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How Klezmer Works


What is Klezmer Revival?
A Jewish klezmer band performs at a wedding in the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue in Manhattan's Lower East Side neighborhood.
A Jewish klezmer band performs at a wedding in the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue in Manhattan's Lower East Side neighborhood.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Klezmer's popularity waned in mid-20th century America, to the point where the word "klezmer" came to be used as a kind of pejorative. By the 1950s, it had all but disappeared from American culture, losing out to the more popular styles of music, like jazz and R&B. But then, in the 1970s, a funny thing happened: Jewish musicians started dusting off old records and playing klezmer again. Maybe loosening attitudes toward race brought on by the civil rights movement prompted it, or perhaps it was simply nostalgia, but in the coming decades, klezmer would experience a major renaissance, bringing it back to the stage and the recording studio.

A group from Berkeley, Calif., called The Klezmorim is widely considered to be the first klezmer revival band in the United States. The Klezmorim, which was founded by Lev Liberman, played a series of concerts in Berkeley in 1976 and released an album, East Side Wedding, the following year. The group started without a very deep knowledge of traditional klezmer, but they managed to popularize it again for a modern audience [source: klezmo.com].

On the East Coast, mandolinist and clarinetist Andy Statman was one of the leaders of the burgeoning klezmer revival. Statman was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and began playing mandolin in bluegrass bands, but his musical curiosity led him to seek out long-forgotten master klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras, who mentored Statman and gave him several of his own clarinets. Statman would record several klezmer albums in the coming years, bringing American Jews back in touch with their Eastern European ancestors [source: andystatman.org].

The Klezmorim and Andy Statman set the stage for the klezmer revival, but no band has been more influential than The Klezmer Conservatory Band. The band was formed by saxophonist Hankus Netsky, who then served as an instructor at the New England Conservatory of Music. In the 1980s, the group performed several times on the popular NPR program A Prairie Home Companion, bringing the music to a wider audience, and the group later went on to produce 11 albums. The Klezmer Conservatory Band is one of the primary torchbearers for traditional klezmer, performing nostalgic renditions of klezmer hits that were brought to the U.S. by earlier Jewish immigrants [source: Rogovoy].


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