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Klezmer Refrain

Festival: Old and young sing and dance at celebration of traditional Yiddish music. For some, it's a reminder of the past.

April 14, 1997|MATEA GOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Far from the cold rural villages of Eastern Europe, clarinets wailed, feet stomped and klezmer music rang out under the hot Southern California sky at the Skirball Cultural Center on Sunday.

KlezFest--the first Los Angeles festival in memory centered around the traditional Yiddish music form--drew more than 250 people for a day of singing, music lessons, dance workshops and, naturally, a mock klezmer wedding. In the

courtyard, young and old linked hands and danced to a music that is experiencing a revival across the country.

Sunday's festival was a highlight of a 10-day celebration of klezmer music sponsored by Community Arts Resources and Yiddishkayt Los Angeles. The music has its roots in a folk tradition of the Eastern European villages, or shtetls, where klezmer musicians inaugurated every wedding, birth or bris. Now a new generation of klezmer enthusiasts have brought back the fiddling sounds to community centers, concert halls and even college dorms.

Jessica Ruiz, 18, pulled out some sheet music and followed along as the New York-based band, The Klezmatics, kicked off the morning session at the West Los Angeles museum.

"I love this stuff," said the USC freshman, who brought her clarinet so she could chime in during some of the workshops. "It's a celebration of history mixed with the present. I think a lot of people associate it with that old wedding music our grandparents listened to, but it's really great stuff."

Ruiz and her friend Joshua Goldstein, a fellow music student, said they want to start a klezmer band at USC.

"My grandparents bought me my first trumpet--I think they would be proud if they knew I was playing klezmer," said Goldstein, 18. "Nothing else could have got me out of bed on a Sunday morning."

For many, the festival was an opportunity to pass on a history of music. Rebecca Rosen, a first-year music student at UCLA, said she came to learn a new kind of sound from the klezmer musicians. But for her father, Van Nuys resident Alex Rosen, the music was rooted in memories.

"I'm here to renew my Jewish roots," Alex Rosen said. "I remember this music as a kid, at weddings and gatherings of all kinds. They didn't play rock and roll back then--they played klezmer."

He joined the dancers in the courtyard as his daughter, cello in tow, met up with some musicians to learn some of the basics of klezmer. On a small patio in the back of the building, she strained to capture the mournful rhythm underlying a traditional Bulgar song. "I'm playing it too straight," she said, frustrated.

Instructor Paul Morrissett shook his head. "Listen." He drew back on his bow, letting out a low wail. "There's a certain heaviness to it. Without changing the rhythm, drag behind it a little. You're trying to achieve some of the dance ecstasy. . . . It's sort of triumphant." Rebecca nodded, a look of intensity on her face as she worked to emulate the tone.

Klezmer gets its distinctive wailing sound from the krechz, or sob, that characterizes the chant of the cantor and Yiddish folk singers, said Alicia Svigals, a violinist with The Klezmatics. Simultaneously joyful and sad, traditional klezmer music echoes a range of emotions. Now, new groups are fusing that sound with rock and blues.

Svigals said she isn't surprised by the resurging interest in a music many Jewish people associate with their immigrant roots.

"I think people want to have their own musical language," Svigals said. "It's a satisfying, nourishing culture that's not the bubble gum you get on the radio."

Organizers of KlezFest, which continues through April 20, said the day was designed not only to remind people of the tradition of klezmer in Jewish history, but to ignite a new interest in the culture.

Many Jews turned away from klezmer after World War II, said Aaron Paley, executive director of Community Arts Resources. "It represented something old, outdated to them," Paley said. "It had bad associations with what happened in the Holocaust. As immigrants, they wanted to lose their accents and . . . everything Yiddish got pushed under the rug."

But Paley said bringing klezmer back as a central part of Jewish life and a vital aspect of world music is helping redefine a broader Jewish culture.

"It has a lot to offer in terms of communicating with the past and as a platform for contemporary, creative expression," he said. "We're not just approaching the culture from the standpoint of nostalgia and sentimentality. . . . It's about the fact that it has something to say to us now."

Many young people, who made up the bulk of the Sunday crowd, seemed to agree.

Giggling delightedly, 9-year-olds Allison Miller, Nicole Mirkin and Lindsey Marx linked arms and twirled in a circle as a band behind them picked up the tempo.

"I like it--it's got a great rhythm," Allison said.

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