What is klezmer?

The word 'klezmer' (pronounced with a soft 'z', not 'tz') comes from the Hebrew words 'kley' and 'zemer', meaning 'vessel of song' and used to refer to a musician rather than a musical style.

Klezmer is Jewish wedding music from Eastern Europe and most of it is dance music. It was traditionally performed by professional musicians in the Jewish communities, who spoke Yiddish, a non-territorial language related to German, written in an alphabet smilar to Hebrew.

Although klezmer is usually instrumental music, the style of it mirrors the qualities of the human voice complete with laughs, cries and sobs, imitating the cantor and the Hassidic songs of the synagogue. However, klezmer is largely secular music and it draws on influences from many other backgrounds too, such as Arabic and Roma music.

Many pogroms, most notably those of the Holocaust saw a rapid decline in the Yiddish-speaking communities across Europe. Many Jews emigrated to the United States but even there klezmer music soon waned in popularity.

It was not until the 1970s that a revival began in the US, with many musicians retrieving historic recordings to learn from the old masters, among them the clarinettists Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras, and violinist and pianist Abe Schwartz.

What exactly constitutes klezmer today is hard to say, as this is an evolving and progressive musical style. Klezmer goes way further back than when it was first recorded at the beginning of the twentieth century, and its very origins are shrouded in mystery.

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