Digging into their Yiddish roots

You say klezmer, I say kleizmer. According to Daniel Hoffman, there is quite a difference between the two forms of the genre.

carpion trio_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
carpion trio_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When world music first appeared on the scene in the 1980s, it rapidly absorbed increasing numbers of cultural groups and geographical areas until it became something of an all-consuming genre. In general, almost anything that is not Western classical music, pop, rock or jazz is construed – or misconstrued – as being world music, even though jazz increasingly takes in an ever-widening swath of ethnic strands.
Then again, according to Daniel Hoffman, klezmer music somehow slipped under the radar for all sorts of reasons, including some of the bad press variety. The California-born, Tel Aviv resident violinist is doing his utmost to address that situation.
Hoffman, 46, has a solid family pedigree in his chosen area of the arts. “When my grandfather talked, with his Eastern European accent, I heard the sound of klezmer music,” he says. “My father played classical piano, and my mother sang. Her parents hail from Bessarabia which, back then, was part of Romania.”
Klezmer was something of a subliminal backdrop to much of Hoffman’s childhood. “My father would play klezmer on the piano when he wanted to get the three of us kids running around the house having fun. Then again, he was a huge Beethoven fan and thought that music after Beethoven’s time was sort of pointless.”
The young Hoffman received a solid classical music education on violin, which he began to study at seven. After high school he took a degree at the Manhattan School of Music and started to get an inkling that a change of tack was in order. “I realized I did not want to be an orchestral musician, as that’s where I was headed.”
In fact, Hoffman’s nonclassical mind-set had started kicking in long before that. “When I was 12, I started playing guitar and I played in rock bands all through school.”
There were ulterior social motives for the instrumental transition, too. “I heard that girls liked guitar players better than violinists, and back then that was right,” he laughs. “I actually stopped playing violin for a while but got back to it when I was 16, and I haven’t really improved my guitar playing since.”
Hoffman’s familial musical background began to make its presence felt on his musicianship. “I noticed that when I played the violin without music in front of me, it would always come out sounding Eastern European. That was a default setting. I’m sure it was because of my father. It wasn’t exactly klezmer. It wasn’t until I learned a lot more about the style, and the differences between different kinds of Eastern European music, that I really started playing klezmer. I had to learn the different styles and scales, and I listened to old recordings before I could really start playing klezmer. That was around the time I got out of music school, about 22 years ago.”
It was a true homecoming for Hoffman. “I can say that playing klezmer felt natural to me, like it was mine. I just felt so good about it, and I discovered that music doesn’t have to be painful.”
Still, there was plenty of elbow greasing and a little back pedaling to be done before Hoffman could really get up and running with his newfound musical love. “I really had to learn to play the violin again. It was like learning to play from the other side of my brain. When you play classical violin, you are reading music; and when you read music, it’s on the analytical side [of the brain]. When I played without music, it was enjoyable for me; and when I played with music, it just didn’t feel natural to me.”
Hoffman started thinking about klezmer as a possible avenue of serious musical endeavor following a trip to this part of the world shortly after graduating from college. “I visited Israel many times before I finally made aliya five years ago,” he explains. “I got the idea of joining Jewish Ashkenazi melodies with Middle Eastern rhythms after a visit in the early 1990s. It was just a basic idea, and I didn’t think anyone would want to listen to that. In the beginning it was just me and a darbuka player.”
That notion led to the birth of a band called Davka and raised Hoffman’s international profile a notch or two, as the quartet – with a cellist and bassoon player – performed at festivals in the US and Europe. The band stuck together, intermittently, for 14 years, putting out five CDs in the process, four of which were released on radical Jewish music entrepreneur John Zorn’s celebrated New York-based Tzadik label. “Davka was really like a mixture of Middle Eastern music, klezmer, jazz and modern classical.”
Hoffman has been in the mix-and-match musical business for a while, and a new CD he recently released on the Magda label, called At the Black Sea, culls from a wide collection of cultural and musical domains. On the CD, Hoffman joins forces with his Carpion Trio colleagues, multi-instrumentalists Avishai Fisz – who plays accordion, soprano recorder and piano and takes care of most of the vocals – and Gershon Weisenfirer, who plays euphonium, oud, sansula and various percussion instruments, as well as contributing some vocals.
