Saturday, January 10, 2009

More Comments on Beyond Boundaries: Klezmer Music in the 21st Century

One of the things I find interesting about blogging is seeing which posts people respond to. Naturally, if I post just before heading out-of-town, that post will invariably turn out to be one attracting a lot of interest.

Case in point, my recent post, " Some Comments on Beyond Boundaries: Klezmer Music in the 21st Century." The klezmer Shack linked the post and a number of people emailed as well.

One of those people was Yale Strom, whose presentation I'd criticized in my post. Yale apparently misread my post and wrote in to correct me, thereby clarifying that he had claimed exactly what I'd said he'd claimed. He wrote:
Thank you for coming to the conference and writing about it. I would like to correct you on my topic, because I think you may have misunderstood my point. I do not credit Chabad houses with the revival of klezmer. It's just the opposite: In many of the cities, towns and villages where the revival of klezmer helped spark re-interest in Jewish life among disenfranchised Jews and curious non-Jews, these interested parties were present before the Chabad Shliakh. Thus, when Chabad came to these communities, they found a spark of interest. For many of the Jews in these communities who felt spiritually empty (largely due to the 40 years of fascistic governments), klezmer sparked a longing for connection. So in certain instances, the groundwork was laid by klezmer, which thus enabled Chabad to take root. I'm sorry if you misunderstood my thesis during my talk, but I hope that now it's clearer to you. And as I was personally there in many of these communities in the early 80's, I witnessed this myself.
Fishel wrote:
Thanks for your brief review of the Beyond Boundaries event for those of us who couldn't be there.

Your point about looking sideways is particularly well-taken. They are more interested in looking sideways at "edgy" artistic endeavors for context, than at frummies. No big surprise - though unfortunate - that folks in the thick of the klezmer revival would dismiss simcha music and the entire hassidic scene out of hand.

As a frum musician who plays both frum weddings and "klezmer" (though for the past several years my "klezmer" repertoire has become largely hassidic nigunim), I can understand their viewpoint:

On the one hand, there is the secularist desire to negate anything too firmly rooted in observance.
On the other hand, there is the perception (which I must confess that I share) that most of the simcha music scene - at least in the US - is pop pabulum. I call it ortho-pop, and while I do enjoy playing some of it, most of my enjoyment comes from participating in the holy and joyous event which is the wedding. Most of the ortho-pop itself is not very deeply rooted in the gut-wrenching work of avodas HaShem. One has only to play some real hassidic nigunim, and some newer pop tunes, to know the difference.

Nonetheless, your comments about Meron, etc. should most certainly have been part of the discussion. But then, fifteen minutes for each presentation sounds pretty ridiculous!

I found Yale Strom's hypothesis on the source of Chabad's success to be...fascinating.
As I noted, I think the lack of interest by Klezmer musicians in looking at elements of Chassidic music is surprising.

Here are some specific examples of areas where I think looking sideways would be very useful to klezmer musicians.

1) The evolution of the Meron repertoire and similar music in the Chassidic communities in Israel. For example, I just picked up a great disc, "Menagen Meron" by Israeli-Chassidic clarinetist Chilik Frank. In general, here's an artist I think the klezmer world should be aware of, both as a clarinet stylist and even more importantly, because of his performance repertoire. Shmuel Nieman is another I think worth checking out. The backing band is uninspiring to me, but his clarinet playing is worth hearing.

In a similar vein, I also think it would be worthwhile to look at the old Yerushalmi Chassidic groups, like Toldos Ahron, and the music they play today, which is deeply rooted in the older styles.

2) There is an ongoing Modzhitzer musical tradition that it would be "vikhtig" to check out.Here's an example of the current Modzitzer Rebbe's original music. This song is one of the first compositions he composed a little over a year ago, his first year as Rebbe.

3) Some other Chassidic groups have either ongoing traditions of composition or else are experiencing a new-wave of inspirational musical compositions. To my knowledge, Frank London and friends are basically the only people looking at these songs. I'd think dance songs like Belz's Tehei Hasho'oh Hazoys", Vishnitz's "Yodee Lashem Chasdoy", the revived "Lag Ba'Omer Nigun" etc. would be of general interest to klezmorim. Yet, it seems like too many won't even consider looking at this material.

To be clear, I'm not talking about the Euro-pop/Disco that passes for Hassidic music in much of Brooklyn. I'm talking about the art of the nigun, as it were, and the associated musical traditions that have evolved directly from older folk styles, both Eastern-European and Middle-Eastern. There's a wealth of material there.