A Very Brief History of Klezmer Music

Posted: April 22, 2014 in Music


Front cover of The Drummer's Bible Second Edition

Excerpted from The Drummer’s Bible: How to Play Every Drum Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco (Second Edition), by Mick Berry and Jason Gianni. (All chapters begin with brief style histories; this is the one from the Klezmer chapter.)


The term Klezmer comes from the Hebrew words, “kley” and “zemer,” meaning “musical instrument.” The first written documentation of Klezmer dates from the 16th century, while its creation and development stems from the Jewish population exiled to Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania (all of which came to be referred to as “the Pale of Settlement”).

Many medieval governments and societies restricted Jewish musicians to specific instruments (flutes and stringed instruments among the most prominent), and music itself was one of the few occupations Jewish people were allowed to practice. Thus, every major European city possessed highly skilled, professional Jewish bands. These bands, along with Rom (gypsy) bands, traveled in order to earn a living.

Forced out of Spain, Portugal and Central Europe (Germany in particular), 17th-century Jews found themselves relocated to the Ottoman Empire in the Pale of Settlement. There, foreign musicians traveling on trade routes injected Jewish music with Turkish, Greek, Armenian and Middle Eastern influences, contributing to the formation of early Klezmer. It was characterized by: 1) an extremely high level of musicianship; 2) unique instrumentation; 3) Middle Eastern polyrhythms.

Initially restricted to the quieter instruments clarinet and violin, Klezmer musicians adeptly explored their musical capabilities, developing an emotional depth and expression patterned after the human singing voice (a prominent characteristic still inherent in Klezmer today). With the 18th-century Hasidic tradition (worship through heightened emotion) and the release of Jews serving in the Tsarist army bringing in more militaristic instruments, (trumpets, trombones, concert snare or “little” drums [“tshekal”], mounted bass drums [“puk” a.k.a “poik” or “baraban”], cymbals [“tats”], tambourines, woodblocks, cowbells and other percussion effects) the sounds of modern Klezmer began to emerge.

When 19th-century European governments imposed yet even more hardships upon the Pale of Settlement, emigration to the United States became the logical choice for much of the Jewish population. During the years 1880–1924, Jewish immigration to America (specifically New York City) exceeded more than two million people, bringing Klezmer to the New World. By the early 20th century, several Klezmer musicians came into prominence, among the most respected being clarinetists Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras. Additionally, band leaders such as Harry Kandel produced a wealth of Klezmer recordings, making Klezmer accessible for future generations and furthering the Klezmer tradition via Bulgar, Freylakhs, Hora, Khosidl, Terkisher, and other dances.

Since the 1920s, Klezmer’s popularity has fluctuated, though it has been routinely performed in wedding ceremonies, parties, and theater productions. After the founding of the Israeli state in 1948, the younger generation felt the need to modernize its culture, causing Klezmer’s popularity to diminish further. However, a resurgence began in the latter part of the 20th century in Europe and the United States, with Klezmorim (“musicians”) from Berkeley, California and Kapelye (“bands”) from New York City leading the way. As the number of young European musicians eager to learn the style rapidly grew, one of Klezmer’s primary markets became, of all places, Germany. Musicians from the United States (many with Rock n’ Roll experience) found excited students and audiences in Berlin, with Brave Old World (with bassist Stuart Brotman, formerly of Canned Heat and Kaleidoscope), the Klezmatics, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band among the most prominent groups.

Continually evolving, contemporary Klezmer music now, sometimes, features the drum set.  Please note that dancers sometimes perform different dances to the same series of songs, and the choice of drum pattern depends on which dance the dancers are performing.

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  1. Gregg Chmara says:

    Please do not forget the contributions of the New York Yiddish theater to Klezmer — and its addition to the World War 2 pantheon of songs — including “By Mier Bis Du Shoen” by the Andrews Sisters and others. These tunes tickled the Yiddish speaking immigrants into feeling they had been Americanized and assimilated — even though their children were more so in the adoption of Jazz.

    And, like Polkas from various European nations, the resonance, beat differences and tunings in various areas of the USA split and merged as the basic songs were interpreted by the available instruments.

    Clarinet and violin, while preferred on the east coast of the USA was often supplanted by trombone on the west coast — and the use of drums– today where there are two Klezmer bands — there are at least three opinions on drums. And adding a guitar does not help when a mandolin may be needed.

    That being said — Klezmer can be fun — as can many ethnic participation musical forms. Sing or dance along with joy and sorrow — that is the key!


  2. […] A Very Brief History of Klezmer Music […]


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