Cover image for The essential klezmer : a music lover's guide to Jewish roots and soul music, from the Old World to the Jazz Age to the downtown avant-garde
The essential klezmer : a music lover's guide to Jewish roots and soul music, from the Old World to the Jazz Age to the downtown avant-garde
Rogovoy, Seth, 1960-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill, NC : Algonguin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000.
Physical Description:
xiv, 281 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ML3528.8 .R64 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



You can hear it in the hottest clubs in New York, the hippest rooms in New Orleans, Chicago, and San Francisco, and in top concert halls around the world. It's a joyous sound that echoes the past. It's Old World meets New World. It's secular and sacred. It's traditional and experimental. It's played by classical violinist Itzhak Perlman (his all-klezmer album in his all-time best-seller!), the hypno-pop band Yo La Tengo, and avant-gardist John Zorn. It made the late great Benny Goodman's clarinet wail. It's klezmer and it's hot!

The Essential Klezmer is the definitive introduction to a musical form in the midst of a renaissance. It documents the history of klezmer from its roots in the Jewish communities of medieval Eastern Europe to its current revival in Europe and America. It includes detailed information about the music's social, cultural, and political roots as well as vivid descriptions of the instruments, their unique sounds, and the players who've kept those sounds alive through the ages. Music journalist Seth Rogovoy skillfully conveys the emotional intensity and uplifting power of klezmer and the reasons for its ever widening popularity among Jews and Gentiles, Hasidim and club kids, grandparents and their grandkids.

A comprehensive discography presents the "Essential Klezmer Library," extensive lists of recordings, artists, and styles, as well as an up-to-the-minute resource of music retailers, festivals, workshops, and klezmer Web sites.

The Essential Klezmer is as entertaining as it is enlightening.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In Klezmer! (1999), Henry Sapoznik told the story of Eastern European Jewry's distinctive popular music--its emigration to North America, post-Holocaust decline, and recent renaissance--from the perspective of a musician-researcher who sparked its revival. Rogovoy writes as a member of the generation after Sapoznik's, who made the revival click. A music critic, he homes in on performers and recordings, treating klezmer history more tersely by, for example, omitting any account of the Yiddish theater, whose development is crucial in Sapoznik's eyes. Rogovoy sketches the important revival bands and their successors, tracing important players as they bounce from one band or project to another. So doing, he covers the stylistic flavors of contemporary klezmer far more thoroughly than Sapoznik chose to; for instance, 18 pages of the penultimate chapter are about avant-garde composer-player-impresario John Zorn and his Radical Jewish Culture project. The ultimate chapter, for which the fans should ever bless Rogovoy, is a big, generously annotated CD discography. If ever a book was perfectly complemented, Sapoznik's is by Rogovoy's. --Ray Olson

