Klezmer Music 101

Klezmer Music
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Originally, the word "klezmer," from the Yiddish language, meant "vessel of song" and later, simply "musician." However, it has come to characterize the style of secular music played by Ashkenazi Jews for joyful celebrations such as weddings.

Klezmer Music Sound

Klezmer music is intended to replicate the human voice including sounds of crying, wailing and laughing. Generally, the violin is responsible for the imitation which is mean to sound like the cantor in a synagogue. Often, a klezmer band will include a fiddle, a bass or cello, a clarinet, and a drum. Secondary instruments include hammered dulcimers and an accordion.

Non-Traditional Influences on Klezmer Music

Klezmer music draws on centuries-old Jewish traditions and incorporates various sounds of music from European and international traditions, including Roma (gypsy) music, Eastern European folk music (particularly Russian music), French Cafe music and early jazz. In different regions of Eastern and Central Europe, klezmer developed slightly differently, leading to an exciting range of subgenres.

Dancing to Klezmer Music

Klezmer music is made for dancing. Most dances which are intended to go along with klezmer music are set dances (much like the Anglo square or contra dances). Klezmer music also has many traditional waltzes and polkas, and in later years, musicians picked up some tangos and polkas which remain in the repertoire.

These klezmer pieces are meant for dancing, including fast and slow tempos:

  • Freylekhs are the most popular klezmer dances and they are done in a circle while the piano, accordion or bass plays an "oom-pah" beat. "Freylekh" is the Yiddish word for "festive."
  • Skotshne, meaning hopping, is like a more complex freylekh.
  • Tango is a famous dance that came out of Argentina; Jews originally composed quite a few Eastern European tangos.
  • Sher: This is a set dance, one of the most common, done in 2/4 tempo. The name is derived from the straight-legged, quick movements of the legs, reminiscent of the shears used by tailors.
  • Halaka is a traditional Israeli dance the originated in Safed in Galilee; its tune has been handed down through generations.
  • Khosidl, or khusidl, is named after the Hasidic Jews who performed the dance which can be done in a circle or in a line.
  • Sirba is comprised of hopping and short bursts of running.
  • Hora or zhok is a Romanian-style dance; the Israeli hora is derived from the Romanian hora. "Zhok" in Yiddish comes from the Romanian word "joc" which means dance.
  • Csárdás is popular among Jews from Hungary, Slovakia and the Carpathians. It begins slowly
  • Padespan is a kind of Russian/Spanish waltz.and then the speed quickens.
  • Kolomeike is a quick and catchy dance which comes from Ukraine where it is the most common folk music.
  • Mazurka and polka are from Poland and Czechoslovakia. Both Jew and non-Jews engaged in the dance.
  • Terkish is like the habanera.

Klezmer Music and the Holocaust

The Holocaust nearly decimated the tradition of klezmer music, as it did to most aspects of European Jewish culture. Klezmer, like most folk music, is an aural tradition, when the older musicians died, the music died with them. A sparse few survivors helped revitalize the music and musicologists have worked tirelessly to record their repertoires.

Recommended Klezmer Music Starter CDs

  • Best of Yiddish Songs and Klezmer Music - Various Artists
    Heart of Klezmer - Ot Azoj Klezmerband
    Rhythm & Jews - The Klezmatics