Notes from the Field: Klezmer Music

Klezmer Music Experience!

Author: Julia Elkouby

On the Sunday a group of us went to see Klezmer, a Yiddish style of music, live at a pub in central London. The evening consisted of glowing lights, lively conversations and beautiful music. Despite klezmer coming from a very Jewish background we actually found ‘that in secular society it has a massive following, since the 80s when there was this revival’. Most of the musicians also did not come from a Jewish background. One of them stumbled upon it from his friends in a samba band, another got into it during her gap year when she was asked to play some for an event, and another through his marriage to a Jewish woman.

The one thing they all had in common was their passion for the music and its liveliness. As soon as they came into the pub they would be dancing and tapping their feet, itching to take their instruments and start playing. The session we attended was more of a jam session where they would play off each other and improvise. At first there were fewer people and so they were listening to each other more and improvising from there but as it got more crowded, the circle got bigger, the music ascended into an animated jumble. As one musician said ‘the more people come in, the more noisy it gets; it’s more exciting but more of a mush!’

As we talked to them afterwards we found out a bit more about the music they listen to and what they produce. Some of them were in a band together and all performed Mediterranean music from the Balkans so the origins were similar to klezmer. They did also talk about mixing up klezmer with a lot of different styles such as African drumming, electronic music, jazz, rumba, and folk songs with lots of silly stories. The double bass player said he loved mixing up the rhythms and ‘putting in big bass lines that aren’t normally found in klezmer’ to make it ‘more groovy’.

The fact most of them had not grown up with that culture shows us exactly how infectious klezmer is as a music genre. It is a mix ‘between being really soulful music and really joyful music and you can hear that in the scales and modes that it uses’. ‘It’s the laughter and the crying combined’. It’s the complete range of emotions you go through ‘from the happiest to the most desolate’. The only Jewish person we talked to mentioned how he felt it was a really big part of his upbringing and when he plays it he feels like he’s presenting his own culture through it, ‘this is [his] culture, [his] people, he’s doing [him]’.

The way in which his band mate described it was that playing this kind of music is almost spiritual.

“When you’re playing I think with any folk music you feel the emotions of the people who play the music and you feel the connection to a whole line or lineage of people, whether it be Scottish music feeling that Celtic culture stretching back hundreds of years through the music. Music’s the best way to understand in a way. It gives you an insight into the feeling and makes you feel a connection I find it’s quite spiritual as you’re connecting to people back and back.”