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KLEZMER BAND FINDS YIDDISH ROOTS

May 16, 1986|JOHN VOLAND

Yale Strom wasn't content with merely rounding up an itinerant klezmer band to provide music for the odd wedding or bar mitzvah around the San Diego area.

Instead, Strom, 28, a fiddler, formed his band, called Zmiros (Yiddish for melodies), to reexamine the Eastern European Jewish roots that he and many others his age had noticed were slipping away from them. In starting a klezmer band, Strom turned to the traditional style of entertainment that had been offered for centuries at Jewish celebrations.

But, of course, he also wanted a band that could really play. His 4-year-old group can be heard Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Beth Emet, 1770 W. Cerritos Ave. in Anaheim, in a concert presented by the Jewish Studies Institute Day School.

Zmiros works hard to establish its identity in the midst of a recent surge in klezmer bands and the attendant audience interest. The Klezmorim, a 10-piece klezmer band based in New York City, has toured and recorded extensively, and regional bands such as Seattle's Mazeltones--mixing traditional Yiddish music with a dash of '50s doo-wop--are making names for themselves.

"We think our approach and instrumentation is different," explained Strom. "The Klezmorim, for example, is all woodwinds and percussion; they use it to push the jazz connection. That was more like the 20th-Century klezmer bands, the big bands that played in Europe and on the East Coast.

"We're more like the older traditional bands that played weddings. We use a lot of stoliner Hassidim melodies, older things from the 17th and 18th centuries. And some of my own pieces really reflect the traditional folk aspects. But we never forget that this is the 1980s."

Authenticity was always important to Strom and his three fellow klezmorim --Fred Benedetti on guitar and mandolin, Robert Williams on clarinet and flute and Mark Dresser on bass--so important that Strom roamed all over Eastern Europe for months, sampling the indigenous Yiddish culture where he could find it and taking about 6,000 photographs of what he saw there.

"I never really thought that any of the Jewish shtetls (small villages) were still around after Hitler and the Soviets controlled the area," Strom said. "But amazingly I still found some, in Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia.

"There was this little town in northeastern Romania named Dorohoi that was almost like a shtetl of the 1920s; people were speaking Yiddish on the street as if time had stood still for 60 years."

From the klezmorim of Dorohoi and towns like it in Eastern Europe, Strom picked up some tunes, some gossip and, most important, a finer appreciation of the musician's place in traditional Jewish society.

"It didn't come easy, though," recalled Strom with a laugh. "They were really quite distrustful of me until I sat in on a couple of what I guess you would call their 'jam sessions.' Then they saw that I could play a little, and they let down their guard a bit. I was one of the gang--even though my Yiddish was more than a little rusty."

When Zmiros started out in San Diego, it hit the traditional klezmer circuit: weddings, private parties, bar mitzvahs. But soon Strom, recently returned from his fact-finding mission, expanded the group's reach; last October, the group began playing in synagogues, church halls and even a concert hall or two.

"We tried to keep the ethnic flavor but added some stories, some jokes and some contemporary musical touches," Strom said. "When it finally came around to making records, we wanted to open it up a little."

Zmiros has made two records on its own Gogle-Muggle label: "Cholent," the first album, blends Old World songs and ballads with a youthful New World outlook, while "Eclectic Klezz" hews a more traditional line because the LP was made with Strom's field research strengthening the Old World connection.

Indeed, Strom's findings were so comprehensive that a museum exhibit--to be opened at the Sperdis Museum in Chicago in December--was assembled and mounted. He said the exhibit, incorporating his pictures, notes and interviews (and, of course, music by Zmiros), might help young American Jews get "a better sense of the culture many of them feel they've missed out on, somehow."

"This culture is something that many of our parents wanted to forget when their parents came to America, so people my age didn't really know what we were missing," Strom added. "In fact, Zmiros and all that a klezmer band represents was something the guys and I really had to reconstruct because it's something which doesn't really have a homeland anymore."

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