Making a Musical Journey Into the Past:From Morocco to Lithuania, New Albums Echo Traditional Music in Very Different Ways

Perhaps it’s a symptom of decadence, but there’s no disputing the fact that
we live in an age of retrospection. In search of authenticity, we’re
preoccupied by the desire to perform acts of cultural resurrection, to
salvage what we can of our various pasts before it’s too late. Music —
because it is evanescent, because it disappears as soon as the notes have
stopped sounding and can be captured only incompletely by notation on paper
— is a particularly difficult challenge for the time bandits. One approach
to bringing old music back to life is that of the original-instruments
movement, scrupulous virtuosi who won’t play baroque except on a viola da
gamba; another is that of those virtuosi of the tape recorder, the
ethnomusicologists who make field recordings in those few remaining
enclaves where home-grown music still thrives uncorrupted by the global
entertainment industry.

Each of these methods is represented, respectively, by two albums of
traditional Jewish music out this season. Rounder, a label renowned for its
efforts to preserve traditional music, has brought out the first CD of a
two-volume set called “Sacred Music of the Moroccan Jews,” which presents
recordings made on site in 1959 by the novelist and modernist composer Paul
Bowles, who lived for much of his life in Morocco until his death last
year. The other, from Smithsonian Folkways, is “European Klezmer Music,”
not a field recording — despite Folkways’s status as a pioneer in that
pursuit — but a sort of original-instruments tour-de-force by the modern
revivalist band Khevrisa.

Led by Walter Zev Feldman, a musicologist and performer who along with Andy
Statman spearheaded the klezmer revival in the 1970s, Khevrisa presents a
beautiful and serious music that will surprise listeners who expect the
familiar nostalgic fare. This is not the “Jewish jazz” or Yiddish theater
music that most American Jews imagine or perhaps remember as klezmer. The
instrumentation is completely different — violin takes the lead instead of
clarinet (Steven Greenman), with cimbal or hammered dulcimer close behind
(Mr. Feldman) and more violins and bowed string bass supplying the rhythm
(Alicia Svigals, Michael Alpert and Stuart Brotman). The overall impression
is stately and distinctly Old World — even, to use an old word, Oriental
— rather than manic and humorous as American klezmer often is.

This album takes us back to a lost world, one every bit as multicultural as
New York circa 1900, but instead of black music and Tin Pan Alley, Jewish
musicians were absorbing Ottoman Turkish, Slavic and Gypsy elements. This
was partly out of necessity. In the independent Polish-Lithuanian
Commonwealth that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, musicians were
members of a hereditary guild. Gypsies and Jews were generally acknowledged
to be the best, and in the northern areas of Eastern Europe, where there
were few Gypsies, Jews held the field. That meant they had to be available
to play any and all types of music, and “klezmer” signified less a kind of
music than a kind of person — a professional musical entertainer. They
played for everyone: for the wealthy new Jewish bourgeoisie, for chasidic
courts, for shtetl-dwellers and for the Polish nobility. In his excellent
liner notes, Mr. Feldman notes that klezmorim would give the same tune
different renditions depending on the audience. The same repertoire could
be played in an “introverted, meditative style” for chasidim who had
“developed a mystical interpretation” of the music or in a “worldly style”
for the proletariat and the Jewish gangsters of Odessa.

“European Klezmer Music” concentrates on the playing style that prevailed
at the weddings of wealthy Jews, which may sound like an odd choice but is
not. As Mr. Feldman explains, these weddings were occasions when klezmorim
could give free rein to their artistic impulses and play in a manner more
typical of the concert hall than the dance hall. Not that the rich are
necessarily more appreciative of musical inspiration than the rest of us;
according to Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption, a rich
family’s wedding party should last as long as possible, to show just how
much time the bourgeoisie had on their hands, whereas a poor family’s
wedding would have to wrap up quickly so the revelers could get back to
work. In any case, like the klezmorim of old, Khevrisa takes its time, and
few tracks on this CD are simple dance tunes.

The klezmer circuit led through Romania and Moldavia to Istanbul, where
Jewish musicians encountered their Turkish and Greek counterparts and
brought Eastern sounds back to Ashkenazic lands. Some of Khevrisa’s
terkisher freylachs and bulgars remind one of Greek or Turkish music, and
Mr. Feldman, who is also an expert on Ottoman court music, gives himself a
cimbal solo that most Jews would be hard-put to identify as Jewish music.
But that’s all to the good. Performances such as this one keep us from
limiting our conception of klezmer music to the productions of the Lower
East Side and the Catskills, valuable as they may be.

According to the liner notes, the members of Khevrisa taught themselves to
play in this archaic style by listening to 78-rpm records, studying what
little sheet music survives and talking to old-timers who remembered the
playing of the Jewish musicians from before the age of immigration. Just
how accurate that process is, no matter how painstaking, is certainly
questionable. “Sacred Music of the Moroccan Jews,” on the other hand, is
unquestionably authentic. Bowles, working before the mass emigration of
Moroccan Jews to Israel, took advantage of a unique opportunity to preserve
a traditional communal art form. Although he was an original artist in both
words and music, Bowles was also involved in the modern practice of making
art out of objets trouves — transmuting folk elements into art for
contemporary audiences. For example, he transcribed many hours of an
illiterate Moroccan man’s oral autobiography and had it published in
English. The connection between that activity and this recording is clear.
Bowles went so far as to record a complete Sabbath evening service in the
Ben Amara synagogue in the city of Meknes, and the entire service can be
heard, with striking clarity, on this Rounder album, which will constitute
about two-thirds of the Bowles archive, digitally remastered. To hear the
melismatic singing of the cantor and the responsive singing of the
congregation, to hear the familiar Hebrew words in a Moroccan accent, is to
enlarge one’s conception of Jewish worship.

The rest of the album features Hebrew religious poetry (piyyutim) set to
melodies either modern North African (Egyptian and Algerian) or traditional
Andalusian (the Moroccan Jews lived in Spain prior to the expulsion). The
singing here has that unmistakable characteristic of traditional music
worldwide: It is devoid of histrionics and cheap effects and lets the
music’s beauty speak for itself. It is hard to imagine anyone not raised on
this music producing the sorts of sounds that emanate from these Moroccan
singers. Listening to these medieval poems sung in Andalusian style in
20th-century Morocco would be a reminder to all resurrectionists that the
past is never really dead.

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