The album takes in music from Romania, Greece, Russia and Azerbaijan, with Yiddish and Hebrew also making an appearance. The CD’s eclectic approach, not to mention its entertainment value, is stretched even further by the contribution of ethnic pop star Kobi Oz to a track called “Push the Button.” Considering Oz comes from a Tunisian family, he does an excellent job with the Yiddish vocals, and the former Tea Packs frontman captures the joyous madcap spirit of the song with his usual trademark aplomb.
The trio’s storytelling and entertainment intent with the CD is clear even before you open the box. The front cover features Hoffman, Fisz and Weisenfirer in motley early 20th-century attire in a mock-up of a photography studio setting, complete with phony pastoral backdrop. Then, as the first track, “Freleich Yodl,” kicks in, you are immediately struck by the quality of the playing, both in terms of the individual instrumental skills and the comfortable synergetic domain the threesome created as the oompah of the euphonium dovetails neatly with the violin, with added occasional yodeling seasoning from Fisz. He displays delightful and often acrobatic vocal skills throughout, and there is a sense that all three players did their homework before entering the recording studio.
In recent months, the trio has played to packed audiences in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and there is a tour of Germany and Austria lined up in March.
Mind you, Hoffman’s entry into the world of klezmer wasn’t entirely smooth. “I got a band together after I left music school. It can be a problem when you get a modern klezmer band going. You’ve got a drummer and a bass player, and you just can’t hear the violin. So then you have to amplify it, and it becomes a very different thing. It becomes a different beast ,and I found that very frustrating.”
They say that when a door closes, another is already open and waiting – all you have to do is look the right way. Hoffman’s amplification problems duly spawned a new direction. “That’s when I started Davka, with a violin, cello and percussion – no drum set,” he explains. “We were a balanced ensemble, and we could play acoustically.”
Hoffman also set up a klezmer big band by the name of the San Francisco Klezmer Experience, which later morphed into The Klez-X.
Despite the plethora of klezmer-oriented musicians and the annual well-attended Klezmer Festival in Safed, Hoffman feels there is a lot of reeducational work, and a lot of enlightenment, to be done before the genre gets its true reward in this country. “There was a time in Israel when Yiddish was pretty much forbidden. I live in Neveh Tzedek and there’s a building that they are turning into a Conservative synagogue nearby that used to be a Yiddish theater. The theater was pretty much forced out of there in the 1930s. Israel was being created, they were trying to resurrect the [Hebrew] language. In some ways it’s understandable, and in some ways it’s not.”
There was, it seems, some added baggage that stymied any effort to nurture Yiddish culture. “It was associated with the Holocaust,” Hoffman continues, “while, on the other hand, there was the image of the strong independent Israeli, and the two didn’t go together very well. No one wanted to talk about anything to do with the Holocaust. There was this whole antipathy towards Yiddish.” The problem, it seems, is still with us. “It expresses itself in a different way now.”
Part of the problem was also down to the number of people who could bring the positive cultural baggage of Yiddish and klezmer music here. “There wasn’t a critical mass of musicians who came from Europe to Israel as happened in the United States. There was something like a million Jews who went from Eastern Europe to the United States between around 1880 and 1924, and they created this scene. There were something like 10 Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue – my dad and his sister used to get taken there as a sort of way of babysitting them – and there was work for Jewish musicians to play Jewish music.”
Klezmer also went through a distilling process in the New World. “Jewish musicians also played other kinds of music, like jazz, so there was this cross-fertilization going on. But that didn’t happen here. You couldn’t make a living as a musician here until recently. There were a few gigs and a few orchestras were formed, but in terms of the folk music, it just didn’t arrive. And when the klezmer musicians got here, they found there were other forms of ethnic music, like Arabic and Sephardi music. That was especially true in Jerusalem.”
