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From: "Chris King" brodog@cyberjunction.net
Date: Wed, 11 Sep 1996

Klezmer Conservatory Band to appear in St. Louis
by Chris King

When the Klezmer Conservatory Band appear at the Edison Theatre this weekend, local audiences will have a chance to hear and participate in an old, lively and varied form of music, passed down in Yiddish by Jews for centuries, and powerfully revived within recent memory. The Klezmer Conservatory Band was part of that revival and remains part of this fantastic music's continuance. "Klezmer" is from the Biblical phrase "kle zemer," meaning "tools for the song." It came to be applied to the festival and processional music played by Jews after the Destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Secular music, always held suspect -- "If you have a sweet voice," the rabbis taught, "glorify God with with the gift He bestowed upon you" -- became sacreligious after the Destruction. With the Temple sacked, music had no calling. It survived mostly in weddings, one place where, the rabbis realized, even exiles need festivity. It was also allowed as a livelihood for the penniless musicians, known as klezmorim, who played where they could, finding audiences through the Middle Ages in the courts of sultans, caliphs, dukes, even popes, and lots of places on the road in between.

Ruth Rubin, in her fine book Voices of a People, calls the klezmorim "pollen-gathering bees." They did gather pollen for sweet honey all along the roads, making klezmer, in the words of Judy Bressler, vocalist for the Klezmer Conservatory Band, "true fusion music." Besides the many feels in Jewish music -- most importantly, the cry of prayer -- the klezmorim learned to swing in every tongue: They played marches, waltzes, mazurkas, gypsy songs (and, in the New World, tangos and rhumbas and ragtime) -- you name it.

A group of Christian musicians in seventeenth century Europe, trying to get an interdiction against the always-popular klezmorim playing Christain festivals, complained they "confuse and corrupt the music." Which just means they mixed things up and kept them fresh. The klezmorim were allowed to play for Purim, a festival at which "everything is allowed." The phrase could be applied to this bold form of music too. You can even see this from the ragtag inclusiveness of instruments. The Klezmorim of Zaslaw, doing a village gig in Poland in the previous century, included among their tools a fiddle, trumpet, tuba, clarinet, flute, bass fiddle, drum and hammered dulcimer. The Klezmer Conservatory Band travels with most of those instruments, plus a piccolo, cornet, accordian, piano, mandolin, guitar and banjo: Everything is allowed.

The songs cover a wide sweep. Ghetto songs, theatre songs, street melodies, work songs and lots of wedding material from various traditions have crept into the repertoire over the years. Some of the old titles inspire curiosity -- "Dance for a Rich Wedding, "Dance for an Orphan's Wedding" (how, one wonders, would those two differ?), "A Scissors Dance for the Waitresses." The Klezmer Conservatory Band has helped keep alive love songs for cities ("Odessa Mama"), Jewish folk ballads ("Play, Balalaika"), Holocaust songs ("The Court-Singer of the Warsaw Ghetto") -- you name it.

Two of klezmer's fellow travelers over the years -- the badchen (jester) and the songsters of Yiddish theatre -- have ensured a certain amount of levity and schmaltz in the mix. One old badchen song boasts, "I have a pair of dogs that make ink and a pair of birds that make bagels." The Klezmer Conservatory Band are quite likely to play "The Cry of the Wild Duck" this weekend. In this gem a duck cries out from the butcher's shop, "I want to go where the wild goose goes, cause I know more than a wild goose knows. My head bashed in, and my stomach all twisted, it won't be long, I'll be a plucked duck." This sort of silliness, plus the merry-making required of wedding musicians, has always kept klezmer a quintessentially crowd-pleasing music.

The titles and lyrics above were presented in English. They exist first, of course, in Yiddish, which Judy Bressler calls "a highly developed, extremely expressive language spoken by Eastern European Jews regardless of their country." This international tongue came over, with klezmer, in the great Jewish immigration wave, ca. 1880 - 1920. "When the Jews first came here," Bressler says, "like most immigrants they became very involved in becoming Americans." This was klezmer's second great threat, after the emancipation of the Jews in central and Western Europe exposed the community on a wide scale to the highly developed music of the Western world. American popular music in this century, thanks primarily to the creativity of black Americans, has been an irrestiable force the world over, and in the face of ragtime, big band and swing, the influence of klezmer dwindled.

"It was a roots journey," Bressler says, of her generation's rekindling of the tradition. "There was this fabulously rich heritage of older music," preserved thanks to the Yiddish theatre, the YIVO Sound Archive, researchers like Ruth Rubin and the pride of the old-timers. "My generation came together in different parts of the country; bands were formed; ours was one." Hankus Netsky, the band's director, organized their first concert at the New England Conservatory of Music in 1980. "We didn't think a band would be formed," Bressler says, "but the response was just amazing." People from the audience approached them, offering gigs. "It was an immediate response and we never looked back. This is such an emotional music, with a mix of bitter and sweet. Everyone who hears it feels it at the gut level."

Always an international music, a tradition that travelled, klezmer has hit the road and the skies with the Conservatory Band, who have been touring internationally since 1990. Their conditions of travel are more welcoming than the medieval highway, and the pay a whole lot better, but Bressler says the band "has carried klezmer into the '90s." It is a fortunate tradition to work in, since "the essence of klezmer has always been to change and evolve." Bressler says the intention was never "to present a museum piece. We take arrangements off old records and sometimes rearrange them completely. And we are happy and proud to do that."

The musuem is indeed a useless comparison to the Klezmer Conservatory Band. Curators frown on dancers. They do not let you pull those old fertility rattles off the exhibit and make noise with them. The old masks are under class, not available to sit again on the dancing human face. But this band breathes with all the life of all those old European weddings, when a people in exile blew off steam. "The mouse fiddles, the louse dances," goes an old klezmer song. "Make way, the groom is coming!" Jusy Bressler renews that invitation. "Wear your dancing shoes," she says. "We do invite people to dance in the aisles and they do take us up on that!"

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Copyright (c) 1996 by Chris King. Send me E-mail with any comments or suggestions. All rights reserved. This page last revised 1/25/97.