Frank London among musicians to perform at Klezfest JW3 showcase

Klez Fest

Klez Fest - Credit: Archant

It’s rough, wild, raucous, and the kind of music you expect to hear at Jewish weddings when the guests have had enough to drink to lose their inhibitions.

It’s rough, wild, raucous, and the kind of music you expect to hear at Jewish weddings when the guests have had enough to drink to lose their inhibitions. With a lot of foot-stamping (think “Fiddler on the Roof”).

But Klezmer, as this folksy, dance-based repertoire is called, has come of age.

Studied by serious musicologists, it’s on the regular agenda of the Jewish Music Institute at SOAS, University of London, where they run a summer school in August with distinguished players on the teaching faculty. And in the middle of the summer school, JW3, the Jewish Cultural Centre in the Finchley Rd, will host a showcase concert for the general public to look in on what’s been what’s been happening.

“We have around 70 students at the school”, says organiser Gil Karpas, “and they come from all over. But the faculty members tend to fly in from America, which is kind of central to the world culture of klezmer these days”.

That it gravitated to the US was the consequence of Jewish immigration in the early 20th Century.

The historic origins of klezmer are in Eastern Europe where it was the native music of itinerant Ashkenazi Jews who carried it through Russia, Poland, Hungary and down into the Balkans.

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As essentially spontaneous music on the move, the choice of instruments tended to favour those played standing up (violin, accordion, and, above all, clarinet), rather than sitting down. And they were played with earthy vigour that, when klezmer hit the USA, fed into the development of East Coast jazz.

“When you hear that upward-sweeping clarinet glissando at the start of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ “, says Karpas, “you’re hearing klezmer”.

And Gershwin wasn’t the only mainstream composer who absorbed the idiom. Bernstein, Copland, Mahler, Shostakovich all explored its possibilities.

“The geographic spread means that klezmer comes in varying traditions,” says Karpas.

“It’s not always boisterous: there’s a soulful, sentimental side to it as well.

“The clarinet,whose sound tends to define the popular idea of klezmer, often comes with weeping ornaments. Like joyful tears.

“But what unites these traditions is that they collectively chart the progress of Jewish culture as it spread through host countries and interconnected with what it found there. And for all differences, it’s still distinctly recognisable as Jewish”.

Whether academic study is a safeguard or a threat to the vitality of the traditions is, Karpas admits, a much-debated issue.

“There are some who want it reorganised as a more classical, conservatory-style art from, and others who want it left as it is, in the world of folk custom and Jewish weddings.

“I can only say that on our summer school we have students from the Royal Academy and Royal College alongside devoted enthusiasts who have nothing to do with academia. And they all seem quite happy together”.

Klezmer showcase concert at JW3, Finchley Rd, Wed 17 Aug, 8pm. Summer School runs SOAS, Vernon Sq, WC1, 15-19 Aug. Details: