Klezmer music. It's instantly recognizable, yet almost impossible to define.
It's a clarinet, wailing with the passion-drenched intensity of the blues. It's a violin, dancing with rhythms straight out of "Fiddler on the Roof." It's the irresistible "Bulgar beat"--the circle dance rhythm that gets the toes tapping and the body moving in songs such as "Hava Nagila."
But klezmer also is edgy, forward-looking groups such as the Klezmatics and tradition-oriented ensembles such as Brave Old World. It is the avant-garde tinged sounds of African American klezmer clarinetist Don Byron.
And it is music that is experiencing a revival reaching well beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community.
In celebration of that revival, CARS (Community Arts Resources), Yiddishkayt Los Angeles and the Skirball Cultural Center are sponsoring a 10-day series of klezmer events in the first KlezFest, tonight through April 20. The program's highlight event takes place tonight and Saturday, when the Klezmatics and Brave Old World appear in a UCLA Center for the Performing Arts concert at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater. Both groups were seen and heard with violinist Itzhak Perlman recently in a concert tour and the PBS special "In the Fiddler's House."
"Klezmer is happening right now," explains Aaron Paley of CARS. "Its revival in the last 20 years coincides with the interest in world music and in other cultures. And groups like the Klezmatics and Brave Old World, with their celebration of Yiddish music, bring Jewish roots into the 21st century."
It has been a long, strange trip for klezmer. The music's foundation rests in Eastern Europe. The sounds and rhythms are diverse because the wandering klezmorim--folk musicians, actually--who are its progenitors played cantorial melodies and traditional songs with no formal training and no specific instrumentation. The need for portability tended to emphasize the use of violins, brass and woodwind instruments, and drums.
"Klezmer," Paley continues, "evolved organically as the celebration music of the Yiddish communities. If there was a celebration for a wedding, a bris, for the blessing of a new Torah, there was klezmer music associated with it."
Like the Gypsies, the klezmorim assimilated a variety of musical influences as they ranged across 18th and 19th century Europe. Their music grew and developed in a fashion not unlike the manner in which Yiddish evolved.
"What Yiddish was as a language to the Jewish community, klezmer was, and is, as a music," Paley says. "Yiddish is a language that has major components borrowed from the different areas in which the Jewish community resided--Germanic, Hebrew/Aramaic, French, Russian and English."
Klezmer music picked up similar influences along the way.
"There's a nod to the Gypsies," he continues, "to Hungarian music, to Romania, to Bulgaria; there are influences coming up from the Middle East through the Mediterranean. And it all combined together to make something quintessentially Jewish, in the same way that Yiddish, as a language, evolved."
Klezmer music has been present in the United States for more than a century. In the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, it flourished on the Lower East Side of New York, in vaudeville and in Yiddish theater. As ethnicity became less fashionable and entertainment more homogenized, interest in klezmer lessened. Clarinetist Mickey Katz achieved some prominence in the '40s and '50s with swing-style klezmer recordings. But with the arrival of the nation of Israel, klezmer faded as Hebrew became a more prominent language than Yiddish, which tended to be identified with the terrible struggles of European Jewry.
The post-rock era has seen a startling revival of klezmer music in the hands of young, radical performers eager to reaffirm a heritage that reaches beyond the boundaries of Israel. (In fact, the klezmer musical "Shlemiel the First" opens next month at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.)
The KlezFest is a powerful example of the force of the klezmer/Yiddish renewal. Yiddishkayt Los Angeles' participation underscores klezmer's vital role in reestablishing a connection with European immigrant culture.
"Yiddishkayt means 'Yiddishness' or 'things having to do with Yiddish culture,' " Paley says. "Another translation is 'things Jewish,' but we mean 'things Yiddish.' It is the language and music of Eastern European Jews--a thousand-year-old language and culture. And our mission is to promote Yiddish culture and Yiddish programming in Los Angeles, to provide a forum for that culture, and to raise its profile and its visibility."
The KlezFest events include the following highlights:
* Tonight and Saturday: the Klezmatics and Brave Old World, Veterans Wadsworth Theater, 226 Eisenhower Ave., Brentwood, 8 p.m., (310) 825-2101. $22-$25.
* Sunday: KlezFest at the Skirball, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 962-1976. Klezmer and yiddishkayt workshops, 11 a.m.; a shtetl wedding procession, 3:15 p.m.; wedding dance party, 5:30 p.m.; other events throughout the day. $50 adults and teens, $25 children for tickets to all events.
* Next Friday: Isabell Ganz, "Songs of the Warsaw Ghetto." Workman's Circle/Arbeter Ring, 6000 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, 7:30 p.m., (310) 552-2007. Free (donations accepted).
* April 19: Klazzj in concert at the Santa Monica Festival. Clover Park, 2600 Ocean Park Blvd., 3 p.m., (310) 458-8350. Free.
* April 20: "Music of Wandering Peoples," featuring Barry Fisher, Zinovy Goro, John Bilezikjian and others. Ash Grove, 250 Santa Monica Pier, 7:30 p.m., (310) 656-8500. $15.