I love all forms of Jewish music. In the 1990's I was especially addicted to "Klezmer" music (the term Klezmer comes from the Hebrew words klei meaning "vessel" and zemer meaning "song", literally meaning "vessel/instruments of song") The Yiddish word "Klezmorim" loosely translated as "The musicians" refers to the traveling musicians, Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe who played their tunes both mournful and ecstatic in tiny villages, especially for celebratory gatherings such as weddings but also as roadside music, uplifting the people from shtetl to shtetl. Traditional instrumental music of the Yiddish-speaking people of Eastern and Central Europe can be traced back to the Middle Ages and is vast like oceans. From the earliest historical recordings as authentic cultural documents, to modern day Klezmer both traditional and experimental, everything from traditional doinas to "New Jewish Music" (associated especially with Jewish music and musicians from the NYC scene, who compose and perform contemporary Jewish music of all kinds, including much Klezmer-inflected music within avant-garde, experimental and free jazz settings), I adore it all. John Zorn's Tzadik label has been extremely important and groundbreaking in disseminating a large percentage of "New Jewish Music", and there are 100s of recordings on Tzadik that celebrate Jewish music, from the twisted and bizarre, to more accessible yet highly original compositions of all kinds.
It takes some degree of persistence and a magnifying glass to find the word "Klezmer" anywhere on "Blood Oranges," one of the finest discs by Brave Old World. The term "New Jewish Music," as mentioned above, however, appears in several places in the jacket and liner notes for the disc.
"We didn't want to be confined by the label "Klezmer" and the kinds of things it suggests to people now," says Michael Alpert, one-fourth of the world-renowned Klezmer quartet.
"Klezmer is such a broad category, it's not quite clear what is meant by "Klezmer music", said Alpert, speaking in a phone interview from his home in New York City. "Yet at the same time, it's a very pigeonholing kind of category, and it's associated in many people's minds with something less artful and less conscious than what we're doing."
Indeed, a listen to "Blood Oranges" makes it immediately clear that Brave Old World is still firmly ensconced in the Klezmer tradition. All the recognizable elements are still there: the mournful clarinet and fiddle melodies, the rousing, Eastern European dance rhythms, the alternately playful and soulful vocals of the badkhen.
Yet it is also instantly clear that something else is at work here-that far from recapitulating the sounds of the Old Country or taking listeners on some sort of heavy nostalgia trip, Brave Old World was breaking new ground in its field.
From the very first measures of the opening track, "Wailing World," to the closing number, "Daybreak," ancient meets modern on "Blood Oranges," as the ensemble takes a listener on a dynamic journey that, while rooted in Old World Klezmer, touches down with grace and agility in jazz, rock, tango, ambient, Asian, gospel, world-beat and contemporary classical.
"We're not Klezmer musicians out of a shtetl in Eastern Europe a hundred-and-fifty years ago," said Alpert, the group's vocalist and fiddler. "We're American-born musicians with a whole lot of different musical styles and musical experiences under our belts, and we draw from that whole pot in what we create."
Ironically, says Alpert, this desire to incorporate influences from non-Klezmer or non-Jewish sources does more to bind the members of Brave Old World to their forebears than it does to set them apart.
"Even back then (in the 19th century), Klezmer music and all Eastern European Jewish musical traditions reflected a very interesting kind of multi-cultural synthesis," said Alpert "Even then we'd be talking about different genres and different influences."
"Blood Oranges" was one of the most ambitious undertaking by a contemporary Klezmer group since the current revival began about 40 years ago. The album is an artfully composed 'song cycle' with unifying themes and motifs that take a listener on a metaphorical journey through time and space. It is at once a geographical journey, through various landscapes of Jewish experience, and a temporal journey, making stylistic leaps across the decades and centuries. Its structure also echoes the role Klezmer music originally played as the soundtrack to key Jewish life-cycle celebrations, such as weddings and bar-mitzvahs.
That such an effort should come from Brave Old World is no surprise. Ever since its founding in 1989, the group has strived to gain respect for Klezmer as an "art" music without losing its essence as a utilitarian dance music.
Said Alpert, "One of our goals is to make an art music without losing the guts and the heart and the "hotness" of a traditional music-especially a traditional dance music-that has the beat and all the hotness but that also has the depth and beauty and poignancy and heartbreaking quality of the non-dance parts of the Yiddish tradition and of a lot of Eastern European music."
Alpert is quick to point out, however, that the view of traditional Klezmer merely as "party music" is somewhat misleading. "In fact thirty percent of the old-time, Eastern European Jewish repertoire was music for listening, for displaying the virtuosity of musicians and for creating a whole kind of emotional experience-taking people on an emotional journey," he said.
This is why in the end, the members of Brave Old World prefer the term "New Jewish Music," perhaps a necessary evil in a world that demands a label to stick on everything, not unlike individual pieces of fruit. "It's clear that our music is both new and at the same time that it's Jewish in the sense that it hasn't lost touch with its roots," said Alpert. "And not only with its roots, but where it hasn't lost the kind of vitality that comes from the deep connections that we have to the various traditions involved.
"We have always seen ourselves as coming out of a very, very deep level of connection with some of the oldest aspects of the Yiddish musical tradition. And at the same time, we're doing a great deal of new composition with that as a basis, in a way that we see as moving the music forward."
Brave Old World was one of the four groups featured alongside Itzhak Perlman on "In the Fiddler's House" program, which was broadcasted initially on PBS and includes one full length dvd (which is fascinating and essential to own imo), two now classic cds and several concert tours, including an appearance at Tanglewood.
The other members of Brave Old World-all of whom share composing duties-are musical director Alan Bern, who plays accordion and piano, clarinetist Kurt Bjorling, who also plays fluier, ocarina, and alto sax, and Stuart Brotman, who plays bass, cellobass, and tsimbl, a kind of hammered dulcimer characteristic of traditional Klezmer.
I have seen Brave Old World in concert seven times, and I have to say their performances are so very electrifying, and their shows are some of the best that I have ever experienced. It can have the atmosphere of a concert hall-until fiery songs like "Wailing Wall" are played, when one is suddenly compelled to get out of their seat and dance (that's me every time..)
When I have the energy, I will write up the translations for the songs (all of which are sung in Yiddish, except "The Heretic", and "Homeland", and of course there's the instrumentals).
Hope everyone enjoys this as much as I always have!