Saturday, November 25, 2017

Moyde Ani

#TooBlessedToFress. Another Thanksgiving has come and gone here in the States. My latest Rokhl's Golden City is all about how massively lucky Jewish music lovers are this year and how much we have to be thankful for. We've seen some exciting releases from Yerushe, Tsibele, Radiant Others, Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird, Josh Waletzky and oh, I'm sure I'm forgetting some. But if you've been reading the column the last couple months (and clicking through to the music!) I'm sure you're up to date. One of the things I want people to understand, above and beyond the music, is the variety of factors that have made this cultural windfall possible.

As I wrote in this latest column:
Over the years I’ve heard many well-meaning speeches by many (extremely) well-meaning people, all of whom want to “save” Yiddish. (I’ll keep this vague to spare the well-meaning guilty.) What connects these would-be saviors is that the idea of an already thriving new Yiddish culture seems utterly foreign to them. Since they themselves often don’t speak Yiddish, they assume no one else does, nor would they really want to. But Yiddish doesn’t need saving; what it needs is strategic investments, especially in people. The NYSCA grant that has supported Josh Waletzky’s work is just one example how small amounts of money can have a tremendous impact. A much larger example is Klezkanada, a yearly Yiddish arts retreat held together by a few superhuman volunteers in Montreal, a scandalously small budget, and the dedication of the thousands of students and teachers who have benefited from a yearly piece of Yiddishland.

Speaking of Klezkanada...One of the things I'm particularly enjoying this year is a new podcast called Radiant Others, featuring key players of the modern 'klezmer revival'. It's helmed by trombonist Dan Blacksberg and benefits from his insight as both a working music insider as well as a member of the younger generation of klezmorim with a unique perspective.

One of his latest interviews is with ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin and was recorded at Klezkanada. I was shocked to learn it was Slobin's first time at KK. I'm glad to see such a glaring absence was finally rectified. I also learned a lot about Slobin himself, though I've been a fan of his work for years.  It's not hyperbole to say that without Slobin's work there would be no 'revival' as we know it today. He brought out the English edition of Moshe Beregovski's Old Jewish Folk Music, a profoundly important resource for Jewish music that even today has no peer. Written resources for older European Jewish music are incredibly rare and much of what we know about the tradition today comes solely from Beregovski. Everything else comes from 78s, folios and music passed from musician to musician.

Consider this. When Mark Slobin was growing up in Detroit in the late 50s and early 60s, he never once heard the word 'klezmer'. He grew up in a Jewish community with a strong immigrant and Yiddish speaking presence. As he recalled it, at weddings there would be 'Jewish tunes' but 'klezmer' as a category? Absolutely not. In 1973 Slobin went to Afghanistan for enthomusicology fieldwork. Not long after he returned he met Lev Lieberman of the Klezmorim in San Francisco. That was the first time he heard the word 'klezmer' - in the mid 70s. By the late '70s the term 'klezmer music' was starting to be used in English to refer to a defined playing style and repertoire. Until that point, the Yiddish word klezmer, with a very few exceptions, referred solely to Jewish musicians.

So, in 1970 the term 'klezmer music' didn't even exist. By 1978 Slobin and a small, but growing number of enthusiasts, were playing something called 'klezmer music' and inaugurating what we now refer to as the klezmer 'revival'. In 1990, when I was in high school, I somewhat randomly became aware of this new and fascinating music, and that random discovery (in what felt like total isolation) changed the course of my life! Now in 2017, there is a whole generation of kids on the Jewish music scene who have grown up in a world where klezmer music has always been a thing. Not just a thing, but a birthright. Many of them have grown up at places like Klezkamp, Klezkanada and the like. It's kind of astonishing when you think of the rate at which American (and global, to a degree) Jewish culture has reacted, grown, and changed to encompass a whole new/old dimension of Jewish expression.

One of the things that jumped out from the Slobin interview was how pivotal moments in the 'revival' depended on grant money. Take 1978. The 'revival' is already underway and the young revivalists have begun to find the elders who would pass on style and repertoire. Most notably, Zev Feldman and clarinetist Andy Statman connect with Dave Tarras. At that point, Statman, Feldman and Tarras went on tour, with Slobin acting as academic advisor. The tour would turn out to be a landmark in the 'klezmer revival' and a venture only made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. As Slobin says in the podcast interview, it was at that moment that they realized there was a real, intergenerational audience for this music, and a phenomenon that would extend far beyond their cadre of enthusiasts.

I bring up the issue of money because, obviously, money makes the world go round. I've never understood why the Jewish community has been so reluctant to put money into music and culture when those are things that so tangibly connect Jews to their heritage and community. (Well, I have some ideas, but that's for another time.) I saw recently that the Jim Joseph foundation approved a $1.1 million grant to the National Yiddish Book Center for their Great Books program. I mean, bravo, honestly, I think that's wonderful.  Teacher training and curriculum development for Jewish literature is the kind of nuts and bolts thing that's necessary for deepening Jewish education for young people. But I can't help but be disappointed that an organization sitting on an enormous endowment gets yet another huge grant, and it's not even for Yiddish pedagogy. I wonder what might be possible if big Jewish non-profits put even a fraction of that money into thriving programs with proven track records for engaging young people with Yiddish language and art. Look at the world changing art that flowed from the 1978 Dave Tarras tour. Look at what was possible when young musicians and researchers found a home and support at the YIVO sound archive. The establishment of Klezkamp was made possible by the YIVO sound archive, its resources, and the group of people who gravitated there to do this new, exciting work. Think what more could be achieved with substantial mainstream Jewish support for the Yiddish language and arts community?

Anyway... I'm thankful to be alive at this wonderful moment in Jewish creativity, thankful to the elders and resources that have made it possible, thankful to be part of such a wonderful global community.

(This is Sarah Gorby accompanied by an instrument called the crystal baschet)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Freedom is a Verb

Hey klez friends,

I meant to post this a couple days ago, so you'd have time to buy a plane ticket to Berlin to see Daniel Kahn celebrate the release of his new album, but life has a way of getting in the way. But on the bright side, I saved you the price of a ticket to Berlin!

Instead, enjoy the video for the first single (do we even say that anymore?) off his new album THE BUTCHER'S SHARE. I've been listening to it non-stop since I got it (direct from Berlin!) and friends, you will be, too. Daniel and the Painted Bird will be touring North America in May-June 2018, so hopefully you'll have a chance to catch them live, then.

If you're new to Kahn's music, read my profile from 2009 Partisan or Parasite and then catch up on his music here. How to describe it? The DNA is Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and the baddest midnight Klezkamp jamband you ever heard. It's a Brechtian shove with a Yiddish tam. Don't wait, just click.