Klezmer festival: Holding the music

Chen-Razel’s musical forays to various synagogues led to a general change of tack.

Nitzan Chen-Razel: Round the musical block. (photo credit: JAN ARDASHNIKOV)
Nitzan Chen-Razel: Round the musical block.
(photo credit: JAN ARDASHNIKOV)
Klezmer music is one of the more emotive sonic genres around. A violinist or, for that matter, clarinet player from the discipline in question can transport his listeners right across the full gamut of emotional expression, from the depths of despair to euphoric joy in a twinkle of a bow, or blow, adding new textures and shades.
That certainly applies to Nitzan Chen-Razel, a violinist- vocalist who will strut his stuff at next week’s annual Klezmer Festival in Safed, which marks its 30th edition August 22 to 24.
The 42-year-old Chen-Razel has been round the musical block a couple of times over the years. He has paid his rock dues and done time in the east-west crossover domain. Today he continues to spice up his instrumental and vocal output with all kinds of cultural- ethnic baggage, with such leading musical acts as East-West Ensemble, and rocker Ehud Banai.
Like lots of kids all over the Western world, Chen-Razel took his first instrumental steps on a recorder, followed by what he calls “listening to music,” before going on the road. Well, he didn’t exactly start touring the country at the age of nine, but he did gain some valuable performance experience with a couple of slightly older relatives.
“If you had walked along Ben-Yehuda Street [in Jerusalem] 30 years ago, you would have seen me busking there, with Aaron on my right and Yonatan on my left. We did our first gigs out there on the street.” The aforementioned family members are cousins Aaron and Yonatan Razel, today two of the leading lights of the Jewish music scene.
“We all played recorders. I have some photographs of us,” he laughs, adding that it was a financial epiphany, too. “We discovered you could make a living from music.”
Not that the Razel trio troubled the tax authorities too much. “After we finished playing, if we’d made enough to buy half a portion of rice we were ecstatic. That was great.”
Even so, the youngsters had some grand ideas. “I remember, a little later, I told my parents we were bringing the music to the people,” he chuckles. Youthful naiveté aside, the Ben-Yehuda busking berth set the tone for Chen-Razel’s career path.
The youngster became more earnest when he progressed to violin and began taking lessons. He made strides on his new instrument, and by the time he was 18 he attained Outstanding Musician status and served his time with the IDF in the Education Corps ensemble. Music also provided a whistle-stop tour of the world, and its cultural baggage, without leaving the country.
“I discovered that I could go to synagogue and hear tunes from Morocco, or go pop over to Tel Aviv to play with an Indian musician, instead of flying to India, and I could connect with the soul of the music and the culture.”
The cultural breadth spreader was a handy extension to Chen-Razel’s educational continuum.
“I really grew up as a classical violinist. I liked commercial music, too, but I was principally a classical musician,” he notes. “After the army, I opened up to folk music, and I evolved in to all sorts of directions, and became immersed in east-west fusions. It was an enriching line to take.”
Chen-Razel felt he had chosen the right instrument for the job, in more senses than one.
“I realized that the violin could accommodate all those styles and genres. I saw that I could use the same violin which, by the way, I received from the woman who saved my father – who was a baby at the time, during the Holocaust in Holland – to connect with myself and with all the shades and nuances of all those types of music.”
Chen-Razel’s musical forays to various synagogues led to a general change of tack.
“When I was 19, 20, 21 I began asking all those questions – Who am I? What am I doing here? Why do I live in Israel? – and that sort of thing. I started attending synagogue – I didn’t grow up religious at all – and I opened up to a wide variety of music styles.” That led to commensurate professional openings. “I played with [Arabic-Jewish music band] Joseph and One, and also got into Ehud Banai’s group.”
The young man was clearly keeping his options open.
“One day I’d play with Joseph and One, and the next day I’d play with Reva L’Sheva.” The latter is a Jewish rock band led by US-born guitarist-vocalist Yehuda Katz. That was an eye-opener for the violinist and led him toward the music and, more importantly, the spirit of one of the most charismatic figures ever to have graced the global Jewish music scene.
“When I was with Reva L’Sheva I absorbed lots and lots of [the music of Rabbi Shlomo] Carlebach. Loads. It wasn’t just the music. I began appreciating his power, and the power of his music.”
The “Carlebach effect” is still an important factor in Chen-Razel’s artistic ethos, and will also color the forthcoming event in Safed.
“My show at the festival is a Carlebach concert,” the fiddler continues. “I call it ‘Carlebach’s Violin.’ I don’t just play his melodies, everything that informs his music, and his spirit, is in the show too. There is this joy, the joy of simplicity.”
It wasn’t just Chen-Razel’s bowing that gained from the Carlebach effect.
“You find yourself dancing on the stage, dancing with joy,” he says, adding that he had to traverse something of a hoofing learning curve.
“At the beginning my feet were really heavy, and shy. But they became braver from dance to dance, and gained in confidence. Reva L’Sheva was a big influence on me. The music and spirit were absorbed through my bones. I had this bond with the Torah and every single person. That was the power of Carlebach – that he loved everyone.”
Over time, Chen-Razel accrued inestimable stage and recording studio time, and eventually felt it was time to push his personal musical boat out. That led to the release of his debut album, Motzeh Makom (“Finding a Place”), in 2013, which documented his spiritual and musical odyssey through the spiritual climes of the synagogue. It was the culmination of a lengthy chapter of his personal and artistic growth.“After years of being a sideman, I began my first project, which incorporated Ashkenazi piyutim (liturgical music), and that eventually became Motzeh Makom.
Part of the preparatory phase was undertaken at Chen-Razel’s daytime job at the time, as a researcher for the Hazmana Lepiyut (Invitation to Liturgical Music) website, which built up a database of liturgical music and is largely responsible for the surge in the genre’s popularity in recent years.
Today, Chen-Razel feels completely at home in the klezmer side of the musical tracks. He notes that name klezmer is a hybrid of “kli” – vessel – and “zemer” – song or melody. “The klezmer musician should accommodate the zemer of the region, the zemer of the people. We have to take it and give it back.” There should be some joyous toing and froing in Safed next week.
Other big names in the festival lineup include David Broza with the New Andalusian Orchestra Ashkelon, Yonatan Razel, Avraham Tal, high-energy saxophone- drum duo Malox and the Germany-based Hamburg Klezmer quartet.
All shows in the Klezmer Festival are free.
For more information: klezmerim.info/