Klezmer Orchestra has audience dancing in aisles Many styles seen in Jewish music

December 28, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

Even if you've never heard of Klezmer music, you've probably heard it.

That's because Klezmer, loosely defined as Jewish folk music, has influenced, and in turn been influenced by, virtually every style of music that Jewish people have had contact with over the last few hundred years.

Layer upon layer of musical archaeology was visible yesterday afternoon as the Baltimore Klezmer Orchestra had a packed house dancing in the aisles of the Lloyd Street Synagogue, the 19th century structure that is now a part of the Jewish Historical Society.

Aaron Bussey, leader of the 17-piece band, showed how Jewish melodies and styles popped up in jazz and swing and could be found all over Tin Pan Alley. The band is a spectral collection of instruments -- saxophones, clarinets, violins, mandolins, a bass, a guitar, a harmonica, an accordion, a trumpet, a keyboard, a flute, drums, plus the occasional tambourine and finger cymbals -- that Mr. Bussey said was emblematic of the Jewish experience.

"All folk musicians use the instruments that are at hand, but for Jewish musicians, this meant a wide variety," he said, explaining that since the Jews lived in so many countries, their instruments and influences are many and varied.

"Some people use a narrow definition of Klezmer, saying that it is only music of a certain style played in eastern European countries at a certain time in the 19th century. But if they take a melody and say that this is a pure Jewish melody, the fact is that by that time, it had already been influenced by the Hungarians or the Romanians or the Greeks or the Gypsies or many other cultures.

"So I prefer a broader definition of Klezmer. I just say it's Jewish music. We do play a certain song that we will say is the type you would have heard in Odessa in 1875 or another that you might have heard on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1920s. Then we play the Jazz songs and what we call the shmata tempo, shmata being the Yiddish word for rag, so it's ragtime. To us, it is all Klezmer music."

The term comes from a combination of two Hebrew words, kele and zemir, that mean instruments of song. It dates back to the Middle Ages, referring to a now-lost type of music played at various festivals.

And, if there was any theme that ran through the hour-long presentation yesterday -- the band will present a longer concert Jan. 24 at the Baltimore Hebrew University -- it was the sound of celebration. The songs were consistently up-tempo, hand-clapping, folk-dancing tunes that brought smiles to the faces of those listening to the concert.

But Mr. Bussey said there were other, more subtle musical threads tying the seemingly disparate songs together.

"In Jewish culture, music has always been linked to prayer. And our prayers often have certain scales and these scales find their way into the music.

"And, the music of every culture is affected by the language. Even if there are no words to a song, the way a quarter-note or eighth-note is played is different. So Jewish music takes on the rhythms of Yiddish."

Mr. Bussey said Klezmer virtually disappeared in this country during the 1950s.

"Most Jews wanted to assimilate. They were embarrassed by music like this."

"Then in the '60s, people began to rediscover their ethnic heritage."

"I thought the interest had peaked about five years ago, but it seems to keep growing. We work more than ever," he said of the orchestra, made up of about one-third professional musicians, the rest amateurs.

Though Klezmer is, by definition, music linked to a certain ethnic tradition, Mr. Bussey said he finds real joy in its ability to transcend national differences.

"I've played on a stage with Jews and Gypsies and Turks and Greeks and Armenians and Arabs, people who in civilian life hate each other," he said. "But we all know the same songs, and when we're up there playing, we speak the same musical language. We love each other."

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