Klezmer music doesn’t come with easy definitions. It helps to know that Betty Boop got in and out of scrapes to it and Cab Calloway often filled New York’s Apollo Theater with it but describing klezmer can still bring on a semi-stall.
Even Donald Thornton, a 10-year veteran of the Klezmorim, the Berkeley-based group credited with leading a klezmer revival, takes a steadying pause before speaking up.
“Well, it basically originated as street music, dance music, a tradition that goes back hundreds of years,” Thornton said during a telephone interview from his Berkeley home. “Itinerant musicians traveling all over eastern and central Europe learned to play just about anything so they could get their next bottle of vodka.”
He continued, gaining momentum: “They weren’t trained musicians but they were able to pick up the different styles of each region. It became sort of a mixed-up style with Yiddish themes, Romanian, Bulgarian, Russian themes. Klezmer has a folk background, but then when people started immigrating to the U.S., other influences like jazz came in. . . .”
But what does it sound like?
“Oh, klezmer really moves. It’s got an infectious, driving beat. It can really get them going.”
The Klezmorim, which plays tonight at the South Coast Community Church in Irvine in a show sponsored by UC Irvine, has since 1975 been playing the melodies one critic said could “induce a statue to dance.” Thornton, the six-man ensemble’s tuba player, joined in 1979 and, despite offers to work with more traditional orchestras, has stayed around “for the fun of it.”
And klezmer, with its uncensored, wailing syncopations, can be a lot of fun.
Betty Boop’s creators, realizing the music’s potential for controlled lunacy, used its rhythms to help generate the cartoon’s surreal, rushing quality. And big-time musicians from Benny Goodman to Duke Ellington to Cab Calloway (his signature “Minnie the Moocher” features klezmer strains) incorporated the sound into some of their songs.
The Klezmorim, like many musicians who have been charmed by klezmer, tend to play in the style made popular by Lower East Side musicians in the 1920s, a time when klezmer flourished in New York’s Jewish community.
Traditional klezmer (before jazz groups began to tinker with it) used Hasidic riffs, Greek and Turkish dance rhythms and slow, passionate doinas , or instrumental laments once played by shepherds. Much of the ‘20s klezmer retained those Old World elements.
Thornton added that some record companies back then had ethnic divisions that routinely recorded the various styles for a growing population of European immigrants. Many of those recordings survived and provided the backbone for the Klezmorim’s stage shows and its own five albums.
“Most of our material comes from records from 1910 to 1930, when the sound was pretty influential,” he said. “It was wonderful because the whole European tradition then picked up styles of America, the jazz, the vaudeville sounds, the harmonies and ideas of the day. Things like ‘The Yiddish Charleston’ came out. It was 1920s fusion.”
While at the forefront of the small but active klezmer revival (Thornton said there are dozens of groups around the country specializing in the music), the Klezmorim does not slavishly reproduce the tunes from its heyday. Thornton explained that the band is trying to find new directions spotlighting solos (a fairly rare event in klezmer) and arrangements with contemporary influences.
But the most obvious innovation is the use of theatrics, especially comedy, to keep audiences tuned in. The group presents buffoonish vignettes, often described as performance-art pieces, to illustrate many of the numbers.
Watching the Klezmorim inspired one reviewer to write that they sound and act like “Czar Nicholas II’s house band as led by Spike Jones.”
Thornton said the bits are supposed to be instructive as well as laughable. In a series of vignettes, the Klezmorim’s alter-ego, “The Iron Matzoh,” makes its way in the world, playing weddings “between Minsk and Pinsk” and headlining at “thieves’ conventions.” Along the route, Thornton believes the audience learns about klezmer’s history.
“We get weird, we get abstract, but over the years, we kept the same basic story line which explains it all. We just enhance the music with visuals. . . . The Flying Karamazov Brothers have been an influence.”
The comedy also is designed to make klezmer more accessible, especially to people that may come to a show with preconceptions. Or people that might be reluctant to come to a show because of preconceptions.
“The most difficult thing is to get folks to come the first time; I think they worry that it’s going to be corny, schmaltzy stuff, you know, like only ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ ” Thornton said. “We have to gear it to a general audience, and the humor helps.
“The crowds have been growing in recent years. The music has so much life to it, the trick is just getting people to hear it the first time. You might get hooked after that.”
The Klezmorim will perform tonight at 8 at the South Coast Community Church, 5120 Bonita Canyon Road, Irvine. Tickets: $12. Information: (714) 856-5000.