The Klezmommies perform during LUaroo on Main Hall Green May 29, 2022. Photo by Danny Damiani

Starting a DIY Klezmer collection with the Hava Nagila principle

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My band was worried all day because there was a chance of a storm and our group being cancelled. It was our first big performance and first paid gig at our college music festival: a whopping $100 split between the nine of us. And our excitement ran high when the posters announced our band name, “The Klezmommies,” along with up-and-coming artists from off campus.

When we went up to the stage to soundcheck before playing, some of our closest friends walked into the audience with a huge yellow banner that read “This is Klezmommy,” matching the custom yellow T-shirts we had designed and sold to the friends. It was clear as we started playing with the big crowd on the grass in front of us.

Halfway through, we played our chaotic rendition of “Hava Nagila”. I took the mic into a raspy cantralian intro before lining up the band to start playing with a hop and a fist hop in the air. I went back to the keyboard to find our lead singer had given my chair to the audience.

I randomly started strumming chaotically perched on top of the piano while the same friend in the crowd started a hora dance circle. My missing chair found its way to the center of the circle as four people began to lift other members of the audience in bnei mitzvah style. Two or three circles circled around the high chair as it started to rain. But no one stopped dancing. The show went on.

This first successful combo continues to inspire me to encourage more and more people to play klezmer. This is the advice I wish I had received before I set out on figuring out how to quench my thirst for the genre. Getting to know Klezmer was an uphill battle for me, as all I had were books, recordings, and the Internet to start learning about the tradition. Klezmer is powerful, and its intricate beauty should be within the reach of all young Jews who want to play it.

What is klezmer?

First things first, what is it? klezmer? The name of this genre of music comes from the Hebrew words כְּלִי (k’lí) and זֶמֶר (zémer), which mean tool or instrument and melody or song respectively. It is important to highlight the genre of music with this Hebrew origin because while Jewish music is not klezmer, all “klezmer” music is Jewish.

Traditionally, klezmer refers to an Ashkenazi musical tradition that emerged largely in Eastern Europe and migrated to America with the Jews who played it. Despite the fusion of the American klezmer scene with Jewish immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a “klezmer revival” began in the 1970s, as American-Jewish musicians revived a genre that was in danger of dying out.

In the modern context, klezmer isn’t just a type, it’s a term. Think of jazz: Just as jazz includes separate, specific styles as well as rich histories and traditions coming from the African diaspora and African American cultures, many different things sound “jazzy.” So is the case with klezmer in the context of the Jewish or Ashkenazi diaspora broadly: many things can be klezmer, but sometimes it just sounds like “klezi”.

Find your people

Finding people to play with can be the hardest part of your journey. I recommend sticking to what I call the “Hava Nagila Principle”: When in doubt, air next to accessibility.

Openness and honest emotion are key ingredients to any successful music experience, so don’t feel shy if you need to start playing something so popular that some may not even consider it cliché. Really klezmer Like “Hava Nagila”. Simple, singable tunes like “Hava” are great because they also invite more casual musicians and music estimators into battle. Not all of your fellow musicians may be Jewish; Not all I have. What is important is their respect for Jewish culture and willingness to listen.

Hava Nagila transcription, by Merry Verona.

But where do you look for bandmates? If your university has them, your music school and Hillel’s will be very important sources for gauging interest. Connect with any musicologists, music performers, or even Jewish studies professors who may support you or have a background in klezmer music or Jewish music. They may also know other students to connect you with. The more comfortable you feel wearing your passion on your sleeve, the easier it will be to find people.

Once I found enough interested musicians, I started hosting open concerts which eventually led to the formation of our 9 member group. Klezmer isn’t well known, so gauging interest can get frustrating. If you stay firm in your passion and maintain a healthy connection with the musicians around you, you can better understand the direction you want to go. Can Go in any direction everyone Wants to enter. Your group might want to have a weekly low-stakes jam for fun or maybe you’d find buddies who are willing to train 5 times a week to start your earth-shattering super combo.

