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If your idea of klezmer players is a merry bunch of musicians giving their frenetic all in some archetypal shtetl-like setting, you'd be only partly right. "Yes, klezmer music is about joy, spiritual joy," says Hanan Bar Sela, artistic director of this year's Klezmer Festival, which will take place in Safed from August 10 to 12. He's a pretty decent clarinet player himself.
"But there's much more to klezmer music, and the festival, these days. There are all sorts of cross-cultural synergies and other strains that find their way in klezmer music. But it's all good music."
Indeed, such is the pull of the genre that, today, you can find highly successful klezmer acts that hail from such unexpected quarters as Sweden, Italy, Germany and France which, by all rights, should know nothing or very little about such quintessential Jewish-Balkan music.
This week's festival lineup includes Trio Klezele from France, stellar German clarinetist Helmut Heisel, three all-women bands, the Nefesh ensemble from Italy and a Jewish-Arab ensemble featuring violinist Eyal Shiloah and Bar Sela. "We were even contacted by a klezmer band from South Korea," Bar Sela continues. "It only shows that the music has a universal appeal, and that anyone can get something from it."
One musician who Bar Sela expects will really get the festival audience going is bandoneon player Raul Jaurena. "He's an amazing musician, and he plays a sort of klezmer-tango mix," says Bar Sela. "He's something like the [iconic jazz-classical tango creator and bandoneon player] Astor Piazzolla of the klezmer-tango field."
For Bar Sela, as long as the mind-set is right, anything goes. "Klezmer unites us all, regardless of source culture, religion or nationality," he observes. "The spirit and the joy have to be there, otherwise the musicianship counts for nothing."
But the festival patrons will get more than mere instrumental dexterity. "Traditionally, klezmer bands were augmented by stand-up comedians - or badhens - at weddings and other events," Bar Sela explains. "There will be some badhens at the festival, at various performances."
The klezmer event in Safed is far more than just a musical gathering. "The whole town gets involved in the festival," Bar Sela continues. "It's the perfect setting, with the Old City and all the history of the place. Consider all the great rabbis, and Kabbalists that have lived there, like Rabbi Yosef Caro - and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai lived nearby. There is a very special atmosphere there, and it all comes alive during the festival."
Shows will be held on eight stages around the town and there will be nightly jam sessions in the pedestrian street there. And there's more to come after the festival, with some of the world's greatest klezmer players sharing the tricks of their trade with the public and local junior colleagues between August 18 and 25. The teachers for the week include klezmer megastar clarinetist Giora Feidman, Hungarian folk music and klezmer reed player Prof. Jozsef Balogh, Heisel, Jaurena and Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance head Prof. Ilan Schul. There will also be concerts and jam sessions throughout the master class week.
"Safed is the world klezmer capital," Bar Sela states simply. "If you want to hear klezmer music played at the highest level and in the ideal environment, this is the place to be."
For more information: www.klezmerf.com.