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Klezmer: Vessel of Song

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The title refers to the meaning of the two Hebrew words that make up the name of the genre known as “klezmer”. “Kle” translates as “instrument” or “vessel” and “zemer” means song. I, personally, find the “vessel” interpretation to be the more appealing – perhaps because it encapsulates so perfectly my own philosophy of what a musician should be.

From my earliest days playing accordion for the relatives to performing for paying audiences on concert stages, it has been my belief that music underscores our lives. It marks important moments (the bride and groom’s first dance, the birth of a child, etc.) Ideally, it touches something deep within us – stirs up emotions and memories both for the performer and the listener. Many times, musicians focus on the technical aspects of a performance. However, the artist goes beyond this (perhaps sub-consciously) and begins to speak of inexplicable things through his/her instrument. On those nights, we are true vessels of song. The music seems to flow in spite of us.

Of course, in this day and age, sound inundates us. Traffic noise, background music in shopping malls, restaurants, dentist’s offices, washrooms, car stereos, ipods… get the picture? Are we desensitized to the power of sound? Compared to life before the gramophone and the automobile, yes.

However, it is my firm belief that great music can transcend even the most cynical, apathetic, and dulled ears of the modern listener. Perhaps, I am drawn to klezmer music for this reason. As Jews, it speaks to our collective memories and binds us to our ancestors. To Jews and non-Jews alike, the cantorial scales that are the basis of klezmer music seem to breathe tales of joy mixed with hardship, of love and loss, of a universal experience – that of a life lived. Chord progressions modulate from major to minor (and vice versa) such that each song becomes a life journey seamlessly transitioning through happy and sad moments. Even the embellishments of the melody remind the listener of crying or laughing! And then, there is the rhythm…

Throughout most of Europe for a few hundred years, there were restrictions on the number of Jews allowed in an ensemble. These bans included volume restrictions as well. The authorities felt that “Jewish” music had a dangerous tendency to fire people up.

The vessels of song poured forth intoxicating elixirs that were more potent than the strongest plum brandy… authority, in general, hates that.

We are lucky enough to have a few vessels on record. Seek them out: Naftule Brandwein, Dave Tarras, Misha Tsiganov, and others. No matter what you choose to listen to, do so with your entire being. Drink it in.