Writing the Book on Klezmer

By Alexander Gelfand

Published March 02, 2007, issue of March 02, 2007.
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In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I’m personally indebted to Yale Strom.

I keep a hardcover copy of his reference work “The Book of Klezmer: The History, the Music, the Folklore” (Chicago Review Press, 2002) on the bookshelf that rings the ceiling in my apartment. Whenever I need to check a fact relating to the origins and history of klezmer, I haul myself up onto an unsteady bar stool and snatch it from its perch. I figure that Strom has kept me in pretty decent shape over the past few years.

His latest offering, last year’s “The Absolutely Complete Klezmer Songbook,” should keep me fit for the next few, as well.

Transcontinental Music Publications, a division of the Union for Reform Judaism, asked Strom to prepare the songbook in response to the large number of amateur klezmer ensembles that have sprung up within Reform congregations. They came to the right man. Strom is a one-man klezmer industry; in addition to playing violin with his klezmer band, Hot Pstromi, he has produced numerous books and documentary films on klezmer, all of them based on 25 years of fieldwork in Central and Eastern Europe. (He has a special interest in the relationship between Jewish and Rom, or Gypsy, musicians.)

His intimate knowledge of the subject shows in the book’s brief but comprehensive introduction, and in the glossary of terms at the back. Best of all, of course, are the 313 klezmer tunes: one for every day of the year but Shabbos, as the promotional copy points out. Most come from Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, with several from Belarus and Lithuania, and a few from Hungary and Slovakia. Song titles are provided in both Yiddish and English, and while most of the tunes lack lyrics (klezmer is primarily instrumental dance music), those with words are accompanied by English transliterations and translations.

The tunes are grouped by genre (bulgars, freylekhs, khosedls, shers) and by the order in which they would be performed at a traditional Jewish wedding, from processional themes right up to the gas-niggunim (street tunes) that Old World klezmorim played “for the newlyweds and their guests as they walked home in the evening after the wedding celebration.” This seems appropriate, since weddings were the principle events at which Jewish and Rom musicians once performed this repertoire throughout the Pale of Settlement. “Weddings, for both Jewish and non-Jewish musicians, were their bread and butter, their main gig,” Strom told the Forward in an interview.

“The vast majority of the tunes come from out-of-print archival sources that most people have forgotten,” Strom said. About 60 of them, however, have never before appeared in print: Strom collected them from Holocaust survivors and Rom musicians during the course of his field research. As a result, some hold particular meaning for him.

Strom encountered “Vals fun Bosnye,” for example, while visiting Itsik Svarts, the Romanian Yiddish writer and folklorist, and his wife, Cili, at the couple’s home in Iasi, Romania. Strom met Svarts during his first trip to Eastern Europe in 1981, and returned to see him nearly every year until the older man’s death in 2001. “I sort of became his long-distance surrogate son,” Strom said. “He knew everything.”

It was Cili, however, who served as a source of klezmer tunes: She remembered a vast number of songs from her childhood, and just happened to begin singing “Vals fun Bosnye” in the kitchen one day while teaching Strom’s wife, Elizabeth, how to bake sugar cookies. Hearing it today immediately summons a host of fond memories for him.

The book is packed with such finds, but aspiring klezmer musicians be warned: Melodies and chord symbols are provided, but nothing else. Keyboard players who want to interpret those chord symbols idiomatically would do well to pick up a copy of Peter Sokolow’s “Piano and Keyboard Guide: Klezmer and Hasidic Music,” (Tara Publications, 1991), just as anyone interested in arranging these tunes for an ensemble would benefit from his “Guide to Klezmer Arranging and Orchestration” (Tara Publications, 1991).

Similarly, if you want to learn how to ornament the melodies in idiomatic fashion — to execute the dreydlekh, or twists and turns, that make klezmer sound like klezmer (the glitshn, the krekhtsn, the kneytshn and tshoks) — then you’re going to need some recordings.

The book comes with a CD that is meant to provide neophytes with a basic introduction to klezmer style. Strom, clarinetist Norbert Stachel and accordionist Peter Stan throw in enough melodic ornamentation on 36 of the tunes in the book to help a beginner understand that what’s written on the page is not precisely what’s played in performance, but they deliberately keep things simple in order to make the structure of the tunes as clear as possible. As a result, if you want to become an absolutely complete klezmer musician, you’re going to need some more examples from which to draw.

Still, it’s not at all a bad place to start.

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