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What is Klezmer Music?

Klezmer is a Hebrew word, a combination of the words "kley" (vessel) and "zemer" (melody) that referred to musical instruments in ancient times. It became colloquially attached to Jewish folk musicians sometime in the Middle Ages.

Working under various restrictions in different centuries and cultures, Jewish musicians (klezmorim) developed their own unique style out of a variety of local musical styles. Figuring most prominently are Ottoman Turkish modes and Balkan gypsy and clarinet stylings.

The advent of the Chassidic movement in the 1750s stocked the klezmer's pot with an endless supply of melodies and dances based on nigunim (wordless prayer melodies). The style of the performance became impassioned and soulful, reflecting the spirituality of the Chassidim.

While "klezmer" referred originally only to instrumental music played by clarinets, violins, basses and tsimbaloms (hammer dulcimers), it has come to mean Yiddish vocal music as well, encompassing both folk songs and music from the Yiddish theater, which thrived in the early 20th century in both Warsaw and New York.

At the present time, klezmer music refers to a large variety of revivals. There are those at one end of the spectrum, who play very traditional instruments and melodies in imitation of the European klezmorim; and those at the other end, who play modern fusion music, combining klezmer with world music such as Afro-pop, rock or hip hop. The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band focuses on the 1920s-40s immigrant style in America, but also creates its own arrangements and compositions inspired by the deep spiritual well of klezmer music of the Eastern European past.

As Jewish immigrants came to America, they brought this style with them, but quickly they adapted it to American tastes and instrumentation. The result has been a very organic fusion of everything from Russian dances, Chassidic drinking songs and Hungarian gypsy bravado, blended with Dixieland, early jazz and swing, and even a Yiddishe rhumba! Because of this, a klezmer concert is a true variety show.

The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band has been one of the Midwest's premiere klezmer bands since 1983. Performing both for public concerts in the U.S. and worldwide, and for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and other private parties, Maxwell Street has been central to the revival of traditional Jewish music in the Midwest. It is one of the true klezmer "Big Bands," recalling the rich, jazzy sounds of the Swing Era.

The Music

Whether one is knowledgeable about Jewish music or a newcomer, klezmer music opens the door to a world rich with energy and emotion. The klezmorim of Eastern Europe (Jewish folk musicians who played for celebrations) drew upon both the lyrical, haunting melodies of cantors and the boisterous dances of Russians, Rumanians, Poles, and other surrounding cultures to create a unique and evocative style of their own.

The melodies of the Chassidim (Jews whose prayers incorporated melody and ecstatic dance) form the basis of the klezmer's instrumental repertoire.

Forced from Russia by tyranny and poverty, Jewish immigrants poured into the "goldene medineh" (the golden land) from the 1880s until the gates were closed to immigration in the 1920s. "Here they found jazz and other world music cultures. For a few decades, an American klezmer style flourished. You could hear the influences of the Greek and Balkan and Eastern European melodies left behind, but this Americanishe version was also influenced by music from America--especially jazz.


Parallel to klezmer was the Yiddish theater, and the golden age of Jewish cantors, and the Yiddish folk traditions." (Ari Davidow, Klezmer musicologist) New York’s 42nd Street became home to the glory days of the Yiddish theater, where singers like Moishe Oysher, Mollie Picon and Aaron Lebedeff vied for the attention of the Yiddish-speaking crowds.

“Then our parents and grandparents became ‘good Americans,’ and by the Sixties, klezmer unimaginative arrangement of 'Sunrise, Sunset' played at Jewish weddings and old folks homes....The klezmer revival of the Seventies changed that." (Davidow) With the destruction of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and disappearance of the shtetl (Jewish ghetto), the soulful sound of the klezmer was all but lost and forgotten.


Then, in the late 1970s, young Jewish musicians in America were drawn to rediscover the music of their Eastern European heritage, preserved on antique recordings rescued from "grandma's attic." In addition to instrumental music, the revival of klezmer has also come to include folk melodies and the colorful comic songs of the Yiddish theater.

Today, dozens of professional klezmer bands and many more amateur klezmer music enthusiasts are part of this revival, playing all styles, from the plaintive strains of traditional Eastern European folklore to avant-garde jazz and rock improvisations on klezmer themes. The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band retains the soul of the Old World in its interpretation of klezmer while adding its own creativity, spirit and humor to create a performance that is expressive, entertaining and uplifting.

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