmer Madness" on Zorn's Tzadik label.
On A New Hot One, there is mournful little waltz called "Love Song For Lemburg/Lvov", which was a result of Krakauer's recent visit to his grandfather's home town. The fragile melody periodically crashes into cacophony as though reliving the horrors of Holocaust. "That piece functions on many levels." Krakauer confides, "I was thinking about the beauty of this 'little Vienna', or 'little Paris', but then there's the dark underside, of Jews getting their butts kicked!" With this in mind, the discussion shifts to the overwhelming and to many, somewhat disturbing, popularity of klezmer music in former Nazi strongholds like Germany and Poland. Krakauer explains thoughtfully, "It would easy to say it's some kind of guilt-cleansing, but my feeling is that Klezmer was the soul music of Europe and a strong part of the musical structure. In Poland, klezmer is considered a lost branch of jazz and also a new conduit. I have an investment in keeping klezmer alive, so it's a tremendous thrill to play in these places. Most of the audience is my age or younger, so it's a new hope for them - and for me!"
- Christina Roden
A New Hot One is available at cdroots.com
Photos ©2001 Aldo Mauro
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