Klezmer Culture and History

Klezmer Culture and History

What is Klezmer?

The wedding and celebration music of the Jewish communities became known as klezmer (from kle-zemer: Hebrew, “vessel of music”) from about the C16th, and grew up together with dances. This was music distinctly different from the music of religious practice, and yet klezmer is flavoured with the spirit, modes and nuances of the liturgical. The music and dances did not develop in a vacuum, but influenced, and were in turn influenced by, other local communities. Klezmorim were professional musicians and played wherever and whatever was requested. There was also a specific symbiosis between the Jewish and Gypsy musicians.

Eastern European Jews

The story of klezmer starts with the migration of Jewish people eastwards from Germany into Poland, from the late 14th century. By the early 18th century there was an established Ashkenazi (the Yiddish word for ‘German’) community in the Polish Common-wealth, with its own laws and government, and Jewish musicians providing a large part of the music at Court and Social functions. Jewish people in Eastern Europe were often faced with persecution with consequent large-scale emigration. Yet by the end of the 19th Century, there was a thriving Yiddish culture, with music, theatre, poetry and literature. It all came to an abrupt end in the late 1930s.

Saving Klezmer

With the almost total destruction of Jewish communities in the Holocaust, it seems like a miracle that the people and culture survive. Some of the music was written down, and (from the very late C19th) there are some audio recordings. In the latter C19th, interest in Jewish culture led to the pioneer figure of Semyon An-Sky organising music-collecting expeditions. Later Soviet researchers such as Moishe Beregovsky added to this collection, as did enthusiasts such as Ruth Rubin and Mark Slobin (based in the USA in the C20th). Much of the klezmer music we know has come to us via klezmorim who emigrated to the USA.
After the Holocaust, interest and engagement in Yiddish culture waned. But the 1970s saw a revival in interest in America, with bands such as the Klezmorim and Kapelye coming to national attention.

Crossing the Atlantic to Britain

In the 70s and 80s we see the beginnings of the British revival, as part of the international picture. London was a main centre for professional performance, but the impetus for workshops and training in the 1980s was further north, in Leeds and other Cities in Yorkshire.  This was perhaps the true beginning of our Kleznorth story, as Sue Cooper, the first chair of the Kleznorth organising group, was a key player at this time, as was Ray Kohn, who has also played an active role at Kleznorth. From the mid-1990s,  monthly klezmer sessions in New Mills, Derbyshire, ran for a number of years, and workshops, Klezbarn and dance events were put on. These initiatives together developed fertile ground in klezmer and klezmer dance ready for the seeds of Kleznorth to be sown.

By the 1980s Klezmer dance had been all but forgotten in this country, and was often confused with (the very different) Israeli Dancing. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 1980s that klezmer dance which had been resurrected in the USA by Michael Alpert (of Kapelye and Brave Old World), began to be passed on and brought back to the UK.
Klezfest began in London in 2001, to provide “the opportunity for all those longing to capture the life and spirit of this culture”, and for a decade provided an inspirational nucleus to the development of interest and involvement in klezmer and Yiddish culture. Many of the klezmer musicians currently playing , singing and dancing together, and indeed many of those involved in running Kleznorth, have had involvement with Klezfest and JMI (Jewish Music Institute), the organisation behind it. It was through Klezfest that British klezmorim met many of the leading world exponents, and through Klezfest that a degree of core repertoire built up.