Tag: klezmer

Klezmer Beyond the Punchline

Switching languages is traditionally a Jewish experience, and it seems particularly in the nature of Yiddish to seek to amuse itself. Whenever you have various options for cultural reference, you can choose the one that feels right; and where situations call for pointed though perhaps oblique commentary, irony and wordplay become well-practiced. This range of expression also holds true for Yiddish music—plenty of stylistic interplay, plenty of chances for humor in the process. Yet combining diverse stylistic elements within the already-polyglot klezmer genre has yielded far more than masterful mimicry. Pastiche and parody have been a huge phenomenon and industry, particularly in post-WWII America, often reflecting brilliant, complex, hilarious responses to assimilation anxieties (among other angsts). Yet sometimes choosing the right expression, even while mixing things up, involves no joke at all, or leaves the funny business for the improv solo, the liner notes, and/or (choose carefully, you may have to live a long time with this) the band name.

Sometimes choosing the right expression, even while mixing things up, involves no joke at all, or leaves the funny business for the improv solo, the liner notes, and/or (choose carefully, you may have to live a long time with this) the band name.

In cross-cultural encounters around Yiddish-influenced American music, changes over time reflect not only artistic trends, commercial markets and cultural climates, but also changing audience—literally, listeners: Shifts in who could understand this multi-valent material and at what levels. While immigration quotas had already severely limited Eastern European immigration shortly after WWI (in part because this area was seen as the source of dangerous radicals), American Jews were of course also profoundly affected by the devastation of the Holocaust which disproportionately killed Yiddish-speaking populations, and displacement also swept away most of what had been the Old Country. Yiddish in Israel was strongly discouraged, and Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges terrorized millions and eviscerated formerly Yiddish-supportive Soviet policies. In American Jewish attitudes toward Yiddish, tensions developed between the aspiration to be accepted by a wider society and the fear of losing connection to identity.  Yet despite such widespread pressure and deep rejection, Yiddish roots before, during and after WWII were still being rediscovered and re-created, particularly among the overlapping spheres of artists, intellectuals, and entertainers. While today the main growth in fluent Yiddish populations is among the Hasidim, in other Yiddishist realms, creative personal and academic fascination with mameloshn (mother tongue) is now resurgent, though largely in what scholar Jeffrey Shandler has called the “post-vernacular” Yiddish phenomenon of the late 20th/early 21st centuries.

In terms of musical examples, I’ll focus mainly on a spectrum of multi-dimensional work, such as parodies/cover tunes involving at least three levels of translation (whether musical, linguistic, or other forms of cultural interpretation), and original compositions involving the intersection of two or more distinct genres. I’ll touch only briefly on various scenes such as the mamboniks of New York, Miami, etc., simply because they’ve been so well-covered elsewhere. And while it’s worth noting that ancient traditions such as the Purimshpil also contribute richly to eclectic Jewish parodic heritage, I’m primarily focusing on the period after most Eastern European Jewish migration to the US was restricted in 1924.

Nevertheless I’ll begin with a well-known parodist in order to introduce one of his nearly-forgotten contemporaries. Mickey Katz brought together one of the finest assemblages of klezmer instrumentalists in post-WWII history to record Yiddish/American comedy records in late-night L.A. studio sessions by dyed-in-the-Catskills talent. Much of Katz’s formula for these tracks was transposed directly from the antic music satires he’d worked on with Spike Jones, zany but fairly direct reworkings of mainstream pop tunes, only with Katz now adding Jewish elements both in his wise-guy heymish wordplay and bursts of high-octane Yiddish party sound—all of which juxtapose to form a comic alchemy. (In Don Byron’s early-‘90s Mickey Katz tribute project, Katz’s own son, Joel Grey, covered the tongue-twisting vocals when he was available; I remember his frequent sub, Lorin Sklamberg, an accomplished student of Yiddish, deciphering Yinglish asides and punchlines for hours by the living room stereo.) While many compare and contrast Katz’s manically ethnic music comedy success with the deadpan parody songs of Allan Sherman who followed a decade or so later, I’d also like to introduce someone more in the same vein as Katz—Eli Basse. Somewhat obscure now, this writer/performer born in Leeds had worked with the likes of Sophie Tucker; his comedy tracks came out via Laff Records’ Songcraft Party Series, among others. While Allan Sherman’s 1960s Jewish inflections were linguistic only (delivered all in English, satirizing American assimilation by using perceived mismatch of cultural context as the root of their humor, through intact Jewish-y names and typical second- or third-generation middle-class references, such as Dr. Prentiss, “The Painless Dentist”, which was set to the swanky tune of “The Continental”), Eli Basse’s much rawer novelty sides produced a few years before came with full doses of Yiddish, Yinglish, and frequent klezmer in their raucous sound collages. Though promoted by the Laff Records label to retailers, distributors, and jukebox operators as both “clean and hilariously funny” (much less scandalous than, say, bawdy Belle Barthe), Basse’s content and musical delivery are still at times far edgier than Mickey Katz’s, with social commentary not only deflating mainstream pop culture pretensions but also addressing real-world tsuris around money, sex, and corruption. Katz’s own crossover potential was limited, meanwhile, by his broadly stereotypical “character” approach, perceived as derogatory in offending the sensibilities of at least one influential radio producer: WMCA banned all Mickey Katz’s music in 1952 (seemingly as a “shande far di goyim”—shame paraded before the gentiles—in that very bad year for explicitly Jewish content, with sensitivities high around Jewish visibility at the height of the McCarthy Era).  To be clear, the station’s policy did extend also to other ethnic novelty records, such as Rosemary Clooney’s Italian-shtick hit “Botch-A-Me.” While Katz’s humor was over-the-top, but with top musical talent, Eli Basse’s lower-budget work with even more in-references and potentially controversial themes probably stayed perpetually below any radio radar.

Most, but not all, of Basse’s creations were released with the writer himself singing in character accent, progressing frequently beyond simple context humor. With “Lefkowitz the Kop,” Basse’s narrator punctures the upright ideal of law enforcement set by Superman, The Shadow, and detective Ellery Queen; this takeoff depicts instead a beat cop on the take (“his business is always picking up”). The spelling “kop” itself has the double meaning of policeman and also—from Yiddish—head or mind, as in the expression Yidishe kop, sardonically condemning this kind of Jewish mindset. The song narrates Lefkowitz’s chiseling neighborhood adventures, and ends, still in character but dropping the comedy, with sotto voce disgust: “He’s a cop?” Another track starts with shtick echoing shtick: Katz released “Litvak Square Dance”; Basse’s “Bialystocker Square Dance” came out in 1947, featuring klezmer medley classics followed by quick Irish and Scottish digressions—“the Shapiros are coming, hoo-ha hoo-ha”—then advancing to the Latin/Yiddish mix later enshrined by Bagels and Bongos and the like, as Basse’s tumler character requests of the “boyes” in the band, “Shirley shouldn’t cry, you should mix it up a little the freylekh with a conga”.

Basse also made “G’litzyanner Rhumba,” with dozens of in-jokes about uptight Litvaks—rivals to the Galitsiyaner Jews—and “alte congas” (play on the slightly-smutty phrase naming old folks alte kakers). And his wildly loaded “Channa from Havana” was issued by none other than the Barry Sisters. That send-up of the Latin/Yiddish music world continues the rhyme scheme from the song’s title into a very mixed vocabulary: Channa, the Galitzyanna just back from Havana, is now making her husband mekane ­– jealous (in a less-than-perfect rhyme, jilted Mr. Cohen hears her boast about “Jose, der groyser caballero” but  remembers when that guy was Sam Shapiro). Now whenever Cohen wants “some ‘Yo Te Amo’ [cue back-up singers: “Still Meaning Love”], it’s costing me a silver fox—and that ain’t lox!”

An earlier crossover success story for the Barry Sisters came with a big break coming from the other direction. Claire and Merna Barry, nee Clara and Minnie Bagelman, were already a singing sister act when the Yiddish Melodies in Swing project was created in the late 1930s within two weeks of the release of the Andrews Sisters’ “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn” to capitalize on the craze set in motion by that 2nd Avenue Yiddish Theater melody put to English lyrics and a smooth Big Band-style arrangement. This novelty chart-topper gave rise to myriad commercial would-be competitors both in the mainstream (“And The Angels Sing,” adapted by trumpeter Ziggy Ellman for Benny Goodman in 1939 from a klezmer dance standard, particularly plays up both the smooth/jazzy and the ethnic feels), and re-circulating back into the newly-validated Yiddish world with its own shows and playlists. The Jewish audience targeted by Sam Medoff’s Yiddish Swingtet got to hear Yiddish lyrics with lively yet mild jazzy settings, as well as traditional Jewish instrumentals similarly arranged. They were well-produced, entertaining, and featured klezmer great Dave Tarras on clarinet, an excellent reader who gave an authentic yet clean sound to the tuxedo-style Yiddish melodies.  The Barry Sisters with Sam Medoff’s on-air ensembles were a winning combination into the ‘50s, though hardly an adventurous experience for either the artists or the listeners by then. A safe, steady mainstream sound glossed over Yiddish difference. (Meanwhile both the Andrews Sisters and Eli Basse found their respective ways to lightly risqué Calypso material: “Rum and Coca Cola” toned down the sexual innuendo of “both mother and daughter/ working for the Yankee dollar,” while “Kun-Yi-Land” extolls Coney Island as a “mekhaye” [pleasure], though ambiguously also a place to “vert farbrent” [get burnt, go to hell].)

Yet by the mid-1950s in New York, another klezmer artist with extensive Big Band and jazz experience conceived an original compositional production that took Yiddish instrumental material deeply seriously on its own terms, while beautifully realizing a new concept in harmonic approach. Sam Musiker, a tremendously talented clarinetist/saxophonist who was also the son-in-law of clarinet legend Dave Tarras, produced their joint 1956 LP on CBS’ Epic imprint. Unfortunately Tanz! (Dance!) was poorly publicized by the label and nearly vanished without a trace despite its vision, craftsmanship and genre star-power. Musiker (whose younger brother Ray was also in the album’s horn section on sax) performed virtuosic clarinet for his own pieces including masterworks “Der Nayer Doina” [The New Doina] and “Sam Shpielt” [Sam Plays]. Musiker’s versatile background as reedman and arranger included swing and jazz gigs with luminaries as Gene Krupa (with whose big band he played from its inception to its breakup) and Sarah Vaughan. His sophisticated chord changes meld perfectly with the klezmer style to create an organic yet subtle revolution in the folkloric structure while keeping the melodic feel and (in the upbeat tune) vital danceability. The inventive tunes build and spin through major and minor modal sections with a propulsive yet nuanced touch throughout. The section work is light yet powerful, and syncopations seems to find giddy landings even while the traditional clave remains intact.

Fortunately Musiker’s stand-out sides were eventually re-issued decades later after being discovered by klezmer revivalists. While Sam died tragically young in the relative obscurity of Arizona less than a decade after the release of his pioneering magnum opus, thanks to aficianados this out-of-print music managed to stay in circulation even before the 2002 re-issue. I first encountered some of these tracks on mix-tape cassette at KlezKamp, then acquired a vinyl collector’s copy. The official re-release was finally produced through the dogged archival efforts and diligent expertise of devotees including Arthur Levy and Henry Sapoznik. This remastered disc on Sony’s Legacy Recordings series even includes alternate take bonus tracks.

Another long-lost, legendary but probably inimitable musical crossover project came out of the Poconos side of the Borscht Belt in 1939—starring a very young Danny Kaye [né Daniel Kaminsky]. An irreverent panoply of meta-textual reference and layered commentary of nearly Talmudic proportions, the Yiddish Mikado was part of a packed summer season at Tamiment resort, an adult summer camp that hired a full staff of theater, music, dance, and tech professionals to produce new original revues on-site each week. The show’s actual Yiddish title was Der Richtiga Mikado (The Real Mikado), spoofing not only Gilbert and Sullivan, but also a spate of G&S takeoffs appearing in the same season: The “Battle of the Black Mikados” (The Hot Mikado competing with the WPA-funded Swing Mikado on Broadway) was followed by labor union lefties staging their Red Mikado, a satire by the (predominantly Jewish) International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The ILGWU produced acclaimed Pins & Needles revues mixing lampoons of right-wing politicians into their amateur musical theater, and the union owned a worker summer camp vacation property right across the lake from the secular and sophisticated though not politically-aligned Camp (“& country club”) Tamiment. It was for the demanding and discerning apolitical audiences Sylvia Fine dreamt up a Yiddish Nankipoo to be portrayed by her creative partner and future husband. The seemingly absurd performance premise of Japanese-meets-Hasidic was said to draw side-splitting laughter even among those who understood not a word of Yiddish. (Not that there weren’t plenty of mavens at Tamiment Playhouse too: iconoclastic Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s picture in a rowboat shows up in the summer 1939 files, too.) Later when Kaye became a Hollywood star, requests from this show were late-night party favorites with studio moguls. A sample from the script at NYU’s Tamiment Library reveals jokes based on juxtaposition, gesture, pronunciation and, of course, timing—for instance rhyming dialect call and response (three syllables each)—“Mikade?” [Why yes!] “Avade!”

The after-ripples of this production are part of the overall legacy of Tamiment as a showbiz influence in better-known theater, TV, and film. Choreographer Jerome Robbins worked with Kaye and Fine on the Yiddish Mikado as well as other summers at Tamiment (when he was still honing his craft as well as variations on his original Rabinowitz surname). Robbins’s later direction of the ground-breaking (yet completely non-Yiddish) Fiddler on the Roof revealed deep inner struggles.  He clashed repeatedly with flamboyantly proud, non-observant but Orthodox-raised Zero Mostel over mannerisms in stage interpretations, revealing conflict over fully open expression of Jewish identity, which along with Robbins’s closeted sexuality may have been part of why he had named names when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Another Tamiment alum, in the later 1950s, was fledgling writer/comedian Woody Allen, who also did his first directing on sketch assignments here. (It’s pure surmise, but I wonder whether the lanky strawberry blond character who comes out in a scene from Allen’s Radio Days is loosely based on the supposedly bisexual Danny Kaye.) And the format of Tamiment’s grueling but creatively productive schedule and repertory company of talent, along with such participants as Imogene Coca and longtime producer Max Liebman, later migrated to the live TV broadcast revue that became Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, a clear antecedent to Saturday Night Live.

The intervening decades have seen a huge rise of Hasidism throughout the former Borscht Belt, while conversational Yiddish has declined precipitously during most of that time among the non-Orthodox. For that matter, American fluency in G&S has also declined, and in particular the colonialist-era Mikado material has become more problematic, as a satire of British imperial-era customs set in a stereotyped Japanese plot-scape. Just last year a planned production was cancelled due to perceived insensitive non-Asian casting and “yellowface” makeup. Perhaps in that long-ago summer in the Jewish Poconos, the daringly outré British-Yiddish dress-up gag was releasing tension already hanging in vacation air with the rise of Hitler across the Atlantic, where at that time most of the actual Hasidim still lived, even while few could really imagine the German invasion of Poland (which turned out to be just weeks in the future at that point).

In several of their best-loved works, for pieces frequently reprised around the world, two of the most celebrated Jewish American composers have featured Ashkenazic Jewish-rooted material, though not always explicitly identified in terms of yidishkayt. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue famously opens with a klezmer clarinet glissando, and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Porgy and Bess has clear melodic inspiration in a blessing sung before reading the Torah. (Sportin’ Life re-works the prayer tune for his chorus, adding a blue note to the cantorial mode, and then he sings verses recounting several Biblical stories, pronouncing seductive doubt as he sings each chorus reprise.)  While George Gershwin may not have become bar mitzve, his older brother (and lyricist) Ira certainly was.

Similarly, we have Leonard Bernstein’s overt and covert expressions, on the one hand composing in Candide for a wandering Jewish character, where both macaronic wordplay and musical commentary bring the goods in “I Am Easily Assimilated,” for which Lenny co-wrote both music and lyrics with his South American-born Jewish wife, Felicia. Rhyming the Spanish “hernia” with Rovno/Rovne Gubernia may also have been commentary on Bernstein’s own experience of anti-Semitism when HUAC took away his passport during the McCarthy Era; certainly the lines “These days you have to be / In the majority” seem a response to those conformity-enforcing times. (Bernstein’s table-location at a left-wing early-1940s fundraiser appears on a chart found in my own grandmother’s FBI files, but more about my own musical documentary theater adventure, J. Edgar Klezmer, in a bit.) I only noticed another roughly concurrent Jewish reference in Bernstein’s work while listening to the shofar horn pattern at a High Holiday service about a decade ago: The ominous three-note gang signal from the overture of West Side Story turns out indeed to have been inspired by the rhythm and tone shape of the ancient tekiah call blown on the ram’s horn. (This musical had been earlier conceived of as East Side Story, where the Jews are—and he worked on many drafts of both this musical and Candide for years during the ‘50s, with other documented borrowings.)

