Year of Klezmer: Q&A

What is Klezmer?

Klezmer is Jewish music that originated in Eastern Europe, in countries such as Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Rumania. A hundred years ago these countries had big Jewish populations who spoke Yiddish and used to play klezmer for weddings and celebrations that involved a lot of dancing.

Due to the events of the Second World War klezmer was almost completely wiped out, but a handful of Jewish folk musicians in America led the klezmer revival in the 1970s, and since then many klezmer bands have sprung up all around the western world.

When did you first discover Klezmer and what interested you about this music?

Flora

I first came across klezmer in my late teens/early 20s, when I was working in a record shop and doing bits of travelling. Up until that point I had listened almost exclusively to western classical music and some folk and pop music mainly from the UK and the US, so as you can imagine, the more modal sound-world was completely new to me. I was transfixed by the beauty of this new musical world, the (to my ears) unusual modes, the expressive ornamentation, the different grooves, and of course the many characters in the music sounded so fresh. I loved how the music could go from lyrical and achingly sad to whipping up into an excited frenzy in a matter of seconds!

Flora

I first heard klezmer in Hungary when I was travelling there in 2000. At that time I was studying at the Royal Academy of Music to become a classical clarinet player. Then I saw an advertisement for Klezfest London and I thought ‘aha, I know what klezmer is’, so I went there, and met some great people and musicians. We formed my band, She’Koyokh, who just celebrated our 20th anniversary. I fell in love with the melodies, but also the way that as a performer you have the freedom to express yourself. Klezmer is dance music and one of my favourite things is to play for room full of people dancing – not something you tend to experience as a classical musician! I’m not Jewish myself, but I appreciate the strong ties the music has to some elements of Jewish culture and tradition.

—Susi

Susi

What are the most distinguishing features of Klezmer?

Klezmer distinguishes itself from other music genres most obviously by the particular modes many of the tunes are in. For example, the most common mode has a flattened second note of the scale, and a sharpened third. This mode is called ‘freygish’, and may evoke a sound-world that is associated with music from eastern Europe, the middle east and parts of Asia. You can also often tell that a piece of music is part of the klezmer tradition because of the use of an ornament that sounds a bit like a sob. This is called a ‘krekht’. The instrumentation can also be a good clue, as well as particular dance rhythms and accompaniment styles – one of the most common being the ‘oom-pah’.

What instruments are used in Klezmer music?

The word ‘klezmer’ actually means musician in Yiddish. 100 years ago the klezmorim (plural for klezmer) were Jewish men, but these days anyone can be a klezmer, Jews and non-Jews of any gender, and you can play klezmer on any instrument, but the most common ones are violins, flutes, clarinets, accordions and a drum called ‘poik’, which is a bass drum with a cymbal attached.

If you wanted to introduce someone to Klezmer music, what YouTube Clip or Recording would you share with them and why?

We learn klezmer tunes by ear, mainly from historical recordings that were made in Eastern Europe or America before c.1956. When you listen to the old stuff, you get a sense of the style of the music as well as the era in which it was created.

For example, this recording is from a band called Belf’s Romanian Orchestra, who were from Poland. It was recorded c.1912, and it tells us a lot about how klezmer sounded in Eastern Europe at that time.

This recording is by Dave Tarras and the Musiker Brothers, released in 1956 in New York. If you compare it to the Belf you can hear how much influence American music had on the style and instrumentation.

Tell us about your ensemble Hop-Skotshne?

Hop-Skotshne is an all-female ensemble comprised of three of Europe’s leading klezmer musicians; Susi Evans on clarinet, Szilvia Csaranko on accordion and Flora Curzon on fidl (violin), brought together by their passion for playing and teaching Klezmer. They are all classically trained, and enjoy playing all kinds of musical styles from classical to jazz, folk and Balkan music. They have been playing klezmer individually and together for many years, studying, performing, and teaching at all the major klezmer festivals including Yiddish New York, KlezKanada, Yiddish Summer Weimar and Klefest London.

Susi Evans lives in London and Hannover and studied classical clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music. She has been playing klezmer and Balkan music since 2001 and performs worldwide with her bands She’Koyokh and the London Klezmer Quartet. She is regarded as one of Europe’s top klezmer clarinettists as well as performing on accordion and calling for Yiddish dances. She also dedicates her time to studying Bulgarian and Serbian clarinet styles and plays Frula (Serbian flute) and Gaida (Bulgarian bagpipes).

Szilvia Csaranko lives in Hannover and is a qualified cultural educator, accordionist and pianist. After completing her classical piano training she shifted her artistic focus to researching and teaching traditional music styles. She founded the klezmer-Balkan-Alpen-folk band A Glezele Vayn in 2004 and plays in numerous folk and world music projects at home and abroad. She is the musical director of an 80-piece Klezmer orchestra in Erfurt: www.klezwecan.de.

Flora lives in London and studied classical violin at the Royal Academy of Music. Since completing her studies in 2014 she has been focussing on playing Klezmer, Baroque music, and many traditional fiddle styles, studying with many great masters across Europe and the USA. She tours regularly with her experimental folk duo, Fran & Flora, and has performed around the world, as well as live on Jools Holland, Tiny Desk, BBC Radio 4s Woman’s Hour and BBC6 Music with Cerys Matthews.

What should students expect from ‘Year of Klezmer’?

In the workshops we will play together in a klezmer orchestra and understand the role each instrument plays in a traditional klezmer band. We will learn some great tunes and play / sing these all together in a big group. We will also explore modal improvisation and learn about different klezmer dance forms.

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