European Klezmer Music
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2000)

If your idea of Jewish music is a medley from Fiddler on the Roof, or even if you've advanced to the level of klezmer revival aficionado and have a few Klezmatics or Klezmer Conservatory Band CDs, you may not find what you are looking for in Khevrisa. This does not reflect on the music, for it's great music to be sure.

If, on the other hand, you have a real desire to know more about the roots of klezmer and are enthusiastic at the thought of listening to 19th-century Jewish music -- sounding more like the strains of a classical ensemble coming over a public radio station than a folk tune in a peasant kitchen -- you may enjoy it. Doesn't that just tell you everything about Khevrisa? Well, not exactly -- but that's probably what you wanted to know.

If you seek the happy, hand-clapping, spirited dance music of today's klezmer revival bands, if you want to hear wedding dance music and songs like your grandparents heard at their weddings, if you seek that faster and faster rapturous uplift that klezmer will give you, this is not the collection for you.

Even if you enjoy the plaintive wail of the klezmer clarinet, the doleful piccolo sounding a doina and the so-sad voice of a young klezmer singer recalling the often unhappy roots from which she sprang -- still -- this is not the CD for you. Khevrisa proves that it's a capital mistake to presume that all klezmer music sounds the same.

For, as the liner notes reveal, "Unlike other contemporary klezmer recordings, Khevrisa presents gorgeous violin led instrumentals from 19th-century Eastern Europe." And the other differences between this and other types of currently popular klezmer music include the following: The music style is one neglected in the klezmer revival. These pieces are primarily "display" pieces for weddings -- songs to listen to, not for dancing. Ten of the tracks have never been recorded before.

But wait, what's this? Who are the musicians performing these austere and stately melodies? In testimony to their versatility, it is several members of the Klezmatics, including the astonishing and charming Alicia Svigals and Steve Greenman. Greenman has performed with the Klezmatics and Kapelye among other recognizable and established klezmer revival bands. Svigals is a Klezmatic founding member and award-winning fiddler. She has recorded two of her own duet compositions while with the Klezmatics with none other than Itzhak Perlman. And like a grasshopper contented on blade of grass or barley stalk, she jumps genres including an appearance with, no kidding, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin on their reunion tour. Talk about versatility.

Add to the mix some scholarly researchers of esoteric musical strains and you've got quite an eclectic bunch. These scholars include Walter Zev Feldman, a leading researcher on Ottoman Turkish and Jewish music and author of a book on the music of the Ottoman court. The National Endowment for the Humanities sponsored his translation of The Book of the Science of Music by the Moldavian Prince Demetrius Cantemir (1673-1723). Scholars, musical companions of Itzhak Perlman, klezmer revival pioneers -- the talent is remarkable, the musicianship accomplished.

To highlight a few tracks is unfair to the others, but that's what reviewers do, so here goes. Track three, "Sher II," is a lively minor melody akin to what one expects from klezmer revival tunes. Tracks five and six, "Ahavo Rabbo Shteyger" and "Shir Ha Malois," feature the cymbalom, Eastern Europe's hammered dulcimer called by various names in various countries. Remember a Fairport Convention tune, recalling their tour of the then communist Hungary? A verse from it went, "Oh, what a time we had, down by the Danube, eating our goulash and drinking our wine; listenin' to Gypsy bands playing cymbaloms; everyone happy and everything fine."

Upon first hearing track eight, one is immediately reminded of the music of Russia, for the cymbalom in it is evocative of the balalaika, and the violin is gypsy in its swooning. Then the liner notes explained that this is a Dobriden. In Russian, "dobri dyen" means good day. This type of melody, it explains, was played on the morning of a wedding or the morning afterwards.

Track 15, "Alter Yiddisher Tants (Old Jewish Dance)," bears strains fans of the Klezmatics should appreciate. Track 17, "Terkisher Gebet," is Gypsy-like again. Track nine is more typical of the klezmer revival music we know, the kind that invites the feet to move engagingly. And as track 18, "Bughici's Terkisher Freylakhs," begins, you can easily envision someplace like the "Casbah" and a bellydancer come to the stage through a beaded curtain, so pronounced are the Turkish overtones.

In short, this is an eclectic collection of the rare and unusual, of klezmer history. It is a definite must for the serious student of klezmer or of Jewish music in general. It is academic in its attractiveness as they throw in a 25-page booklet by Feldman in fine print that contains a wealth of information on everything from Bulgar and Turkish influences to a glossary of klezmer terms. A little more formal than the Klezmorim's Lower East Side, but worth the listening ... and the heady melodies grow on you.

[ by John Cross ]

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