Postcard for original production of J. Edgar Klezmer featuring a photo of Eve Sicular's grandmother

While obviously I’m a big fan of certain musical theater and Yiddish traditions, I never imagined myself creating my own show until I obtained a trove of personally meaningful declassified documents—followed by accompanying research, plus contradictory family stories—which compelled me to write J. Edgar Klezmer: Songs from My Grandmother’s FBI Files. And it might never have occurred to me to invent music and lyrics for a staged drama if I hadn’t already begun composing new work for my own ensembles, inspired in part by the pieces written already by my bandmates Pam Fleming (who began with her own klezmeresque music) and Debra Kreisberg (subtly melding idiosyncratic Yiddish feels with jazz and Latin). Once I decided to tell Grandma’s tale through music along with text and multi-media, I immediately had versatile members from Isle of Klezbos in mind as cast and musicians. Among the dozen or so tunes propelling this partly autobiographical story, only one is especially Yiddish-inspired. Other tunes span from R&B and gospel to tango and rhyming blues/spoken word, as well as a Greek-based melody over which vocalist Missy Fogarty scats a few dozen names from hundreds flagged by the FBI for attending a leftist benefit dinner about five years earlier (a list including my activist ancestor [paternal grandma] Dr. Adele Sicular, Lillian Hellman, Mary McCleod Bethune, and culminating with Leonard Bernstein). I also came up with a tritone-based musical trope, formed as an angst-ridden variation of the patriotic song title phrase from “Over There” played in ascending chromatic transpositions, to represent successive repeated names blanked out in surveillance transcripts. My most klezmer-esque of the lyrical pieces, “When Israel Met Jenny”, appears also as a bonus track on Metropolitan Klezmer’s latest release, Mazel Means Good Luck.

Missy Fogarty in a boa sitting on top of a piano singing and accompanied at the piano by Shoko Nagai.

Missy Fogarty accompanied at the piano by Shoko Nagai in J. Edgar Klezmer.

Referring to grandparents’ generations or even further back is a common theme among younger Jewish musicians motivated to compose original music with Yiddish themes. My own composing debut was dedicated to my maternal grandmother. East Hapsburg Waltz emerged in three sections, beginning in the fall of 2001 while I was driving in the countryside surrounding NYC, listening to old zither recordings. The note intervals of a characteristic Central European folk-tune ending became the opening tones of my piece, which later formed a narrative in my mind as the tumultuous third section transitions back to a reprise, with clarinet switching to saxophone: A signal of the shift from Old World to New reminded me of my Oma, who was still alive to hear it when we first recorded this in 2002. (She was born in Vienna in 1907, lived in Moravia which became part of independent Czechoslovakia when she was a pre-teen, and arrived in America only after WWII had already broken out in Europe.) The title refers to the Eastern regions of Austro-Hungarian imperial times, from which came the Yiddish-speaking Jews who so mortified my mother’s proper Viennese German-speaking family. The waltz form itself of course is a central dance tradition for Vienna. Only after this came out on our first recording, Greetings from the Isle of Klezbos, was our band invited for our first European date, at KlezMORE in Vienna. We’ve since been back to play for them again, and my tune is now out also in a vibrant new version recorded live in Brooklyn.

Trumpeter Pam Fleming, my bandmate in both Metropolitan Klezmer and Isle of Klezbos, named the first tune she wrote for us “Rifka’s Dream,” after her maternal grandma whom she never met. Later she reached back to her own earlier experience in the horn section for Jamaican roots star Burning Spear, and composed “Mellow Manna” for Isle of Klezbos. Yiddish-inflected reggae and “klez-ska” have become a sort of sub-genre since the 1990s, with the affinity transcending to European klezmer-makers as well. Among my favorite examples of Yiddish/reggae amalgams in cover versions are one from each coast of the USA. San Francisco Klezmer Experience was organized by violinist Daniel Hoffman and includes members who met as the houseband for ACT’s production of Shlemiel the First in 1996. (Some also trace their roots back to The Klezmorim, the West Coast’s original klezmer revival band, formed in 1975.) SF Klez-X, as they’re now known, plays a virtuosically tight and trippy reggae break section in their re-working of the Yosl Kerler/Vladimir Shainskiy Soviet Yiddish drinking song “A Glezele Yash,” adapted (guess why?) as Hash for their 1998 album Zing! (A triple entendre? Yiddish verb form: Sing!, English “zing!”, and possibly also an allusion back to Musiker/Tarras’s groundbreaking album Tanz!—Dance!)

The East Coast example is from a more recent fully dub-style track, on the 2011 Brooklyn studio recording Tick-Tock produced by vocalist/upright bassist Benjy Fox-Rosen. His liner notes for “A Maysele / A Tale” read as follows:

A Yiddish art song composed by Lazar Weiner, from a poem by Peretz Hirshbein. Arranged/inspired by Dieter Behr, Viennese drummer/friend/activist/thinker. It is a dub-esque thing. [Engineer] Don Godwin made it very cool.

The all-star ensemble assembled for Tick-Tock includes Carmen Staaf (heard in the reggae introduction on haunting farfisa organ), drummer Kenny Wollesen, and Benjy’s brother Avi Fox-Rosen on guitars. Michael Winograd’s clarinet on the preceding track opens with a hilariously creaky rising glissando to parody the famous Gershwin klezmer allusion, and on most tracks we hear violinist Sarah Alden (also an erstwhile bandmate of Benjy’s in The Luminescent Orchestrii, specializing in groove adaptations of Romanian/Moldovan repertoire). Benjy, though the son of a West Coast rabbi, became interested in Yiddish only after singing other Eastern European repertoire with the Lumi’s. (His growing fluency also made a special connection with his grandmother.) It’s worth noting that SF Klez X vocalist Jeanette Lewicki learned Yiddish as an adult as well, and now teaches workshops on archival songs of the Yiddish underworld. Secular Yiddish culture and history are important to all of our music groups, and probably all would agree with Lewicki:

“I’m not trying to recreate a culture that no longer exists or sound like an old recording. But I do think it’s important to listen to that stuff and be conversant with that culture.”

The composer of the underlying piece transmogrified into dub-step idiom on Benjy Fox-Rosen’s Tick Tock was Lazar Weiner. (His son is Pulitzer prize-winning composer Yehudi Wyner.) Weiner came to Yiddish music in 1920s NYC as a kind of insider/outsider himself, a former child cantorial choir singer in Kiev who then attended conservatory in Eastern Europe, yet knew nothing about Jewish folk songs until going to meetings of modernist Yiddish poets in New York decades later. He was tremendously influenced by hearing the Zimro ensemble on tour from Russia at Carnegie Hall, led by clarinetist and Jewish folk song collector Simeon Bellison (later the lead clarinetist of the NY Philharmonic), and an exchange of letters with Yiddish music ethnographer and Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music co-founder Joel Engel helped guide him to use more Jewish themes in his own music, though Weiner preferred to make up his own rather than to quote folk material. Weiner became the avowedly secular, progressive yet mystically-inclined prolific “father of American Yiddish art song.”

The full name of Weiner’s song described above was actually “A Mayse fun Amol”A Story from Once Upon a Time. I’ll end with one of those, a true apocryphal Yiddish parable from the Land of Pre-Sliced Challah. As my friend Leila’s family tells it, one day around half a century back, her grandmother is chatting away while playing bridge with the ladies at a fancy Jewish country club in Westchester.  Suddenly to her surprise, the conversation stops dead. One of the bridge ladies gives her an icy stare and says, “We don’t speak Yiddish here.” Post-vernacular punch-line? The mystery word was… hubris. (While her grandma is long gone now, to continue the mood: Leila and I grew up not knowing each other, but each being taken to this same fancy club. So where do we finally meet? At KlezKamp.)