Library Journal Review

Rogovoy, a music journalist and passionate aficionado of klezmer music, carefully and lovingly chronicles klezmer with a journalist's eye for detail. (The term klezmer is a Yiddish contraction of two Hebrew words: kley, or "vessel," and "zemer," or song. Thus, klezmer originally referred to a Jewish folk or street musicianDa vessel of songDand not to a specific style.) Once in America, the genre absorbed influences of Broadway, jazz, blues, funk, and, most recently, a hard-driving rock beat (leading to the recent incarnation of shtetl-metal music). The five chapters deal with chronology, from "Old World Klezmer" through "Revival" and "Renaissance" (the latter looks at the phenomenon of klezmer music in the 1990s). The author is thorough and up-to-the-minute: the last appendixD"Klezmer on the Internet"Dlists websites of the major artists and organizations that perform and promote klezmer music. His discography, as well, is a valuable tool for both novices and seasoned listeners. Highly recommended for all collections.DLarry Lipkis, Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1 Old World Klezmer The klezmer music we hear today, the music of the contemporary klezmer renaissance, derives its characteristic flavor and sound-indeed, its very soul-from the music played by nineteenth-century musicians of Eastern Europe. It is undoubtedly that haunting, Old World quality, combined with a fresh, contemporary outlook, to which listeners respond when hearing the music of violinist Alicia Svigals, clarinetist Margot Leverett, vocalist Lorin Sklamberg, or keyboardist Alan Bern. These university- and conservatory-trained musicians, raised on rock and roll and well versed in jazz and ethnic folk musics, have steeped themselves in the sounds of the Old World klezmorim. What comes out when they write and play is, therefore, an ecstatic fusion of old and new. Undoubtedly it is precisely that fusion that gives the music its added emotional depth, that accounts for its raw power to move the heart, the soul, and the feet, that induces an immediate sense of faraway recognition, even for those who are miles and generations and cultures apart from the shtetlekh of Galicia and Bukovina. There is no single key that can unlock the secrets of klezmer or account for its ability to move a listener or to tug at heartstrings. But just as rock and roll fans mine the life and times of Elvis Presley in search of the singular moment when he combined country and R&B to create the ultimate popular fusion, or just as blues fans trace Robert Johnson to the fateful crossroads where he made his legendary deal with the devil, or as jazz buffs try to pin down just how Louis Armstrong developed the freedom to blow his improvised compositions, thereby inventing modern jazz as we know it, so, too, do we look to the Old World in search of, if something short of a singular key moment or musical invention, some sort of musical and cultural signposts to help illuminate the extraordinary mystery of klezmer's lasting appeal. At the very least, what we eventually learn is that today's klezmer is in many respects a retelling of the life and times of the Old World klezmorim. With no recordings to access directly and very little in the way of musical notation to go by, much of what we know of Old World klezmer is contained in the pages of nineteenth-century Yiddish literature. Fortunately for our purposes, the colorful klezmorim were favorite characters of great Yiddish writers like I. L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem, whose works have been widely anthologized and are readily available to contemporary readers. If these writers couldn't quite record the actual sound of the music played by Old World musicians, at least they did leave us with rich, colorfully descriptive, well-rounded accounts of real and imagined klezmer musicians and their milieu. Perhaps the most famous literary account of a klezmer is found in Sholem Aleichem's novella, Stempenyu. Based on the historical figure of Yosele Druker (1822-1879), a violinist and composer from Berdichev whose nom de musique was Stempenyu, Aleichem's novella includes some beautifully descriptive passages of the violinist's playing: He would grab his fiddle, give it a swipe with his bow-just one, no more-and already it would begin to speak. But how, do you think, it spoke? With real words, with a tongue, like a living person.... Speaking, arguing, singing with a sob, in the Jewish manner, with a shriek, with a cry from deep within the heart, from the soul.... Different voices poured out all kinds of songs, all so lonely, melancholy, that they would seize your heart and tear out your soul, sap you of your health.... Hearts would become full, overflowed, eyes would fill with tears. People would sigh, moan, weep. In this passage and others, Aleichem captures so much of the essence of the music as we know it-its mournful aspect, its questioning tone, its spoken quality. Aleichem's story, subtitled "A Jewish Romance," is full of romantic intrigue, reflecting the passion that swirled around the music and its players. The same combination of spirituality and sensuality that powers contemporary African American soul music appears throughout the pages of Aleichem's Stempenyu. "The commotion Stempenyu caused when he'd come into a shtetl with his band, the excitement that coursed through the town, is indescribable," writes Aleichem, who goes on in the course of approximately one hundred pages to describe just that sensation