Understanding The History Of Twin Cities Klezmer

Ahead of next week’s Klezmer on Ice, learn more about the klezmer in the Twin Cities. Today, a look at the historical context.

The question “how long has klezmer been played in the Twin Cities” is a tough one to answer. The Twin Cities don’t boast important names from the early American klezmer scene of the early 1900s, like Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein. Nonetheless, references to the term “klezmer,” different Eastern European dance forms and “Jewish wedding music” can help us not only track Twin Cities klezmer history, but understand the genre better as a whole.

A 1942 article in the American Jewish World (AJW) was titled “Want Jewish ‘Klezmer’? 16 With Minneapolis Symphony.” This grammar is a bit strange, but it speaks to the history of the term. Originally, klezmer, a Yiddish word from Hebrew, referred to an instrument (kle meaning vessel or tool and zmer meaning sound). At a certain point, the term became used for the musician playing the instrument. Hence the “16 With Minneapolis Symphony,” just referred to the 16 musicians of what we know today as the Minnesota Orchestra. They were not necessarily playing “klezmer,” they were klezmers or Jewish musicians. So “klezmer” can refer to a genre of music or the Jew who plays it.

Today, “klezmer” refers mostly to a genre played by Eastern European Jewry in the past handful of centuries. Colloquially referred to as “Jewish wedding music,” klezmer was often played for wedding dances throughout Eastern Europe.

The Jewish music scholar Henry Gideon (also uncle of the American composer Miriam Gideon) wrote a piece in AJW in 1924 titled “Folk Music of the Jews,” in which he described what we would understand today as “klezmer music.” Gideon writes: “The wedding songs are often – in fact, usually – humorous, and the wedding dance-tunes, though sometimes mournful, are far more frequently lively in character.”

Gideon describes what is likely a rendition of a Yiddish folk song called “Hatskele.” In the song, an old woman pays a wedding band a penny, asking for “no old Kasatsky, such as the Russian dance, but something up-to-date and stylish.” Multiple sources, including W. Gunther Plat’s book of local history, The Jews in Minnesota, say Minnesota Jews in the early 1900s enjoyed “kazotsky,” a traditional Russian dance, as well as Polka, which is Czech.

It’s unclear if kazotsky or polka were used as blanket terms for Eastern European music, including the music and dances we refer to as “klezmer” today. Both polka and kazotsky were played by Jewish klezmers in Eastern Europe, so if they were played in the Twin Cities by Jewish musicians (and especially if they were played at weddings) we might call the music “klezmer” nonetheless, even if they weren’t specifically Jewish dance styles or melodies.

The same year as Gideon’s article, Falk Music & Jewelry Co. (a store in North Minneapolis at the time) had an advertisement in the AJW for shellac music records. Among other Jewish music, the ad listed “Odessar Bulgar/Noch A Bisl” as well as “Galizianer-Zigainer Chosidel/Polka Mazurka.” The “Odessa Bulgar” is a well-known piece played throughout the klezmer community. It’s been covered by well-known groups like Kapelye and Chicago’s Maxwell St. Klezmer Band.

Bulgars and Chosidels are popular dance styles specific to the klezmer genre. Even if Jewish musicians weren’t playing music of this style, we know some segment of music appreciators were listening to it.

This is the difficulty of tracking klezmer as a genre: Jewish music is tied up in the diaspora, where Jews adopt and adapt music styles wherever they find themselves. Tracking Twin Cities klezmer, we find musicians putting their own soul into the genre. Klezmerica’s Joe Vass mixes Eastern European dance styles with Gershwin-style jazz; Klezmer and All That Jazz’s Shelley Hanson composes music for klezmer band and orchestra; and the Yiddishe Folkmenshn play and sing traditional Yiddish folk songs.

Whether klezmers play in Bohemia and Ukraine or Minneapolis and St. Paul, there will always be variations of what we decide to call “klezmer.” Taken to an extreme, “klezmer is played by klezmers” might as well just mean “Ashkenazi music is played by Ashkenazim” if not “Jewish music is played by Jews.” Klezmer can refer to music with specific instrumentation, music in the Yiddish language, specific dance styles or just Jewish performance.

Amidst the various projects and people who’ve waved the banner of klezmer in the Twin Cities, there’s no one clear answer to what the word means. It’s a person, it’s an instrument, it’s a band, it’s a hodge-podge of genres, it’s many things.

It has a beautiful diversity in practice, but somehow also draws many folks together. With so many klezmers klezmering their klezmer in different ways, we can say that the word “klezmer,” if anything, is a shibboleth (or catchword) for soulful Jewish musicianship. “Kind of like the Bat-Signal,” said Rabbi Reysh Weiss, formerly of the Twin Cities’ Mahadrin Klezmer Ensemble. “We always find each other, all the klezmer musicians.”