On Readers, Fakers, Bakers, Writers, & Ruptures

Howie Leess (1920-2003) was one of the most upright, good-hearted musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, and his playing inspired me to form my first full band. I’d been told about his superb Yiddish clarinet stylings even before I heard him myself, but even so Howie’s powerfully nuanced playing was a revelation to my ears, especially his signature doyna (rubato solo) which evoked a soulful era that had nearly disappeared a generation before. He was a hard worker who’d started professionally in his early teens during the Depression on bandstands in “the mountains” [Catskills venues], and he was thrilled to adopt email (all-caps always, to save typing time) as a septuagenarian because it went instantly around the world for free – yet this man would turn down a gig if it seemed unethical to him because he’d “rather sleep well at night” than be a back-stabber. So it confused me at first to hear Howie described as both “a reader and a faker,” even if I could sense this was meant as a compliment.

Slightly younger contemporaries of Howie’s gave me other names for him, too: He was “the Mountain Goat” among guys who were regulars for decades in Lester Lanin’s cocktail and debutante-geared orchestra (because on tenor sax, he’d find his own inside parts to climb around Big Band standard reed arrangements). He was also “the fifth Epstein Brother” (several non-blood relatives who played often with that esteemed klezmer family claimed such a title, and it was a lucrative mantle since Hasidim immigrating after WWII chose this local band as a favorite for their Brooklyn weddings, which could take place any of six nights a week). I found out later that Howie was himself a serious left-winger who had little use for most of the rabbis he met, but I’d already witnessed that out of respect he would finish his coffee outside in the rain rather than risk violating kosher rules by bringing a cup with milk into a synagogue. He was a “Jewish specialist” for the Society bands, and an “American specialist” for a klezmer kapelye. His own craft at Yiddish music had been learned from several klezmer greats who came from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, though he was born in the USA; as one contemporary music historian told me, Howie was featured on klezmer revival recordings on tenor since he was equally skilled there, even though he could also play rings around most other clarinetists of his generation. All of this qualified him as an ace in both reading and faking, and he was mainly below the radar of fame but in demand into his 80s.

Photo of Michael Hess (holding violin), Howie Leess (holding clarinet), Michael Hess, smail Butera (holding accordion), and Eve Sicular (holding a snare drum)

Howie Leess (center holding clarinet) with rest of the original personnel of the Greater Metropolitan Klezmer Band (our name for the first six months or so), left to right: Michael Hess (violin), Dave Hofstra (bass), Ismail Butera (accordion), and Eve Sicular (drums). Photo by Donna Binder.

People who speak multiple languages often feel different sides of their personalities emerge in each idiom. Similarly, musicians who perform various genres of music can express each style with their personal feel once they are at home in it, while their vocabulary and accent may reflect certain places of origin even as they to move from consciously translating to more fully inhabiting another sonic culture. This process continues to shape experience and expression as each person learns their repertoire, its character and how it interplays with surrounding habitat of humans: dances, lyrics, jokes, ceremonies, customs, histories, venues, and the shared heritage of other musicians involved. Howie’s experience seemed to make him completely bilingual in a wide swath of the American songbook as well as Yiddish and Hasidic repertoire. I was awed at Howie’s sound and his command of a room of dancers. And I’ll never forget that when I invited him to make a demo recording for our prospective new group, he said: “Sure! I love when a woman runs the business.”

There’s a balance between what can be understood by eyes and by ears.

In the working musical world described in Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans, Charles B. Hersch finds that art and commerce would both be served by a band that “transcended the usual lines, uptown and downtown, black and Creole, honky-tonk and society, readers and fakers – by being able to read music and improvise in whatever style was needed, and thus flourished professionally.” Quoting Scott DeVeaux, he then lists qualities of a successful musical enterprise in this context: “Dependability, versatility and unobtrusive competence.” Keeping an ensemble together on an ongoing and harmonious basis depends on many things, but these fundamentals still hold true in our NYC-based, wide-ranging experience from the mid-1990s ‘til today.

Besides Howie, in my own ensembles, members have approached klezmer from both “reader” and “faker” backgrounds. Among versatile musicians, neither term connotes merely literacy itself. Certainly everyone involved in Metropolitan Klezmer or Isle of Klezbos can read printed music, transcribe tunes, and write a chart if necessary. I’m actually the least fluent in these skills, and am grateful to work collaboratively in many instances. Yet there’s a balance between what can be understood by eyes and by ears.  Some of my other original bandmates, particularly our accordionist and violin/ney flute /qanun zither player, had an ear already attuned to the inner workings of Yiddish music. They had been playing related styles for years, so for Eastern European Ashkenazic musics they were often adapting this knowledge (and as needed, their instrument tunings) and calling out melody and modal cognates between klezmer and Turkish, Greek, or Arabic songs with which they were long familiar. For instance, in discussing the tonal nature of a piece, they would refer to its being in “hijaz” (a classical Arabic scale) rather than the Yiddish term “freygish.” Later on, once Howie went into semi-retirement upstate, our horn section expanded to include other wonderful players who were from more of a conservatory background and who, since graduating from prestigious music schools, had been playing grooves more based in jazz, blues, Latin, and other diasporic traditions, and often relying on charts as an initial way into a tune or arrangement. Of course their improvisational skills were constantly honed as they became ace fakers in those genres, too. Coming from a Jewish background personally did not mean that somebody was necessarily familiar with any intrinsic qualities of klezmer, although—unless they’d developed an aversion through early negative exposure to this sometimes-stigmatized heritage—it usually didn’t hurt. And sometimes, as with my experience, hearing Yiddish and klezmer led to awakening multifarious dormant understandings.

Coming from a Jewish background personally did not mean that somebody was necessarily familiar with any intrinsic qualities of klezmer, although—unless they’d developed an aversion through early negative exposure to this sometimes-stigmatized heritage—it usually didn’t hurt.

Yiddish language, in a parallel with Yiddish music, is a fusion language—as is English, but for different reasons. While the British Isles assimilated various spoken tongues, both official and vernacular, through waves of invasion arriving over the centuries, Yiddish evolved as Ashkenazic Jewry themselves moved around Europe, generally Eastward, over a millennium, both in waves of migration and along trade routes. In naming our first Metropolitan Klezmer album “Yiddish for Travelers,” I was both alluding to the geographically variegated roots of this musical culture (with certain dance types denoted as sirbas, bulgars, terkishers, and volokhs indicating—whether musicologically accurate or not—provenance among co-territorial or neighboring people) and to an imaginary travelers’ handbook. The latter was in fact based on the real post-WWII Say It In Yiddish which, though seemingly ironic, gives a lovingly ordinary set of phrases for such things as checking into one’s hotel room in mameloshn. This affirmative pocket-sized volume had been published in 1958 by Uriel and his wife Beatrice “Bina” Weinreich, who were from a renowned family of Yiddish linguists. I knew Bina in the early 1990s from working as an archivist at the YIVO Institute. (Her husband had died tragically young in 1968.) As it turns out, Say It In Yiddish also inspired novelist Michael Chabon to write first a controversially condescending essay by the same name (in which he characterized the book as “poignant and funny”) and later, in response to protests and unexpected perspectives he received in reply to his initial somewhat glib short piece, he wrote his counter factual book The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007). My own use of the transmogrified title came from not such a different attitude as Chabon’s but with a different impulse of honoring the tradition as something to be cherished rather than written off with regret yet dismissal and derision. (Coincidentally, Chabon had first spotted this glossary during research at YIVO a decade earlier—in 1997, the year we issued Metropolitan Klezmer’s debut CD.)