So have things improved at all since Hoffman relocated here? “There is something of a klezmer scene here now, but it’s mostly the [hassidic] Meron style. In terms of Ashkenazi folk music being resurrected among the majority of Jews living here who are secular, it is only just starting to happen.”
One of the few true klezmer outfits here, Hoffman notes, is Oy Division. “They are great, but there’s not much more than them out there.”
Even so, there has been something of a revival of interest in Yiddish culture in the last 20 or so years and, for example, there is an annual Yiddish festival around Succot, and Yiddish is taught at Bar-Ilan University.
Hoffman is unimpressed. “A lot of things are taught at universities; maybe there are more people studying Swahili here. I don’t think the fact that there are Yiddish studies is that important. And the Yiddish festival – I’ve played there – is for older people. I was the only person in the room under the age of 60. But in terms of Ashkenazi culture and being able to shake off all the negativity and the embarrassment and guilt, and the shtetl and the Holocaust – that’s part of our history, including the Holocaust. And don’t forget, klezmer was around long before the Holocaust and, in fact, had already declined by then.”
Hoffman attributes the drop in popularity of klezmer in the US to a changing of the guard. “The new generation wanted to be American, they wanted baseball and rock ‘n’ roll.”
Meanwhile, in this part of the world an offshoot started emerging. “Hassidic music starting growing, which most people called klezmer,” said Hoffman. But did they get it wrong? Is “klezmer” a misnomer for hassidic music?
“It’s not a misnomer because people call it that,” Hoffman states simply, adding some insight to some other liberal use of appellations. “I have being trying to make the differentiation between ‘kleizmer’ and ‘klezmer,’ but I don’t think anyone understands me. Kleizmer is the klezmer you hear in Israel, and klezmer is the klezmer you hear in the rest of the world. The basic difference is that the kleizmer you hear in Israel is written to be sung; it is mostly hassidic music, so the melodies can’t be too complicated.”
Hoffman believes there is a social-cultural reason behind the local strand of what is generally known as klezmer. “Israelis love to sing, whereas klezmer, in its purest form, is only instrumental music.”
But, as a certain famous Jewish American folk singer might have said, things are a-changin’.
“Today, there are hundreds of klezmer bands all over the world, and many have singers. That’s how it is now. But if you go back 200 years, there would be no vocals at all.”
Hoffman is doing his best to spread the word of klezmer – through his instrumental and teaching skills, on stage and through a class he teaches at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. “I tell my students it is instrumental Ashkenazi folk music because I don’t want to use the term ‘klezmer.’”
Even so, it seems there is much common ground between kleizmer and klezmer music. “They both borrow from ideas that came from the synagogue, and they are influenced by Turkish music and all sorts of other things,” he says.
At the end of the day, Hoffman says that klezmer music has always had more to it than meets the eye, or ear. “There never was pure klezmer music. It has always been a mix of this and that, and it has always incorporated music from other places.”
That goes for the musicians, too. “You have your core repertoire – tunes that are absolutely Jewish tunes that only Jews from a certain area played – and then around it you have shared repertoire that maybe the Jews called theirs, and maybe the Gypsies or the Ukrainians or Moldovans called theirs. Then you get another ring, further out, that were, for example, Ukrainian tunes that the Jews would play, and would play them differently – just like when I play classical music, I put in some slides and expressions that come from klezmer music, which my classical music teacher would say are wrong.”
There are more latter-day obstacles to klezmer’s finally gaining across the board recognition here.
“Now it’s about the secular-religious divide,” says Hoffman, “because it’s defined here as religious Ashkenazi music, whereas in the rest of the world it’s defined as secular Ashkenazi music. I think, also, that Israeli culture is very forward looking, and klezmer is about looking back as well as forward.”
Still, Hoffman is buoyed by Stateside developments in recent years. “Now the third generation wants to dig into their Yiddish culture roots while rebelling against their parents who, in turn, rebelled against theirs.”
And, for want of a better term, Hoffman isn’t too Catholic about it, either. “You could say that At the Black Sea isn’t a pure klezmer album, either. There’s singing on it, and we take music from different countries. We also had a lot of fun doing it.”