Klezmer: Backward and Forward

Three new klezmer recordings offer a listen into the genre’s past, present and possible future.

Klezmer was originally the soundtrack to the Jewish wedding, but no band has attempted to recreate such an event until recently. Working with people who were in Eastern Europe at the time klezmer was developed, the band Budowitz — named for the maker of their accordionist’s instrument — crafted "Wedding Without a Bride" (Buda Musique, $18.98).

In 70 minutes, Budowitz ushers the listener through the whole wedding day, from the bride’s bedecken to the groom’s processional to the in-laws’ dance. The songs conjure up the sadness of the bride leaving her family, the joy of the new union and the lighthearted pomp of the families, considered royalty for the day. There are quite a few surprises for the wedding attendees, including a dance in which the couple’s parents mime a fight and reconciliation.

Another intriguing feature is the use of the cimbalom. This dulcimer-like instrument has strings across a sound-hole, like a guitar, but is played flat on a lap or table, and its seeming dozens of strings are struck by small sticks, like inside a piano. Its glinting, chiming tone is unfortunately not common in more recent klezmer ensembles.

Another highlight is the badchan, the jokester. This emcee serves and a poet, jester and ringleader, guiding the attendees through the wedding ceremony and spouting praise and admonishment to the young couple in exuberant Yiddish.

The CD comes with thesis-worthy liner notes, but it is more than an academic exercise. "Wedding Without a Bride" is a highly listenable introduction into klezmer for novices, while those familiar only with more recent takes on the form will also be entertained and enlightened.

The current state of klezmer is examined on "The Rough Guide to Klezmer" (World Music Network, $12.98). The Rough Guide series is like a musical version of Fodor’s, escorting listeners around the world through their headphones.

The Rough Guide volume on klezmer purports to be a overview of the current klezmer scene. It succeeds, however, in being an excellent overview of the Klezmatics and Naftule Brandwein, and the more intellectual approach to the genre in general. Now, these artists are key to klezmer. And other major players — like the Hankus Netsky’s Klezmer Conservatory Band, Brave Old World, the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band and Budowitz — are profiled. But they are far from the limits of the style.

Inexplicably missing are such major figures as Giora Fiedman and Andy Statman. Further, some United States-born musicians stationed overseas are here, but natives like Britain’s Burning Bush and Italy’s KlezRoym are not. Also MIA are rising stars like Shawn’s Kugel and Tzimmes; Midwest favorites, like Chicago’s Tumbalalaika, Madison’s Yid Vicious and Cleveland’s Yiddishe Cup; and jokemeisters like Mickey Katz and Klezperanto. Clearly, there is not room for everyone. But their omission is hard to justify when five of the 18 tracks are by the Klezmatics or members thereof, while upwards of eight selections are Brandwein compositions.

One nice feature of the disc is that it presents the same tracks twice — once by Brandwein himself, once by a more recent band — in keeping with the disc’s subtitle: "Shtetl roots and New World revival." It closes with two divergent modern takes on a Brandwein classic as well.

Klezmatics fans will want the band’s whole-group and solo albums, and newcomers to klezmer would find this a skewed introduction. But those who like their klezmer somewhere between sugary freylachs and flavorless reproductions should find "The Rough Guide to Klezmer" a winning compilation.

"Wedding Without a Bride" is notable for the way it wrings many emotions from the same instruments. "Rough Guide to Klezmer," on the other hand, boasts the expected clarinets and violins, but also drums, pianos, a trombone, and a tuba.

Looking to the future, KlezSka announces itself as "part of the next wave in Jewish music." The band’s name explains its modus operandi: klezmer mixed with ska (punk-like protoreggae). The duo is comprised of composer and producer Glenn Tamir, who has played with the seminal Skatalites, and keyboardist Tommy Mandel, who has backed Bryan Adams and Dire Straits. The first half of their CD, "Rasta Meets the Rabbi" (Klezska, $18.95), is given to explorations of the places klezmer and ska might meet, melodically and rhythmically.

But this strange bird doesn’t really fly until the second half, which spins Jewish favorites as ska. There is a double dose of Debbie Friedman, "Elokai" and "L’Chi Lach" — arrangements she might consider borrowing. And "Ein Fiddler" uses a medley of "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Tradition" to invite Tevye from Anatevka to Kingston. In these and the following tracks, Tamir finds an island groove and rides it like a champion surfer.

Appropriately for the age of the Internet, Jewish music’s past, present and future are all available for listening right now. Who would have thought we’d live in a time when we could use the words "klezmer" and "download" in the same sentence?