I feel lucky to have first heard an early live performance version of the klezmer revival in the early ‘80s by the Boston-based Klezmer Conservatory Band, mostly 20-somethings then onstage at Ryle’s in Somerville MA. A few years later, I flew back to Boston to work as an apprentice editor on A Jumpin’ Night in the Garden of Eden, the first feature klezmer documentary. This movie-in-progress featured the KCB among others, and I spent after-hours time studying film rushes of their drummer (pre-internet, pre-YouTube, on a 16mm Steenbeck flatbed). By the time I finally attended my first KlezKamp in December 1989, I had already picked up some Yiddish language and played a few gigs as a sub with Seattle’s beloved Mazeltones. That group’s accordionist/vocalist/co-leader, Wendy Marcus, had generously lent me many source tapes to learn style and repertoire, both from archival recordings and ‘70s/’80s commercial albums. Wendy also revealed to me the delicious, completely unexpected news that the New York-based, internationally-attended KlezKamp included an informal, convivial alliance of freylekhe felker, openly LGBT Yiddishists. The idea of attending a gathering that would nourish my folkloric musical tastes as well as my progressive Jewish secular sensibility, all in a supportive environment that even extended to my sexuality, was more than I would have imagined possible. Even the queer-friendly group’s name reflected another marvelous quality of Yiddish culture that met my cravings: in a language that seeks to amuse itself, freylekh is a double entendre alluding to a famous beginner textbook line about happy/gay people. (When describing an upbeat dance style, it’s also worth noting that freylekhs is etymologically related to the English word “frolic.”)

A group photo of the KlezKamp participants, December 1993.

So while my first KlezKamp had its hitches, I experienced a certain sense of finding home even though I’d never been consciously aware of longing for this. I had no active nostalgia. My upbringing had reflected a decidedly assimilationist cultural understanding, and even covert antipathy towards Yiddish on my Mom’s side with their Viennese-Jewish upper-class family values. Nonetheless, I embody a cliché, in that it satisfied a longing for this place I’d never been. And while there is never enough space to express the many near-obliterations that have befallen Yiddish-speaking Jewry worldwide in the 20th century, the sense of loss and grief also deepens the sense of attachment and significance of carrying forward this vibrant culture, and not just as a mission of preservation. It’s incredibly heartening to be aware of the level of talent, imagination, commitment, intelligence, and diversity among communities of people who feel especially inspired by this culture—past, present and future. People I met at that first visit to KlezKamp introduced me to musicians including amazing players with whom I have now performed, toured, and recorded with for over two decades. After 30 years, KlezKamp completed its run in 2014 although KlezKanada and Yidish Vokh are still flourishing each August and, in December 2015, “Yiddish New York” carried on much of its spirit, too. We always have the despair of whether our connections to Yiddish sources are still adequate after so much has been destroyed, but even a morbid point of view can be affirmingly ironic. To quote Isaac Bashevis Singer (whose Nobel Prize acceptance speech was spoken in his mother tongue), “Yiddish has been dying for 100 years. My prediction is that it will keep on dying for the next 100 years.”

The process of understanding Yiddish music and literature shows a repeating pattern of rescue and re-creation.

The process of understanding Yiddish music and literature shows a repeating pattern of rescue and re-creation. Many of the most famous authors, even from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were either not initially fluent in the language and/or discouraged from taking it seriously as a worthy medium of published thought. In musical spheres, “klezmer” was often a derogatory term for an inferior, unschooled musician (despite many amply gifted and some formally-educated players among the ranks of traditional and sometimes dynastic klezmorim). Yet by the time Russian Jewish musicians were finally admitted to Tsarist-era conservatories (in disproportionately-high numbers, especially on violin), the Romantic-era search for identity coincided, and led to active movements of collecting Yiddish folk melodies and creating art music. So prodigies in composition and performance completely steeped in Western classical traditions were coming back to their roots, some with more active connections than others. (Joel Engel, a co-founder of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, came from a wholly-assimilated family, but other prominent members included sons of a cantor, a rabbi, and a klezmer bandleader.) Joseph Achron, Mikhail Gnessin, and Alexander Krein were among those creating “elevated” settings for Yiddish traditional melodies, and original Hebraic-inspired pieces. While revolution, pogroms, assimilation, Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges, and the Holocaust were among the forces that dispersed this movement, many of its most active protagonists went on for decades with varying degrees of compositional output. Among the places they ended up were Hollywood, New York’s Temple Emanuel, the Soviet Union, and, in passing, Palestine.

An historic photo of Joseph Achron

Joseph Achron (1886-1943) arrived in Ellis Island on December 31, 1924 and remained in the USA until his death in Los Angeles on April 29, 1943. For more information, visit the Joseph Achron Society.

These art music adaptations of Ashkenazic Jewish traditions—paralleling the creative efforts of Dvořák, Bartók, Kodály, Janáček, etc.—were primarily an approach by readers’ (albeit often well-informed, versatile performers themselves quite familiar with traditional musical spirit and context) drawing  heavily on heritage generated mainly from fakers (who were also actively sought out and recorded in collecting expeditions utilizing literally cutting-edge technologies of the time, such as Edison wax cylinders). Into the late 20th and 21st centuries, I am glad to also see and hear Yiddish music finding new life created by and for faker-readers with wide frames of cultural, tuneful reference. And in the case of my own bands, the people who seem to be writing the most original compositions are those who began more on the reading edge, while those who began more on the faking side are invaluable references and style guides. Those bandmates who began closer to the roots of the music meanwhile have made fascinating musical translations among related genres, while we are also involved in myriad multi-faceted projects.

In the 21st century, we are certainly ready to shift even beyond the best impulses of revivalism. First, permit me to relate a tantalizing tale of innovation, tradition, delight, and dangling unfulfilled promise. I moved back to New York in 1990 to more fully pursue my klezmer aspirations, but stayed in touch with many dear people in the Pacific Northwest. My friend Trudi stayed in Seattle and to my surprise, opened a flourishing business called Sweet Lorraine’s drawing on her childhood memories of Mr. Moskowitz’s Jewish bakery in Detroit.

Trudi had worked in many fields before but to make this dream come true, she was fortunate to be able to go back first and apprentice with Moskowitz himself. As she told me, three things made her enterprise successful. The first, of course, were the recipes and secret techniques which her mentor was willing to share with her; opening her place over a thousand miles away, she wasn’t exactly his direct competitor. Second, as fondly as she recalled the tastes of his treats, she realized that they could even be improved upon simply by upgrading the ingredients: The original versions, while delectable already, were based on using the cheap stuff (and also may have been constrained by keeping to a kosher-neutral pareve formula). Trudi’s innovation would be to use the freshest grains, the lushest dried fruits, the finest eggs, and butter… not margarine. Thirdly, while not trying to market these product to a strictly observant Jewish clientele, she was actively celebrating her ethnic cultural heritage in the fairly white-bread but burgeoning foodie environs of Seattle circa 2002. Her authentic yet expanded approach immediately caught on, her rugelach, dark loaves and challahs sold to a devoted following far beyond the bakery’s Magnolia neighborhood storefront, and Sweet Lorraine’s—named, if I recall correctly, for Trudi’s own mother—was a hit for all the sixteen months it lasted. Who knows what flavor and menu alchemies Trudi might have been inspired to create if her grand revivalist culinary dream had continued? Already she had studded her macaroons with pine nuts. Sadly, constraints of capital and a lease non-renewal brought this experiment to a premature close, perhaps years before the word artisanal came into hipster parlance. (I am keenly aware that any Yiddish-culture essay bringing food into focus runs the risk of inviting kitsch or shtick. and Look, they’re even anagrams! But I’ll shake the fear of being interpreted as the former and after all proper deployment of the latter is really an art.) But Trudi’s legacy, even if less enduring than the NYC-based Levy’s Rye Bread ads, had an even higher caraway quality quotient, and a deliberate but classy register of camp. Her awareness of fantastic, earthy delicacies, and her clear ideas of production and merchandising, brought wonders for fortunate customers and employees while the place lasted.

The cover for the Isle of Klezbos' debut CD.

The cover for the Isle of Klezbos’ debut CD. You can hear it here.

In the same year Trudi’s bakery opened, Metropolitan Klezmer recorded its third album, Surprising Finds, and the band’s “sister sextet,” Isle of Klezbos went into the studio for our debut, Greetings from the Isle of Klezbos, at which point I feel like I had found my own musical identity within this idiom. But, even by the release of Metropolitan Klezmer’s second disc (which was recorded in 2000 and released in 2001), I feel the band’s creative tendencies beyond high-quality revivalism are already evident, in particular a distinct minimum of schtick— one track out of 16—and zero kitsch to my ear anyway. That disc’s title, Mosaic Persuasion (a striking phrase I had also come across while working at YIVO) is a double entendre. On the one hand, the term is an archaic euphemism for Jewish, referring to people of the “Mosaic” faith, as in the Five Books of Moses. (As I subsequently learned, in German usage a similar adjective can indicate Jews when the word Judische seems too heavily loaded.) But the added wordplay for me alludes to a beautiful optimism voiced by NYC’s then mayor, David Dinkins, when as a candidate he spoke of the city’s society as a “gorgeous mosaic.” Like the ad campaign of decades earlier (all those adorable and distinctly assorted goyim wryly posed with their slice of rye and the caption “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s”), Dinkins strove to highlight a vision of unity among distinct and proud cultures living together, benefiting from each other’s harmonious proximity and interchange.