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With committed musicians and rehearsal times, you’ll need to decide which songs to play, which can be tricky. if you want to start, Listen to this playlist. Ask your colleagues for their thoughts and, again, refer to the Hava Principle if in doubt. Start basic, with room to build. My bandmates and I have grown an incredible amount as klezmer musicians over the past year; A lot of the stuff we play now easily would have been a big question if I had brought it to our primary jam as I struggled to get stuck on the chords on the piano.

I tend to learn songs on the piano and make my own sheet music for them, but using one of the many Jewish music books or klezmer is perfectly acceptable. Easy to buy online (for example, over hereAnd the over hereAnd the over here). It is important to listen to the recordings of the music you play – this can be useful during exercise as a group exercise. The intention is not to copy recordings exactly, but rather to share a point of inspiration and the feeling of the music inside your body as you read it from the sheet.

Check out these two recordings of Hava Nagila by the Barry Sisters and the Klezmer Lounge Band:

My band drills are very intuitive at this point. None of us, myself at least, want me as a stern bandleader, so while we all have a common sense of gigs and performance obligations, we all mostly want to have fun as a group. If we enjoy playing, our audience usually does too. That’s all we can ask for.

Get gigs and perform

My band’s first gig was Hillel’s Hanukkah party. At a certain point, we jammed a few songs so many times that we knew they were “ready to perform.” There was nothing subtle about the performance, it was really another example of the Hava principle: We could play the songs comfortably and have fun, so it was affordable for our first audience: a room for our friends from Hillel.

A cozy Hillel gathering or just planning a casual prom in your friends’ living room are great opportunities for a first performance that’s not strenuous and low-stakes. Then, you can go further and look at more formal performance venues. Each opportunity has a different set of expectations, so you can assign different administrative tasks between musicians, such as who can drive, who can find places to practice, who can communicate with event coordinators, and so on. Over time, you will also improve your collection of songs to be suitable for each performance.

Research local festivals, especially folk music, Jewish arts festivals, or music festivals hosted by your university, and contact the organizers. There are plenty of music outreach programs where you can play for children, the elderly, the homeless, and various other groups that host artists and bands. It’s also a good idea to hit up local synagogues, where you may be able to play for services, use the synagogue as a performance or rehearsal space, or make connections in the local Jewish community to play at weddings or weddings.

As a general rule, the more you can communicate about events in advance, the better — for you and your hosts. Not all organizations, festivals, or opportunities will have the funds or willingness to pay your group, but it never hurts to ask. Particularly if you are providing music for an event such as a wedding or temple service and you are required to rehearse and play specific music for such an event, it is reasonable to expect to be compensated.

Why play Klezmer?

When our set ended, my bandmates and I exchanged cheery glances and embracing hugs because friends in the audience had come over to do the same. When we got back, our friend who sells merchandise T-shirts told us that the fifty we had ordered were sold out, some on the backs of people I had never met. I smiled more that day than I have in years. I realized how important klezmer music was to me and how I wanted to shout out my love for this music to the world.

On that day, Klezmer brought together Jews and Gentiles on our campus for a dance. The existence of our positive division between the Jewish community and the broader campus community as I had never known before at our college, in this medium-sized Midwestern city of 0.12% of the Jewish population, has generated. She gave me hope.

I remember jazz, the genre that occupies a well-deserved (and complex!) Place in our musical culture. It provides us with not only undeniably great, forward-thinking music, but also a space for challenging discussions about identity and culture. I think Klezmer gives us the same meaning.

We live in a time of polarization. Veiled or not, anti-Semitism does not help the alienation we as Jews already feel in a society where we do not know who to trust and around whom we can embrace our identities. But Klezmer can build this bridge. I want more people to play klezmer music because it’s my ideal of Jewish joy. Klezmer can spark deep conversation, make you want to dance, but perhaps most importantly, it can make you smile. He is undeniably Jewish, but he is for you and me.


Featured photo: The Klezmommies performing during LUaroo at Main Hall Green May 29, 2022. Photo by Danny Damiani.

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