David Krakauer: Laughing and Crying

The Laws of Klezmer

DK: When I started playing klezmer music, I decided to do it for myself, for fun, as a kind of musical hobby, to learn more about my own Judaism. I think I was feeling a little bit like something was missing. I was doing all this stuff—playing in orchestras, the Martha Graham Ballet, the Aspen Wind Quintet (which had won the Naumburg Award), and all these new music groups. All this was great but I was feeling that the improviser, the composer, that side of me had been buried. Klezmer was a way to get back in there. But first I was really just learning the tunes, learning the style, the phrasing, the ornamentation, the laws of the music… And then about eight months later, the Klezmatics heard about me. So I started playing with the Klezmatics: Alicia Svigals and Frank London. The three of us made a crazy energy. And, of course, a great singer, Lorin Sklamberg, David Licht on the drums and Paul Morrissett on the bass. But it was with the front-line melody instruments that there was a special kind of instrumental synergy going on that was quite wild.

FJO: So what are these laws of klezmer?

DK: Any music has rules. So, for example, if you hear somebody playing jazz and it doesn’t swing, the rules of jazz are being broken. It’s not the music; it doesn’t have the right feel. And the same is true with klezmer. It’s a real specific sound: trills, ornaments, ways of phrasing. It’s hard to actually describe in words. You know the famous Louis Armstrong quote: “What is swing, Mr. Armstrong?” “If you don’t know what it is, don’t mess with it.” It’s like listening to a language. You listen to language tapes over and over and over and you find the knack of how to do it.

FJO: Well, the word klezmer means musician or music, so whatever those guys who were called klezmers played was klezmer music, and they played a lot of things…

DK: Yes, klezmer actually means vessel of song, exactly. I think that for the eastern European Jewish mind, klezmer music was the music that was in their particular village, what was played for weddings. Certainly there were Romanian Gypsy musicians playing. They might play a Jewish wedding if the leader was Jewish. And then there might be Jewish musicians, but the leader was a Rom, so they knew each other’s repertoires and there had to be cross-pollinations.

FJO: You mentioned trills and various ornaments and a feel or a groove that the music has. Are there specific instruments that have to be part of klezmer, the same way the hardcore bluegrass people say if there isn’t a banjo or a mandolin in the band, it isn’t bluegrass? Like, for example, you probably couldn’t have a bluegrass saxophone quartet…

DK: I would say obviously the clarinet and the violin are very closely associated with klezmer music. But I don’t have a violinist in my band and my good friend Alicia Svigals doesn’t have a clarinetist in her band. But I think it’s more about the connection to cantorial music. There’s the cliché that klezmer music laughs and cries at the same time. Where that cliché is coming from in a way is that there’s this happy celebration and dance music. There’s this delirium, this wonderful ecstatic feeling. And yet, for example, an ornament called a krecht (a little sob), the notes in between the notes, that’s so much coming from the sound of the cantor. And in Jewish life, especially in small towns, the synagogue was part and parcel of that everyday existence. You lived for Shabbat. The whole week you were just heading toward Shabbas and going and hearing the cantor. So, obviously the wedding music had to have that.

FJO: You say notes between the notes. To me, you’re talking about microtones here…

DK: It could be microtonality. But also little sobs, little escape tones [sings]. To me, if it doesn’t have that, it isn’t klezmer. The essential thing in klezmer music is the doina: the rhapsodic, non-metered improvisation form. Interestingly enough, it’s a kind of a cross between Romanian shepherd song and cantorial singing. But there are some scholars of cantorial music who say in fact, [that though] people think it was the klezmer musicians who were influenced by the cantor, there were cantors who were checking out the Romanian musicians to get their influence for how to sing the chazzanut, the cantorial music. So I think definitely it goes back and forth. And when you hear great doina playing, that’s part and parcel of klezmer music. You cannot separate klezmer music from doina. It’s sort of like in jazz. If jazz doesn’t have a blues flavor to it, to me it isn’t jazz. I really think that every great jazz player that I love, every record that I love, has blues in it. It’s soaked in the blues. And klezmer music is soaked in doina.

FJO: Fortunately, the blues never really disappeared, but the whole klezmer revival and its aftermath first began as a way to revisit the past and reconnect to what was essentially a lost tradition.

DK: At the time of this first klezmer revival, I think a lot of klezmer was about learning from the old records, from the old players, interviewing, listening and reconstructing. Bands like the Klezmorim, Kapelye

FJO: These early revival groups were just about reviving the old repertoire…

DK: Andy Statman was part of that. He was basically copying the old records note-for-note. Not completely, but he basically played freilachs and horas.

FJO: But now, Statman’s a real experimenter. What the klezmer revival morphed into, and what has made it so exciting from a new music perspective, is that it’s a real hotbed for experimentation. Some of it’s really wild stuff. This seems really contradictory. It’s looking back and going to new places at the same time…

DK: I think we’re in an amazing time for this music. It’s amazing to feel so connected to a really, really old tradition and yet feel at the same time that one is able to do stuff that keeps the music vital and keeps it moving forward.

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