Seeking My Sonic Soul in the Land of Pre-Sliced Challah

Although raised in a musically-oriented New York City family, I only heard most of the genres that are now key inspirations for me during my New England college years and in the decade after (much of which I spent in the progressive Pacific Northwest). My own primary performance genre for over a quarter century now has been klezmer music, the Eastern European-based musical amalgam created over several centuries by and for Yiddish-speaking Jews, a “fusion” genre encompassing repertoire from many trade routes as well as diasporic journeys. I grew up in an assimilated Ashkenazic Jewish household, first living in Manhattan and then moving to suburban Westchester, where I learned prayer melodies by rote to become bat mitzvah, but felt like we were in the land of pre-sliced challah. My family, like many American Jews of that era, were tacitly discouraged from affinity with what seemed like the creaky embarrassment of Yiddish culture. In fact, I was amazed that a high school classmate of mine could understand the punchline in mameloshn [mother tongue] during an unexpected low-budget TV commercial for kosher ice cream. (The Buddy Hackett clip has still never surfaced on YouTube.). My mother’s family were proper Viennese-centric Czech Jewish refugees who made it out of Europe in the very late 1930s. Of course a few Yiddish words were in their colloquial vocabulary, but the Ostjuden [Yiddish-speaking Jews who emigrated from the eastern regions of the former Habsburg Empire when Austro-Hungary was collapsing] were a source of mortification for their established “refined” Central European Jewish circles. When my Mom heard Yiddish on New York radio as a pre-teen in the ‘40s, she first wondered if it was a dialect of Swiss German. And yes, there used to be lots of Yiddish on the radio, too; more about that in a bit.

My father’s mother came from Odessa. Grandma certainly knew Yiddish and Russian, though I only ever heard her speak New York-accented English; she went to Barnard on scholarship, and became a regular attendee at Carnegie Hall, as well as (once it was built) Lincoln Center. Like Grandma and her Aunt Bella, my father—importing the Odessan Jewish classical music line— played excellent piano. This was one of the attributes which charmed my mother’s already-married sister, who thus introduced him to my mother. Dad also had a wonderful baritone, and loved choral singing. In my childhood, we often heard him perform the dozen or more lush keyboard pieces he knew from memory (mainly Chopin, Brahms, and Bach), and I later learned that he occasionally surprised my parents’ friends by sight-reading just about anything at a party. I was always impressed that my Dad could name the composer of virtually every piece aired by WQXR, the classical music on what was then known as “the radio station of The New York Times.” (These were the only broadcasts I ever remember hearing in the living room, kitchen, or my parents’ cars.)

My first experiences of David Bowie were by accident, first randomly on Saturday Night Live and then when I tried to buy a copy of the funkified theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey and brought home Space Oddity by mistake.

Before my brothers and I could buy any of our own records, there were some non-classical albums at home such as classic Broadway cast recordings (a couple of which I later drew upon: Frank Loesser as well as Lionel Bart—a.k.a. Begleiter—both consciously wrote genre-rooted pieces, including some with brilliant Yiddish subtexts), as well as Meet The Beatles, Mr. Ed’s musical educational LP, and an American Revolution-inspired souvenir disc from the 1964 World’s Fair which I was still too young to attend. Later additions came from Broadway hits we saw as a family: A Chorus Line, Pippin, and (Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin follow-up) The Magic Show. Meanwhile my pop horizons broadened when my oldest brother showed me how to find WABC on the AM dial, so I could send him postcards of their Top Ten countdown when he was away at camp. Fortunately Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” had a hit that summer, along with Aretha, Stevie Wonder, early Jackson 5, The Temptations, and lots more Motown (which I loved), as well as Mungo Jerry and much else. But #1 was Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”—from the soundtrack to the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—which I didn’t much care for then, although there was a minor-key instrumental piece on that same film soundtrack that intrigued me. A bit later, via the clock-radio I received in junior high school (a popular bat mitzvah gift item), I was able to explore more on the FM dial, finding Alison Steele “The Night Bird” on WNEW; her Chopin signature theme made me feel a special connection. One adventurous boy had given me the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire and a Who album for my bat mitzvah, and I went to a few prog-rock stadium concerts with kids in my class. I felt more confusion than spark from most rock and jazz I heard at this point, though. Two inspiring exceptions were Frank Zappa and Peter Tosh, both of whom I saw at Madison Square Garden; the latter came about because I had read about reggae in New York Magazine before ever hearing any. And my first experiences of David Bowie were by accident, first randomly on Saturday Night Live and then when I tried to buy a copy of the funkified theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey and brought home Space Oddity by mistake.

Eve Sicular playing drums with David Licht. (Photo by Albert J. Winn)

Eve Sicular playing drums with David Licht. (Photo by Albert J. Winn)

I have played drums since the age of eight, starting in summer day camp, and then I bargained with my parents promising to practice piano if I could also take drum lessons. So I had one year with a great drum teacher at Mannes back on E. 74th Street, and an orange sparkle Japanese snare with practice pad at home. The teacher even wrote out a Motown beat for me, and was impressed that I took to it right away. After every lesson I had a quarter for a slice of pizza around the corner on Lexington, which was great, but my Dad had also enrolled me for music theory, which was way over my head at that age. (Decades later it did help me understood that steel drums are set up according to the circle of fifths.)

An intimidating boy in the larger drum section would tease me and hide my sticks before my solos, and the band teacher was completely unresponsive; so I quit rather than dealing with more harassment.

We emigrated out of NYC the following year, when I was entering fifth grade; I got to keep the orange snare but never had a good steady private teacher again. The only piece I remember on snare from suburban elementary school band was a tango; I loved to play the dramatic rolling accent for that suspenseful minor melody. But by junior high an intimidating boy in the larger drum section would tease me and hide my sticks before my solos, and the band teacher was completely unresponsive; so I quit rather than dealing with more harassment, though I always kept playing on my own. I auditioned for county arts camp, and minored in music a couple of summers, also taking painting and theater. I had very few chances to perform or jam with other players from then until college, but kept practicing on the clear Lucite kit which had been my main bat mitzvah present for which I had lobbied an entire year, with such tactics as making collages from the Ludwig catalog. My Dad surprised me by buying the exact unit at Manny’s on West 48th Street and bringing the drums and cymbals right up to my room. That show of faith in my musicality kept me going through isolating adolescent years as a teenage girl drummer with no ensemble. And I would watch the percussionists everywhere I could, trying to decipher what all was going on, even occasionally finding my passions.

Looking back, I realize that syncopated beats and acoustic folk instrumentation—especially (as I now understand) in modal scales, or at least minor keys—were always most appealing to my ear. But I wasn’t much interested in folk guitar, nor the Israeli folk dance records they played in Hebrew school, nor even the endless bouzouki Muzak loops at the Greek-owned shop where I dished out frozen yogurt and spinach pie my last year of high school. My suburban piano lessons were mainly on pieces for which I felt nothing, except for one wonderful Bartók study which I still know by heart. Other sounds that drew me in popped up in seemingly random novelty tracks on the radio, bittersweet old movies on TV, and the ritual chants from our cantor’s 45rpm record which we memorized to sing before and after prayers from the Torah. I also ordered a four-record “only available on TV” set of ‘50s rock & roll hits such as “Chantilly Lace,” the harmonies and the swinging beats were irresistible. Ragtime came back in via the soundtrack of The Sting and one of my favorite daytime summer concerts at Wollman Rink for $5 (besides a very young Blondie) was a wonderful Rag ‘n Roll Revue by Cathy Chamberlain, whose wild gravelly voice blended Janis Joplin and Ethel Merman on retro Americana and blues, including classics such as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” well as manic originals—all with the same great old-time instrumentation and even an African-American octogenarian sideman who sang “Rocking Chair.” I’m sure I also heard salsa and boogaloo during those years, though I’m not sure how; maybe just driving through Spanish Harlem to and from the suburbs. “Oye Como Va,” “Watermelon Man,” and “I Like it Like That” certainly made it into my memory banks, maybe via the crossover airwaves.

