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Fiddling With Tradition 

For local klezmer musicians, experimenting with Jewish music's history is just as important as embracing it

Wednesday, Mar 24 1999
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Violinist Kaila Flexer is billed as a klezmer musician, and for a couple of songs during her February performance at A Traveling Jewish Theater in San Francisco, that label made some sense. The last song of her set, for instance, was a Jewish wedding tune with Flexer spinning Eastern European-sounding melodies over the polka-ish beat that marks most traditional klezmer. It was the kind of moment that would have made a Jewish grandmother feel right at home.

The other 90 percent of the evening, however, would have left Grandma very confused. Flexer and her backing group, Next Village, shifted gears from bossa nova to bluegrass to jazz, and though everything drew somehow on the Jewish tradition, it was far from traditional. Introducing the song "Clothes Crises," Flexer explained that it was inspired by "that awkward moment in the morning when you don't know what to put on." She and Next Village then launched into a supercharged romp through odd-metered sections, with Flexer and the show-stealing Moldavian accordionist Nikolai Prisikar showing off lightning-fast unison lines more reminiscent of the Mahavishnu Orchestra than of anyone's idea of a Jewish wedding band.

Flexer isn't alone. Over the last decade or so, dozens of ensembles have been pushing and pulling klezmer into a pastiche of styles that defies easy categorization. While some of this emerging klezmer-based scene emanates from the East Coast, including bands like Hasidic New Wave, Naftule's Dream, and many of John Zorn's projects on the Tzadik record label, the Bay Area is home to a small but flourishing new Jewish music scene.

The roots of the current national renaissance of Jewish music can be traced back here. When the Berkeley-based group Klezmorim began playing traditional klezmer music for local audiences in the mid-'70s, it was revitalizing an Eastern European Jewish musical style that had immigrated to America in the early part of this century and then lain dormant for decades. "[The Klezmorim] are definitely responsible for resurrecting the style and bringing it back to our ears, because it sort of got lost," says violinist Daniel Hoffman, whose own group, Davka, represents another unique take on the tradition.

Clarinetist Ben Goldberg, a member of the Klezmorim during the '80s, concurs. "It wasn't exactly a broken tradition, but it was pretty disconnected. The Holocaust wiped out everybody in Eastern Europe that was involved in Jewish culture, and then the next generation in America was more interested in American culture than in learning about their own culture. So nobody even knew about that stuff. I think what happened was that some people found some old 78 records and people just got interested in it, and I think the time was right for people to start thinking about their own ethnic culture."

Goldberg's musical journey parallels the evolution of the music as a whole since its revival. After playing with the Klezmorim, who were fairly strict in their adherence to the klezmer styles found on records from the 1920s, he formed the New Klezmer Trio, a group with a decidedly more open-minded approach to the music. The threesome, as heard on 1995's Melt Zonk Rewire and 1996's Masks and Faces (both Tzadik), developed a far-reaching blend of klezmer and other styles that pushed the music beyond what many klezmer followers had come to expect. "A lot of people would say to us, 'That doesn't sound like klezmer music, why do you call it new klezmer?' But at the time," remembers Goldberg, "it was important to us to present it as klezmer music, to say that this is what klezmer music can sound like."

By the early '90s, klezmer music was sounding like pretty much anything, from the traditional to far-out fusions of styles. Indeed, klezmer purists today might have a point when they object to labeling much of the new music as klezmer. While one of Daniel Hoffman's groups, the San Francisco Klezmer Experience, is relatively traditional, Davka is not: On the group's CD Lavy's Dream, Middle Eastern rhythms mingle with modernist classical melodies reminiscent of composers like Bartok and Stravinsky.

Goldberg's current ensemble, 12 Minor, utilizes unusual instruments like the Chinese koto, and Flexer bounces between musical styles at will, from bluegrass fiddling to Irish drinking songs. A recent double bill at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage during the Jewish Music Festival pointed out the risks in applying the klezmer label too liberally. Guitarist John Schott's composition for voice and quartet "Ashrey Ha-zor'im," set to music texts by rabbis Elias Canetti and Avraham Ben-Yitzahk, contained as many nods to avant-garde jazz and classical composers such as Mahler as it did to klezmer. Charming Hostess, the following band, used klezmer only as one stitch on a musical quilt that also comprised folk, funk, and Bulgarian-sounding a cappella harmony.

Still, if purists turn a deaf ear, they ignore the fact that this handful of klezmer-influenced Bay Area ensembles are making wonderfully creative music, with a sense of discovery and experimentation that's rare in a musical climate in which styles sometimes seem divided by barbed wire fences. Davka's Lavy's Dream and Next Village's self-titled disc contain some of the most original music released in recent years, blending seemingly disparate elements into a deeply personal and unique mix.

The music as a whole is also more rooted in the Jewish tradition than it might seem on the surface. "The thing that occurred to me originally," explains Goldberg, "was that you could listen to [pioneer jazz clarinetist] Sydney Bechet, and then if you hear late John Coltrane, you might not immediately hear the connection. But if you trace the evolution, then you can say, 'Yeah I can hear that.' So I was thinking similarly you could listen to klezmer from the '20s. Let's just imagine that that tradition hadn't just withered up. What if you imagined a similar evolution for klezmer? In the same way people hear late Coltrane and say, 'That's not jazz,' it was important to us to stay true to what we felt was the real tradition."

Hoffman notes, "Combining klezmer with other styles is part of the tradition; it's not really avant-garde. I guess it depends on how you de-fine klezmer."

The question of what to call the new music, though, is still open. "What is and is not Jewish music is almost as controversial as who is and who is not a Jew," says Schott.

"Is anything by a Jew Jewish music?" wonders Goldberg. "And how is that important to the music you're hearing?"

"We need another word," says Flexer. "It's kind of like, when you say 'jazz,' who knows what you mean? And who knows, maybe the word 'klezmer' will come to mean that too. But I'd love to come up with a really good one-word definition."

"I don't know what to call this stuff," admits Hoffman. "I usually just call it New Jewish Music."

It's not one word, but for now, it'll have to do.

About The Author

Ezra Gale

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