and turmoil in strikingly contemporary terms. Stempenyu may well have been the first rock star, the precursor of Mick Jagger, Alice Cooper, or Marilyn Manson: "They say he was acquainted with all the witches and warlocks, and that if he even felt like stealing a girl away from her intended he could. He knew a kind of spell, and all he had to do was look at her, just a direct look at a young woman, and she would be his-heaven protect us!" In large part, Sholem Aleichem's story is about just one of those married girls, a modest but romantically inclined fan of Stempenyu's named Rachel, who allows her heart to be stolen and betrayed by the larger-than-life figure. "Something tugged on her heart, something stroked her, but what it was, she did not fathom." Readily available in several easy-to-find translations and anthologies, Stempenyu-whose very name came to be a Yiddish synonym for "talented musician"-is must reading for those seeking to know more about the world of the nineteenth-century klezmorim. Klezmorim also appear in many Yiddish short stories. A simple, two-and-a-half page story called "A Musician's Death" by I. L. Peretz, for example, is loaded with details and revealing glimpses of the Old World klezmorim. Written in 1892, the plot finds Mikhl, the patriarch of a klezmer dynasty, lying on his deathbed, surrounded by his wife and their eight sons, who like him are all musicians. We deduce that they are penniless, as we are told that the expenses of Mikhl's funeral and burial will be covered by a charitable organization. When we meet her, however, Mikhl's wife, Mirl, has not reconciled herself to his imminent death. She is in a rage against the world. She implores the men at the synagogue to pray for Mikhl, as is the Jewish tradition, in the hope that their prayers will be heard up above and that Mikhl's meeting with his maker can be postponed. She castigates her sons, blaming her husband's illness on their wild and irreligious ways. She admonishes them that "The kapelye band of musicians is losing its glory. There will never be a proper wedding again. No Jew will be able to enjoy a true celebration." She lambastes them for having performed at non-Jewish affairs and for having eaten treyf, nonkosher food, connecting their refusal to abide by the traditional dictates of their religious faith with their father's sorry fate. The sons refuse even to don their tzitzit, their ritual fringes, for just one last show of respect. She screams and hollers at them, but they just stand silently, staring at the floor, until finally Mikhl himself pleads with her to stop. This only further incites Mirl, and she turns her attention to her dying husband, rattling some old skeletons in the closet along the way. It turns out that in fine musicianly fashion, Mikhl has his own sins for which to answer. Mirl accuses him of having long pined for another woman, to which Mikhl responds laughingly that there have been many other women, not just one. "A woman is a woman, and musicians are drawn to them the way your hand is drawn to a wound," he says. (Rock and rollers, apparently, were not the first touring musicians to enjoy the favors of groupies.) And as for his sons, he forgives them for calling him a drunk behind his back, even if he was admittedly fond of more than his fair share of slivovitz. Finally, after much screaming, crying, and hair pulling all around, Mikhl commands his weeping sons to pick up their instruments and play. Out come three fiddles, a clarinet, a bass, and a horn-a family kapelye. And Mikhl's last command to them is to "play well," and not to "clown around at a poor wedding." It is from this simple tale and others like it that we garner most of our understanding of the life, times, and character of the klezmorim. They were an irreverent, irreligious, and even immoral bunch-the very clich_ of the dissolute musician. For all their efforts, they died without so much as a ruble to their names. They were a hereditary caste, with kapelyes sometimes consisting of members of one family, fathers and sons alike. The instruments they played included violin, clarinet, bass, and trumpet. And as much as they enjoyed playing, they only gave as much as they got-they were as likely to mess around at a poor wedding, where presumably the guests were unable to tip generously, as they were to pull out all stops at a higher-class affair where the rubles flowed freely. Use of this excerpt from THE ESSENTIAL KLEZMER may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright c 2000 by Seth Rogovoy. All rights reserved. Excerpted from The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover's Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music, from the Old World to the Jazz Age to the Downtown Avant Garde by Seth Rogovoy All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Notes on Usage and Stylep. xiii
Introduction: Klezmer: A "Musical Home"p. 1
Chapter 1 Old World Klezmerp. 15
Klezmer Instrumentationp. 31
Repertoirep. 40
Chapter 2 Immigration and Classic Klezmerp. 51
Chapter 3 Revivalp. 75
Giora Feidmanp. 100
Chapter 4 Renaissancep. 107
The European Connectionp. 129
Chapter 5 Beyond the Palep. 135
Chapter 6 Discographyp. 165
The Essential Klezmer Libraryp. 166
Artistsp. 167
Compilationsp. 237
Sound Tracksp. 242
Children's Musicp. 243
The Hot Listp. 244
Klezmer by Stylep. 246
Music Retailersp. 249
Glossaryp. 251
Appendixp. 255
Klezmer Festivals and Workshopsp. 255
Klezmer on the Silver Screenp. 257
Klezmer on the Internetp. 261
Bibliographyp. 263
Indexp. 269