Sounds that drew me in popped up in seemingly random novelty tracks on the radio, bittersweet old movies on TV, and the ritual chants from our cantor’s 45rpm record which we memorized to sing before and after prayers from the Torah.

My freshman year at Harvard, I was lucky enough to room with a future music/botany double major who played Chopin in the dorm piano practice rooms, and who had been steeped also in jazz growing up. She brought me along to hear the Bill Evans Trio (free at Memorial Hall, where she advised me to attend my first Indian raga concert as well later that year; later in college, we drove together to an all-night gamelan concert with people she knew at Wesleyan, another landmark in my musical awareness). She eventually moved off-campus, but through her friends I started playing jazz and Latin standards in a trio, getting gigs at mixers—or “social interaction seminars” as they were called for budget lines and laughs—and also heard brilliant jazz pianist/composers Carla Bley and Joanne Brackeen at clubs in Harvard Square. I also sought out the B-52’s and Patti LaBelle when I heard they were nearby on tour. These experiences apparently contrasted with most goings-on in the Harvard Music Department, where the unofficial motto was said (only half-jokingly) to be “music should be seen and not heard.”

Fortunately the only class I took there was Development of the String Quartet, a core curriculum music appreciation course led by the brilliant, vivacious Luise Vosgerchian, a beloved pianist who had studied (like Burt Bacharach, as it turned out) with Nadia Boulanger.  “Miss V” had come to teach lucky students after her own years of concertizing under the batons of such conductors as Koussevitsky and collaborating with top composers of her generation. She conveyed all the needed academic concepts, but never let an analytical approach get in the way of noticing and appreciating the heart and spirit of a piece, and she brought in string players as often as possible for live demonstrations of the compositions in action. Yo-Yo Ma said of her that “she was one of the most important influences in my life.” In the love of music she conveyed to performers and non-performers alike, Miss V “convinced them to trust equally their ear, intuition, and intellect.”

Luise Vosgerchian

Luise Vosgerchian

My extra-curricular music education, in addition to the Adams House trio, included playing drums for at least one on-campus musical each semester; I best remember a Cole Porter revue which introduced me to “Love for Sale” among other such quality repertoire. And at home, my next roommate, back from a year off in London, was introducing all her friends to Kate Bush, and meanwhile somehow I had found my own way to the intoxicating band led by Nigerian guitarist/roots innovator King Sunny Ade. My senior year I finally had time to take a full-year course in film animation, where I mainly worked with music and visuals. I also took a science course on sound and hearing with the bassist from our trio, a deeply gifted and darkly dreamy Grateful Dead-head named Michael Land (who has gone on to amass a fortune in the gaming audio world).

One night Mike came back from a show at Ryle’s (where I had just gone for my first time, seeing Alive!, the groundbreaking women’s jazz ensemble, on tour from San Francisco). Mike told me about an amazing group he’d seen, playing a style of music he’d never heard of before, that he was sure I’d love. They had one more show there the following night, and I took Mike’s advice. Like me, Mike was from an assimilated Jewish family, and old-time Yiddish music was also a complete revelation to him. That group, The Klezmer Conservatory Band—at the time featuring Don Byron on clarinet, with Frank London and Ingrid Monson on trumpet—is still led today by its founder Hankus Netsky of the New England Conservatory; and Ryle’s is still there in Somerville. I bought the band’s first album that evening, and it changed my life.

Each place I lived was a group shared house with wonderful pooled music collections, and sometimes even a piano with great sheet music handy.

The chance to actually perform in a klezmer band took several years to materialize, and forming my own groups came later still. All along, I was driven to pursue virtually every chance I had to play music which appealed to me, and which would pay any decent amount to perform. After graduation I moved to Portland, Oregon to complete my final animated musical film project and check out the live music scene. Each place I lived was a group shared house with wonderful pooled music collections, and sometimes even a piano with great sheet music handy. Vinyl from housemates gave me my first exposure to Patsy Cline (whose just-released bio-pic starred Jessica Lange) and The McGarrigle Sisters (whom I later learned drew part of their extraordinary harmonic constellation from Stephen Foster). My first chances to play Satie’s Gymnopedies were at an ancient upright in the parlor of our run-down, affordable rental beauty of a 1910 Arts and Crafts five-bedroom.

Every band I played with opened me to wonderful artists, from original composers and lyricists, to harmonica blues and soul cover bands where I first heard both Nina Simone and Chaka Khan. A downstairs neighbor of mine, realizing I was a drummer, even announced that I must come with her to a nearby bar with its modest stage where that very night a legendary blueswoman would be singing and performing on drum kit, too. It turned out to be one of the last shows ever played by Big Mama Thornton, who though by this time a much smaller woman still kept all of her raw energy once the tunes got going.

Portland was full of fantastic musical scenes and underemployed artists at this time. Mary Catherine Lamb, the neighbor downstairs who brought me to see Big Mama Thornton, hosted her own show on KBOO, the local alternative independent radio station. She was a hilarious woman and a feminist librarian, reading powerful poetry and prose on the air, and hosting legendary poker games in a house full of whimsical collectibles. Friends in her circle helped organize the first-ever world music festivals in Portland, which fortunately for me took place two of the three years I lived there. Among the dozens of artists I enjoyed, Queen Ida and her Bon Temps Zydeco Band stand out, both because she made me fall even more deeply in love with the accordion and because she was a woman leading her music project who had come back to the music profession later in life. Between those wonderful outdoor summer weekend performances and the larger annual Vancouver Folk Festival, I made pilgrimages that educated me in music and related dance and trance traditions from Hawaiian hula to Malian kora to some of the finest blues and bluegrass I have ever heard.

The Northwest already had a thriving, well-informed and women-led Balkan music and dance scene years prior to the US release of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. I also learned a little more of the business side of music touring working with the Women’s Music Network production company, a community-based project that was part of a loosely-organized nationwide alliance. One of my favorite jobs was picking up artists at the airport and enjoying the vibe of bringing them to a soundcheck or anywhere else they needed to be. And the concerts were very special events, usually quite well-attended. In those pre-internet times, we had independent bookstores and thriving alternative newsweeklies, plus bulletin boards at food coops—well, there are still a few of those even these days. Then, as now, I also played in every political protest demo, gay pride march, and suitably inclined parade that would welcome my snare drum skills.

And that independent radio station in Portland? KBOO is still there too. As I discovered early on, its eclectic volunteer program schedule even included, every Sunday morning: The Yiddish Hour. And after all these years, though the original couple who kept it going have retired, the show has gone on. Though in the last few years it’s morphed into the Portland Jewish Hour, it still includes Yiddish and klezmer as major genres in its expanded description. I am glad to know the 10AM-11AM hour is a home base for fans of Jewish music in northwestern Oregon. Though it’s a long way from what used to be heard during New York’s Yiddish hours on WEVD [call letters representing the legacy of labor activist Eugene Victor Debs] “the station that speaks your language,” KBOO continues a legacy with an approach now both more diverse and more diffuse.

Auditory Tourism

My enthusiasms for “World Music” have been exuberant and far-flung. I also tend to embrace independent, analog media, such as locally-based broadcasts from the heart of a community. One special radio changing-of-the-guard I look forward to each time I’m able to listen in happens weekly on New York’s radio ether: Saturdays just before 8PM on WNYE, a brokered [rent-by-the-hour] public service station, this certain transitional moment occurs between two vibrant programs. Winding down their last hour is Elena Marouletti’s Aktina FM—“the only Greek Cypriot American radio show in America”—and coming up, Trinidadian DJ Trevor Wilkins brings on “the longest-running calypso show in the world.” Not only do I enjoy listening to two of my favorite musical genres airing back-to-back at 91.5 on the dial, there’s also what sounds like real camaraderie between the enterprising hosts whose personalities shape what is for me a bonus to this prime-time non-commercial double bill.  At this sign-off/sign-on cusp, they seem genuinely fond of one another, and of each other’s musical traditions, too. From mics in separate studios, each encourages their respective loyal followings to keep listening and tune into the other’s program offerings. They represent year-round commitments to keeping their own cultures vital, and in this ephemeral pivotal sequence, also voice mutual respect and affection, warmly acknowledging each other’s music, heritage and listenership.

CD cover for the Rounder Compilation Calypso Pioneers.

Rounder’s compilation Calypso Pioneers 1912-1937 is a great place to begin a discovery of Trinidadian music.

While we can only wonder how many of their regular listeners actually heed this call to keep their ears open—and certainly both hosts must run fund drives about twice a year, so it never hurts to cross-promote to another fleetingly captive audience—it’s sweet to imagine rembetika fans staying tuned to enjoy climactic chromatic “pan” [steel drum] passages and syncopated patois innuendo, and West Indian music fans maybe developing new tastes for modal melodies and odd meters. Both the shows feature a wide array of vocals and instrumentals, from various eras: vintage and newer selections, all drawing from highly eclectic island heritages. Though I tend not to favor the more slickly-engineered contemporary ‘pop’ varieties of either repertoire, each show seems steered by its own savvy producer/host (going on a first-name basis) to nurture appreciation of the rootsier side of their playlists. Both Aktina’s Elena and her Caribbean counterpart (whom she affectionately refers as “Trevi”) operate as MC/curator/ambassadors, peppering their multi-hour broadcast stints with community announcements, music dedications and song commentary, on-air call-in contests, event promotions, homespun spots with the “kind compliments of our sponsors,” and occasional fund drives—to subsidize what Trevor reminds us is “precious, expensive airtime” which really could be lost if not enough contributors come through. I am grateful that these devotees have found a way to share their music and earn support to keep it available this way. And while I’m already familiar with many tunes from each of these traditions, each show brings me both new retro discoveries and the pleasure of familiar songs I’ve already grown to love (sometimes with different riffs or settings I’ve never heard before).

While I am usually able to hear these shows full of down-to-earth vibrancy, I still have the privilege of visiting as an auditory tourist.

One added appeal for me on the current-day WNYE—in addition to the modal, mellifluous music of the Aegean and the syncopated rhythms of the Caribbean which nurture my ears and my being, and the very human presentation by Elena and Trevi—is that while I am usually able to hear these shows full of down-to-earth vibrancy, I still have the privilege of visiting as an auditory tourist. Only occasionally am I aware of any cultural politics which might affect my pure enjoyment of this artistry in community context.

Of course, motivated aficionados can surf the web on their own for the most obscure “ethnic” music examples, and closely study audio online. I have even pursued specific pieces after tantalizing or intriguing introductions on the radio shows. There are great live performances which I’m thrilled to be able to attend sometimes, often with dance and even singing along—something I revel in even if I may not jump in myself. Generally, resources abound for study and involvement: music workshops, CD liner notes, ethnomusicology treatises, and “world music” magazine format shows, both independent and syndicated. Meanwhile for a weekly connection, whether in my car or my living room, the radio context is far more interesting than any Pandora stream, even if I’m not fond of all the music on offer in the course of any show or may not relate to every point of view I hear.

Even as a non-native listener, I respect and try to understand whatever issues may come up in these broadcasts. Naturally I may sometimes want to remain either oblivious or able to keep my distance about any drama behind the scenes or within the material that might distress me, I am sometimes keenly aware both of liberation politics I respect as well as controversies that are upsetting. (On one occasion I heard a fascinating but distressing track from the early ‘70s—“London Gay”—and when I wrote in to Trevor Wilkins, he avowed himself to be no homophobe, saying this was just “West Indian satires.” Those lyrics are very clever indeed if I even catch half their meanings, but ending with a rhyme of “fail” with “jail” and “no bail” still leaves me wondering, given the deadly serious homophobia in many parts of the Caribbean and its diaspora. And the show host’s on-air laughter—with no commentary—also made me question, but I’m glad he took the trouble to write back. I give him the benefit of the doubt and was in a sense grateful for the revelation of an artifact I would never otherwise have found.) On the other hand, hearing Greek vocals often touches my emotional core even though I understand only a smattering of the words. And in yet other instances, it’s been truly touching to be aware of what’s happening, such as Trevi’s on-air grief and remembrance when his mother had recently passed away.

The cover of a Greek rembetika compilation which features a drawing of the iconic singer Sotiria Bellou

A rembetika compilation featuring recordings by the iconic singer Sotiria Bellou (1921-1997) who is featured in the illustration.

The “tradition” of communities and musicians overhearing each other goes back centuries, probably millennia, before radio. By the broadcast era this certainly created interesting infusions for New Yorkers even more commonly back in the “Golden Age of Radio,” which was also an era without air-conditioning, leading to even more open windows and doors and ears. I’ve seen accounts of various crossover hits born out of the curiosity and enthusiasm of cultural mixing this way. My own affinity for Yiddish and Greek music reflects the interplay between these genres, demonstrated by shared melodic repertoire which bands I’ve been part of (more on that in the coming weeks) have covered in styles reflecting both sources, and likewise by recordings made by the such renowned greats as klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras under his own name as well as under pseudonyms for other labels to put music by the same players out to various different ethnic markets from New York’s industrious studios, labels, and distributors!

The “tradition” of communities and musicians overhearing each other goes back centuries, probably millennia, before radio.

Actual crossover with commercial intent is yet another vast topic spanning various eras which can be charted in copious novelty tunes superimposing two seemingly unlikely genre combinations (often reflecting excellent command of each style in their arrangements and performance, even if using clichéd material in juxtaposing digestible, stereotypical forms). I’m fascinated by these, too, in part as a reflection of how well musicians did know at least certain aspects of each other’s traditions, and how curious neighboring people might be about each other’s languages and customs. Through various instances, both in heterogeneous “Old Country” settings as well as in the challenging worlds of immigrants thrown together, musicians might have both the opportunity and the impetus to take on tunes, style vocabulary, knowledge of dances and popular repertoire etc. to make themselves employable for as many situations as possible, whether as performing or recording artists, and sometimes even cross-cultural impresarios or polyglot producers.

Back to considering what commonalities fascinate me among these distinct genres, trying to generalize beyond superficiality, I find variously energetic, aesthetic and even intellectual connections. In both Greek and Yiddish genres, as with other related musics of “Near Eastern” provenance, inherently majestic, mysterious and emotive qualities, effusive yet controlled, are carried by highly variegated modal sounds. As to Calypso and Klezmer, though these may share no discernible links of direct mutual influence, I am attracted to the propulsive, rowdily sophisticated rhythms and structure in each genre’s upbeat dance forms, as well as the hilariously nuanced wordplay often found in both of these genre’s vocals—each originating in a humorously incisive macaronic mindset commenting semi-covertly from a vantage point outside, but very familiar with, the dominant culture.

As a drummer and an enraptured listener, many more related worlds beckon too—Brazilian music and Balkan music offer huge joys encompassing many of my favorite qualities in a plethora of gorgeous, challenging forms. As to West Indian and Greek: So far my schedule has never yet allowed me to join in the Brooklyn steel drum rehearsals I used to contemplate, and I only once sat in on dumbeq at Astoria’s now long-vanished Akroama nightclub ages ago when called up unexpectedly by someone I knew on the bandstand (the same person who later introduced me also to Portuguese fado). My ears and my heart liven up with these sounds, which—in lieu of a live concert, parade, jam, or party—are still great to hear on-air, programmed by people rather than algorithmic formulae. I’m grateful for any regularly-scheduled, lovingly-grounded radio infusions with a real sense of context, personalities, language and human connection; it’s an atmosphere where the music lives and breathes.

Eve Sicular playing on a drum set.

Eve Sicular at Joe’s Pub. Photo by Albie Mitchell.

Eve Sicular is a New York-based drummer and the founder/bandleader of Metropolitan Klezmer (1994) and its “sister sextet,” Isle of Klezbos (1998). Eve’s arrangements have been heard on Showtime’s The L Word, HBO’s Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags, CBS Sunday Morning, and London’s Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, as well as in pieces at New York Theatre Workshop, the Museum of The City of New York, The Wexner Center, The Jewish Museum, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Sicular’s debut as a composer/lyricist/playwright, J. Edgar Klezmer: Songs from My Grandmother’s FBI Files, was performed at HERE Arts Center in New York in June 2015. Her publications and lectures include topics and titles such as The Yiddish Celluloid Closet and Music in Yiddish Cinema.