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Is klezmer music a dying tradition?
One of its prominent proponents is on record as saying so:
Andy Statman, one of the foremost Klezmer musicians in the world, knows that the time of Klezmer has passed.
“Each music has its point,” He explained over the phone while working at a Mandolin camp in California. “[Klezmer] is still alive, but in many ways it doesn’t really represent a living community. While it’s still alive and it’s great music and people enjoy it… It’s not a reflection of the time.”
About the future of Klezmer, Statman said it wasn’t bittersweet.
“Like bluegrass [music], it’s from a time and place,” he said. “It changed and the music was moving on to become something else. That’s the way it is. Styles come and go. They reflect the lives and the people who are involved in them… Each day is new.”
Klezmer is dead, or alive, in the same way I guess that Rebetiko is dead, or alive. The social circumstances that gave rise to it aren’t there any more. Any performance of it is a revival, a repurposing of the genre to current concerns—all tangled up with anxiety about authenticity, which guarantees that it won’t respond fully to current concerns. At its worse, it’s an artificial museum-like exercise. At its best, it gets the crowds dancing in the aisles one last time.
Rebetiko was revived in the 70s in Greece, because something in it spoke to Greeks, as they were at the threshold of becoming Europeans. Klezmer was revived in the 80s in America, because something in it spoke to Jews, as they were at the threshold of becoming either fully assimilated, or (as was the case with Statman) rediscovering Orthodox Judaism.
Rebetiko and Klezmer had, in fact, already died:
Klezmer is the Eastern European musical tradition passed down from one generation to the next. (“It’s basically Chasidic music,” Statman said.) The exact history of the music was unknown to him, save for the fact that when Statman began playing Klezmer, it had almost been gone.
“A lot of where the music was played didn’t make it out,” he said. “Russia, Galicia, a lot of Chasidim. I think not only the Holocaust but there was more of an interest in preserving Judaism and the community. Music was not such a pressing concern.”
Vamvakaris at least kept playing in the 50s and 60s, but he was no longer the main show.
A revival is never as vibrant as the original; it’s always qualified and unspontaneous. There’s always something artificial about it.
Still. It’s better than utter oblivion. And damn, but there’s some good toe-tapping to be had in that museum…
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