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Vessel of Song MAG
Each autumn, Jews around the world observe Simchat Torah, the celebration of Holy Scripture. It’s a time of spiritual renewal, a chance to reaffirm one’s faith in God and His commandments. But to this Jewish teen, the holiday has a special meaning: it is the one time of year that allows us to dance around the synagogue to Yiddish folk music.
That’s an opportunity I would gladly take, were I not otherwise engaged. But as a musician in the Westchester Klezmer Program, I am responsible for laying down the tunes that drive the high-spirited party. While the congregation dances and parades through the aisles with the Torah scroll, we pound out the music of our Eastern European forefathers.
That music is called klezmer, a Yiddish word that means “vessel of song,” and it consists of wordless melodies – bulgars, freylekhs, horas, turkishers – meant to inspire dancing. Klezmer is not religious music in the sense that Christian gospel music is; rather than communicate a message about God, klezmer appeals to our connection as Jews in the cultural sense. “We’re all family here,” we shout, louder with melody than we could be with words. “Bring out the chair.”
A love of the idiosyncratic is all but a requirement to play in a klezmer group, so it’s no surprise that strange instruments of all shapes and sizes show up in our ranks. I’ve spent most of my five years with the Westchester Klezmer Program playing the electric cello. There was also a brief stint on the electric ukulele, which made me the proud holder of the “weirdest instrument” title until someone showed up with a superbone. What’s a superbone, you ask? It’s a trumpet-trombone hybrid that has often anchored our brass section.
Members of the our group range in age from roughly eight to 80 and in skill level from beginner to concert soloist. We will play – and have played – just about anywhere, including synagogues, private homes, libraries, hospitals, and nursing homes. We shout out the Yiddish names of songs before we play and let the grandmothers in the audience offer up a translation. We engage crowds in a two-word sing-along: “Oy, Tate!” We once played a show on St. Patrick’s Day and opened with an Irish jig. Any time we can bring smiles to faces Jewish and non-Jewish alike – and do it with chutzpah – we go home knowing our work is done.
But seldom does anyone have more fun than the band members themselves. Having played with many of the same musicians for years, I have the benefit of old friendships that transcend mere musical partnership. There are inside jokes, often at the expense of band members. There is gossip enough to fit the old Jewish stereotype. There’s even a welcoming (okay, hazing) ritual for new members at rehearsals: they must introduce themselves with their name, their synagogue, and their favorite Chinese food. Wrong answers are not treated lightly.
Often new members are confused by our unique practice methods. When we tackle a new piece of music, the process begins not with a written score but with each person’s ear. We listen to the tune as our bandleader plays it on the banjo, then we sing the wordless melody aloud. Once we can sing it like it’s been ingrained in our DNA for a thousand years, we move to our instruments and feel for the notes. When sheet music finally arrives, we treat it not as holy writ but as a reference to be amended, rearranged, and outright mangled at will.
Once, we introduced a tune with a riff that we pulled straight from the 007 theme music. In an especially strange turn of events, I once found myself in an offshoot of the Westchester Klezmer Program, a hard rock-klezmer fusion band called Black Shabbos. The freewheeling approach leads to sonic mayhem at least as often as it creates moments of magic, but it amounts to a kind of freedom that is anathema to the more disciplined world of classical music.
Truth be told, most of today’s klezmer musicians arrive at the genre with a classical background. We’re used to the certainty and precision of the structured format, and it can be culture shock to try playing any other way. But klezmer is folk music at its core, and all folk music should live up to the promise of its title: it comes not from the mind of some deified composer but from the spirit of ordinary people – the folks.
At its best and purest, klezmer – indeed, all folk music – is music without ulterior motive. When I play klezmer music, I know I’m not playing it to win over college admissions officers, to impress girls, or to sell records. I’m playing for the part of me that loves the sense of culture and belonging that comes with being a Jew, no matter how much of the religious doctrine I choose to accept. That part of me needs a voice, and I know just one way to give it one.
This article originated as a Teen Ink blog. To read more of Jeff Zalesin’s blog, Rock On, and those of other teens, go to www.TeenInk.com/blogs.