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A & E MUSIC | Sacred Fire


Sacred Fire

Contemporary artists devote themselves to the energetic ecstasy of centuries-old Klezmer

By James Tennant

If music is the vernacular of the soul, as the saying goes, it stands to reason that music can communicate with every soul equally. It can break down human emotions into a common, universal dialect – which explains a lot about the power of music. That’s why hip-hop can speak to Bob Dylan, or why Celtic bands can be found in Tokyo, Japan. It is also why Klezmer music – invented in the Middle Ages by Eastern European Jews – can travel hundreds of years and thousands of miles to bring tears to the eyes of Jew and Gentile alike.

Klezmer is at once ubiquitous and hidden between the cultural cracks. While every major city has at least one Klezmer band, most people don’t even know the word; if they do, they probably know it as “Jewish wedding music.” This is not untrue, but it’s enormously reductive; while Klezmer is instrumental dance music and often heard at celebrations, it is also has a notable history. Based in the scales and ornament of the hazzan cantorial tradition, Klezmer began in the 12th or 13th century.

“The embellishment of the instruments, how they accentuate the melody, is very much like a voice,” says Jordan Abraham, bandleader for the group A Touch of Klez. “They try to emulate the human voice as they play. In Greek music or Arabic music, there are complex polyrhythms, but Klezmer is in the melody, not in the rhythms.”

Originally the word “Klezmer” referred to the musicians themselves, also known as klezmorim. The music itself was not considered a genre; they called it “playing Jewish.” In the late 1800s, American klezmorim began to introduce new influences, such as the Yiddish theatre tradition. Despite the music’s evolution it all but disappeared until a new generation rediscovered it. This major 1970s revival established the form as the genre it is today.

Abraham learned about Klezmer from his synagogue’s Klezmer club. If Klezmer is part of his world, then for fellow accordionist Eduard Kagansky, it is the soundtrack to his biography. He was born in Moldova in Eastern Europe, and his father, an illiterate shoemaker, lost his parents, siblings, wife and two daughters, killed in the Bershad Ghetto during the Second World War.

After the war, Kagansky’s parents met, and the young boy was raised listening to his father hum the old tunes and learning about Bessarabia and Jewish folklore. “The simplicity, the emotional content and wisdom of these melodies touched me immensely,” he says via email, carefully translated into English. “The very memory of my dad and his spirited singing not only affected the way I saw the world but has made me fall in love with music.”

Eventually, Kagansky took private lessons from a music instructor by the name of George Zagaevsky. He taught him the history and origin of music, and shared with him his belief that the music was essential to the strength and spirit of human beings.

“Zagaevsky was convinced that music was like an unfinished Bible, which can only be unabridged by human genius and can be passed on from generation to generation,” says Kagansky. “This is what I believe to be the essence of Jewish music. The teachings of the Torah remind us of the wonder of life. So isn’t it wonderful that we can transform them into something we can all sing and play about.”

Historically, Jewish people were not truly able to share their music with anyone but themselves. “There were limits as to how many Jews could be in a band,” explains Abraham. “This music was to Europe what jazz was to America. It was subversive, and it was coming from a subculture. So they controlled it.”

This “subversive” music, like most subversive music, could not stay contained for long, and the influence of Klezmer was felt despite the prejudices of the time. Consider the Hungarian dances of Franz Liszt, based on the music of Hungarian musicians like Márk Rózsavölgyi. Rózsavölgyi’s real name was Mordechai Rosenthal, and his Gypsy ensemble consisted of Jews disguised as Gypsies.

Kagansky sees a deeper connection between Klezmer and the Jewish people than mere history. “If there is anyone out there today, who wishes to truly discover what it means to be a Jew, “ he says, “I would tell them to sit down, close their eyes and listen to traditional tunes. “The Jewish Frailach is a continuing celebration of life.
If out of sheer emotion you feel like hugging each other, then that is the very thing about Jewish music that appeals not only to
the Jews themselves but to all of G-d’s children.”

Indeed, Klezmer does appeal to people well outside of the Jewish tradition. There is a sense of melancholy and emotional depth in the music. Abraham explains it in terms of scales and modes, and the juxtaposition of a minor and major sound. “One of the big scales is what they call Freygish, or a Spanish Phrygian scale,” he says. “A minor second right at the beginning is followed by a major third, a raised third, so right away you’ve got this bittersweet sound.”

Comparing Abraham’s musicologist approach to Kagansky’s deeply religious take on the music, the two seem to approach Klezmer from opposite ends of the spectrum. Yet the two are actually not so far apart; Abraham may speak of Phrygian scales and Kagansky of an “unfinished Bible,” but ultimately, the different roads lead them to a common understanding of Klezmer.

Kagansky, for his part, feels a spiritual connection to Klezmer that is anchored in his faith. Klezmer itself is not devotional music, though it is derived from those traditions; he does not
speak of Klezmer as music of praise. He does, however, refer to it as “G-d’s most sacred creation, a fluid spirit that travels though all of our souls, connecting every person on earth.”

“Music is a symbol of love, mutual respect and understanding,” says Kagansky. “It is able to transcend all pain. This is why Jewish music is a continuation of the Torah itself. Just like the words contained in the Torah, our music will live on because brilliance
has no end.”

Abraham is impressed with this reading (his exact response is “Wow – that’s cool”) but sees Klezmer as less specifically religious and more generally spiritual. “Music sits somewhere between spiritual and sensual,” he says, and while Klezmer may not inherently contain spiritual specifics, a listener may be moved by the spirituality of its sound, independent of the cultural and historical essentials that may exist in the music’s lineage. If you listen to the work of legendary late Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, you are not likely to comprehend that it is Sufi devotional music. You are, however, likely to feel that chill run down your spine when his voice curves upward towards those higher planes.

“Like any art, Klezmer is tied to your own experiences,” Abraham says. “You can look at a painting, but when you understand what’s been done, and it touches things that you’ve felt, that painting speaks to you differently.”

Ultimately the differences in approach are semantic. Both Abraham and Kagansky believe that Klezmer is music that resonates with everyone, and they do their best to keep it alive and bring to new audiences regardless of faith and heritage.

That they are merely conduits of something far older and more powerful than themselves probably crosses their minds when they see the looks on the faces of those audiences; looks that suggest a common understanding has spread through the crowd, and that, for these moments at least, their souls are being spoken to in the same language.