Popular Klezmer: Pushing the Envelope

With klezmer's popularity on the rise, artists have taken it in new--and sometimes "controversial"--directions.

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Completing the Cycle: New/Old Music for a New Age

Other recent revisitations of the Yiddish experience have been more successful and, indeed, have brought the Ashkenazic musical experience full circle. A 1998 collaboration between the Klezmatics and Israeli singer Chava Alberstein produced The Well, a collection designed to rescue Yiddish poetry written in the era after the Holocaust from an extinction caused consciously or subconsciously by a conspiracy between the Hebrew vernacular of the Jewish state and the English language of America-the alternate haven of the refugees from Yiddish-speaking Europe. Chava Alberstein began her career singing the Yiddish songs of her parents' generation. Despite adopting the Hebrew language (and becoming one of Israeli song's best-known exponents), Alberstein retained a deep love for her mamaloshen (mother tongue), to which she eagerly returned.

The Klezmatics's embrace of klezmer music brought its members into the world--and aura--of Yiddish music. Their performances are alternately lauded for the continuity of their "true klezmer spirit" and the audacity of their incorporations of rock, jazz, and new age sounds into a supposedly "traditional" folk genre. The band's lead violinist, Alicia Svigals (b. 1963), has admitted that there is tension between the two poles of their music, but concludes that their "authenticity" (and that of most other modern klezmer bands) lies in their ultimate rejection of the American experience: "Coming from generations that tried and tried to assimilate, we realized that we're pretty happy that we're still sort of unassimilated. We've got something that is not quite American. It's its own thing."

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Marsha B. Edelman

Marsha Bryan Edelman is professor of music and education at Gratz College. She also serves as director of the Tyson Music Department and coordinates the college's academic programs in Jewish music.