Friday, March 16, 2007

Klezmer goes Latin at Jewish Music Festival

One wonderful thing about attending music festivals is discovering new performers and musical styles that you didn't know you would enjoy. I had such an experience last weekend at the Jewish Music Festival, where I heard a Klezmer Buenos Aires, an duo of talented Argentine multi-instrumentalists playing a South American variation of the traditional Yiddish musical style.

This was my first time attending an event at the JMF, now in its 22nd year and grown up from a small community event to a professionally produced two-week-long festival presenting an array of concerts at outstanding venues in the East Bay. The festival presents a mix of classical, jazz, world, klezmer, popular and folk music styles, all bound by the thread of international Jewish culture and themes.

The Klezmer Buenos Aires concert was presented at The Berkeley Repertory Theater's Thrust Stage, a small jewel of a 400-seat theater, which was completely sold out for the concert. The performance was co-presented by La Pena, Berkeley's Latino community arts organization. What was so delightful about the concert was that it mixed the comfort food of klezmer, familiar to anyone who has attended Jewish celebrations, with less customary Latin rhythms and musical forms.

A stew of influences
The band includes Cesar Lerner on piano, accordion, and percussion and Marcelo Moguilevsky on recorders, clarinet, chormatic harmonica, jews harp, whistle, and voice. Some of these--clarinet and accordion, for example--are traditional klezmer instruments, but others--especially piano--are decidedly not. Nor did the band employ the stringed instruments--mandolins, fiddles and others--that are common voices in klezmer ensembles. Whatever the combination of instruments, the interplay between the two was playful and inventive, jumping around among various moods, tempos, and styles.

The pieces seem to me to be more composed and less improvisational than I might have expected, yet they included flights of fancy and stylistic surprises. Many of the songs built to a crescendo before ending in dramatic stop.

Wearing a loose open-neck white shirt and looking to me like the comedian Mort Sahl, Moguilevsky spoke for the band on stage. He explained that the Argentine Jewish community is very vibrant, having grown from a wave of eastern European immigrants, including the musicians' own grandparents who came to Argentina in the early 1900s from Russia and Poland.

He said that the immigrants brought Yiddish music with them, but that the tradition had faded when the following generation began to assimilate with mainstream Argentine culture. When Lerner and Moguil sought to revive the music, they had to learn it from books and old recordings.

He said that they have played together for 26 years, both as a party band playing weddings and bar mitzvahs and in a more formal trio with cello, piano and flute. The current project brings the two approaches together, providing the opportunity to play klezmer-influenced compositions as serious music in a concert setting.

"We mixed it with our other influences--tango, The Beatles, Stravinsky--and out of that came our style of klezmer in Buenos Aires," he said.

Preservation vs. innovation
At the concert, I was seated next to a knowledgeable listener, Rena Fischer, who gave me some context of how the group fits within the klezmer tradition. Klezmer was Jewish folk music from Eastern Europe, with itinerant bands of musicians traveling from village to village playing for weddings and fairs. The music has always absorbed some of the musical culture of its surroundings, whether that was the gypsy forms and classical art of Europe or the improvisational patterns of American jazz that that were alive in the new world of the Jewish diaspora. Klezmer flourished in America until the postwar period, when it declined in the assimilationist era for American Jews.

The last 20 years have seen a revival of the form. She said there are two distinct trends in klezmer, a preservationist streak typified by the Klezmer Conservatory Band and innovators such as The Klezmatics who have combined the music with modern influences. Klezmer Buenos Aires is clearly more in the latter camp, but they also gave a respectful nod to tradition by bringing up special guest Michael Alpert, the leader of the leading klezmer revival band Brave Old World, for a moving vocal.

Moguilevsky and Lerner ended the concert with a bittersweet ballad and then a rollicking klezmer dance encore with the audience clapping to the rhythm and Lerner stomping his foot like an old-time klezmer accordionist. For this listener, it was certainly an ear-opening evening of music.

Next up for this fascinating festival are (Thursday) Ensemble Lucidarium recreating the music and poetry of the Jews of Renaissance Italy (who knew?), Pharoah's Daughter (Saturday) offering a mix of psychedelic sensibility and pan-Mediterranea sensuality, and Diaspora Blues (Sunday) with free-jazz exponents Steven Bernstein and Peter Apfelbaum, both Berkeley natives who made major reputations in modern jazz.

The following week, several well-known classical and popular Israeli musicians will be on stage. The festival concludes with a community music day including workshops, instrument petting zoo, family concert, and dance concert at the East Bay Jewish Communiity Center on March 25.

For more information on all the upcoming events, visit the JMF web site.

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