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Carving Out Post-Klezmer Revival Niche


The band's name speaks volumes. Brave Old World bravely carves out its own musical niche, in which the venerable old traditions from the Eastern European klezmer scene are freely blended with new attitudes and genres.

Voila, the erudite, fun-loving mix of ideas that they hesitate to call klezmer, per se, despite the obvious lineage. Founding member Michael Alpert likens the band's resistance to the klezmer tag to the instinct Duke Ellington had to think of music as being "beyond category."

"There was a point where [Ellington] wanted to get away from the label jazz because it was starting to mean everything and nothing. He wanted to go into some symphonic forays. We see ourselves as going somewhere similar.

"Like Ellington, we don't at all want to lose touch with our roots. As a matter of fact, we're more into traditional music than a lot of people here on the scene. But, at the same time, it's not always obvious what we're doing. We like the label 'new Jewish music' for what we do."

The group, which will perform at CSUN on Thursday as part of the citywide "Yiddishkayt!" festival, first kicked up its multicultural heels in 1989.

At the time, the "klezmer revival" had seen the rebirth of a music once relegated to a historical footnote.

All these years, recordings and tours later, the group is one of the best-known proponents of the post-klezmer revival scene.

It performed with Itzhak Perlman on the PBS special "In the Fiddler's House" and has come to be considered a prominent player in the acoustic alternative scene, Jewish division.

Its latest album, "Blood Oranges" (Red House), features a typical sweep of styles in and around the Jewish musical palette.

This week, Alpert gave an interview on the phone from Yale, where he was working on music for a play there.

All the members of the group, although actively touring for half a given year, maintain active musical lives and side projects, and the players have worked in classical, rock and jazz arenas, all of which funnel into the versatile group sound.

Alpert explained that their "initial intention was to perform and explore klezmer music, and, when I say klezmer music, I use that as a kind of catch phrase for Yiddish music.

"But we wanted to perform it on a world-class level, on a level that was for the concert stage, to perform it utilizing the expertise that we all have, particularly in the older East European strata of the tradition. We wanted to perform it with high artistic standards. "But even back then, I wouldn't say we were just performing the pure traditional music. We were creating new forms, recombining different traditional forms, putting Yiddish folk song into instrumental settings."

Their own fledgling taste for innovation, even in their early years, was, Alpert said, "not unrelated to what was going on in the world around that time, the whole fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of East Europe.

"And development around that time of world music as a phenomenon was coming into its own--various kinds of ethno-pop and a lot of music that was really hitting the charts and hitting musical consciousness. As part of that, klezmer music came more into people's awareness, as well."

Woven into the group's fabric and its way of being is an educational component. It will be intrinsic in both the CSUN concert and a separate program, "Night Songs From the Neighboring Village," at the Anson Ford Amphitheater on May 20, in collaboration with the Ukrainian group Paris to Kyiv.

Alpert pointed out that klezmer's reemergence is due to the abiding historical curiosity and research intentions of the musicians.

"To a large extent," Alpert said, "the people who have done the most thinking and, until recently, most of the research and publication and analysis of the music have been those of us who have been the performers of the music as well. We're the creators of this whole klezmer phenomenon."


Brave Old World performs Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center, Cal State Northridge, 18111 Nordhoff St. Tickets are $10-$30. (818) 677-2488.

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