The Klezmatics rock Zelazo
The Klezmatics bring the living, dancing tradtions of klezmer, the music of East European Jews, to UWM.
Klezmer, the traditional Jewish folk music of Eastern Europe, is powerful stuff. The up-tempo tunes could make an octogenarian dance. The poignant ones could make a cynic cry. Klezmer has migrated easily around the world and made itself at home everywhere. Swing bands in the ‘30s took it fresh from Vilna and gave it a new home in Flatbush. And where would we be without techno-klez?
The ability to adapt is one of klezmer music’s greatest charms, but such flexibility doesn’t come without risk. If a genre of music welcomes anyone into the neighborhood, anyone can move in. The question is who, musically, will that be? Which way will the new arrivals make the music flex? The Klezmatics showed that they flex it the right way, toward the sublime.
Sublimity is enviable, but The Klezmatics go one better. On the surface, klezmer music is not complex, but The Klezmatics offer a world of layers. These musicians also raise some provocative questions. What are we to take away from their performance? Are they here to entertain or to teach us something? The fact that a band can inspire such questions hints at the complexity and sophistication of what they do.
Why does teaching enter the discussion? The Klezmatics made the audience sway, clap, and sing. They played the traditional Jewish dance tunes — the freylekhs, the shers — with overarching energy, chops, and conviction. That would have been enough. But they were in a sense rebbes, master teachers and mentors — not religious ones, but musical ones.
The Klezmatics’ lesson has more to do with cultural Judaism than religious Judaism. Their pedagogical tools are not sacred texts, but musical instruments and song. Sunday, they mostly played secular dance music. When texts came into play, the subject more often than not touched on everyday life of a culture that once flourished but was nearly destroyed. Knowledge of that history compounds the poignancy of the music.
The Klezmatics’ secular repertoire and the musical richness of their chosen pieces make their work welcoming to anyone of any persuasion. But their music might have a spiritual message after all. It reminds us that the musical fruits of an almost lost world can have immense vitality and warmth. Klezmer can make a secularist feel spiritual.
The Klezmatics performed both traditional music and their own material. Woody Guthrie, as Lisa Gutkin reminded us, was so much more than a folk-singer. Woody was a poet, and The Klezmatics helped us know it. His Mermaid Street has some splendid lines, and The Klezmatics set them to music with taste and affection. Guthrie would have approved.
It is easy to measure the success of a klezmer concert. If the audience remains seated, not so much. If they get up and dance during the encore — success. Sunday, they danced.
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