Alive and Kicking
The joyful sounds of klezmer music energize IC.
by Zachary Loeb '06
Photos by Charles Harrington
Keeping it lively at the Klezmer reunion during Alumni Weekend
From the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the Emerson Suites of Ithaca College, the centuries-old musical style klezmer refuses to be pinned down to any one place -- or time. Originating as high-energy dance music for Jewish celebrations, klezmer seemed to practically vanish in the 1950s and '60s. But in the early 1970s the music style saw a revival which is going strong to this day, around the world and at Ithaca College.
The word "klezmer" is derived from the Yiddish klei zemer, which means "musical instrument," but currently klezmer means much more than simply instruments. As Peter Rothbart, professor of music theory, history, and composition, says, it is "genuine world music," blending as it does Jewish, Russian, Ukrainian, Romany, Polish, and Middle Eastern folk styles with a healthy dab of cantorial music. Klezmer uses a wide range of instruments that often include the clarinet, violin, piano, accordion, trumpet, trombone, and sometimes voice.
The ensemble called the Ithaca College Klezmorim (the plural of "klezmer") began in 1997 when Rothbart posted a sign calling on those interested in the musical style. "When we started," Rothbart remembers, "we didn't really have any sense of what we were doing [as a group]; we'd all kind of discovered the music." Now, says Rothbart, the group has become an "integral part of the school." Students in the ensemble can earn performance or Jewish studies credit, but their participation is primarily, Rothbart notes, "a labor of love."
Rothbart attributes the Klezmorim' success largely to the pure joy of the music. "It's dance music; you can't listen to this music and not dance," he says. "It's the Motown of world music." Yet while it is celebratory, it is by no means simple. It is, says Rothbart, "folk music that has always had a high degree of artistry involved."
Being Jewish is hardly a prerequisite for enjoying klezmer, but the style does retain a strong link to Jewish culture. Rebecca Lesses, assistant professor and co-coordinator of Jewish studies, says, "In the American setting, klezmer is a kind of joyous expression of Jewish culture." Although often part of celebrations and commonly associated with weddings and bar mitzvahs, it is not religious music. "Jewish culture isn't just about religion," says Barbara Johnson, assistant professor and co-coordinator of Jewish studies, "and klezmer is important in showing secular Jewishness."
Klezmer had been a staple of Easter European secular Jewish life, but after World War II it practically disappeared as Israeli music gained ground. Fortunately, musicians in the 1970s decided to reclaim and embellish the old style, and audiences today are reaping the benefits.
Contemporary klezmer uses rock, jazz, and even pop styles in tandem with the traditional. The style's revival, says Rothbart, "takes the music of our grandparents and makes it our own."
Another great thing about the IC Klezmorim, says Johnson, "is that they bring together Jewish and non-Jewish musicians and audiences." Rothbart agrees. "Everybody's got the musicianship," he says. And everyone's got to be fairly loose. In teaching the style to the students in the ensemble, Rothbart says, "We try to get them to discard the shyness bred of classical training."
The IC Klezmorim had a busy year that included a performance at the Jewish Musical and Cultural Festival in Syracuse, where they opened for the renowned band the Klezmatics, as well as an on-campus concert that also featured the Cornell Klezmer Ensemble and was preceded by a Yiddish dance workshop. Renowned klezmer clarinetist and educator Joel Rubin, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell and sabbatical replacement for the 2004-5 school year at IC, was a special guest. He accompanied the IC Klezmorim on pieces from their repertoire and played favorites including Cherniavky and Doina. Rothbart notes, "Rubin's work with us added scholarly and performance aspects; it was incredible having him here."
In July 2004 IC Klezmorim trombonist and codirector Ryan Zawel, M.M. '05, approached Rothbart with an idea of making a CD. Zawel, a New York City-based freelance musician who owns a concert production company called Active Listening Productions, thought the time was right. "The collection of musicians we had at the time was special," says Zawel. "We had a great vocalist, Lauren Ash-Morgan '05, and lead clarinetist, Will Cicola '06." Rothbart agreed to be advising producer, and the creation of the CD became an independent study project for Zawel.
"What made it happen was the support of the Jewish studies program and generous alumni," Zawel says. "During Homecoming 2004, some alumni got together to discuss Jewish matters on campus, and I met with them about the CD project. Their reaction was good. They, along with a generous grant from Jewish studies, let us take this production from my brain to the CD." Liner notes were written by Rubin. "He is a very important influence on all the klezmer musicians here," says Zawel, "as one of the foremost scholars and one of the most widely heard musicians."
The IC Klezmorim debut CD, titled Music for Hawaiian Gardens (the title, says Zawel, connotes "a Floridian paradise for my grandparents Rose and Hymie, and thousands of other transplanted retired Jewish New Yorkers") was released this October. A portion of the proceeds will go, through Zawel's Active Listening Foundation, to support public school music projects in need. And the group hopes the CD will entice new audience members to the upbeat, toe-tapping music.
The new IC Klezmorim CD
"Klezmer is essentially party music," Rothbart says. And that party, one suspects, will keep on swinging for years to come.
Learn more and buy the CD at www.ithaca.edu/music/klezmorim.