The Balkans, Gypsies & (Klez)More

Three weeks of the sweet-sad songs of Central Europe that can set feet a-dancing

On The Town | John Hodgshon | December 2010 / January 2011

In the promotion, Vienna’s 7th annual KlezMore seemed almost too good to be true: Three weeks of the sweet-sad songs of Central Europe that can set the most earth-bound feet a-dancing.  Klezmer is Hebrew for an "instrument of song" and also for a group of travelling musicians who wander from town to town, setting hearts alight. Would it be everything I hoped for?

Accordions? Check.

Melancholic but whimsical songs? Check.

A mixture of Balkan rhythms and ska/punk? Check.

Pork pie hats? Check check check!

KlezMore has been going strong for seven years now, combining traditional klezmer styles with more contemporary ones. Bands come from all over the world to play in the festival and, as the organizer Freidl Preisl explained, having a Jewish background is not prerequisite to playing in the festival, which throws the door open to all kind of interpretations.

Going on my maxim, ‘if you can’t dance to it, then it ain’t klezmer,’ I went to see all the concerts in Ost Klub, the location in Vienna for bands with an exotic, eastern flair. The place is interesting in itself, all below ground, the first floor is like a lot of club/bars in Vienna - a small dance floor, a huge long area for people to eye ball dancers and a DJ in the corner. Go to any club in Vienna and you’ll see somewhere like it- high tables around the dance floor for people to lean against, exposed Bistro brick and a lounge area with deep seats for people to collapse and as often as not fall asleep in.

But one floor down is the (thankfully now smoke free) stage. This place is a bit different. A mix of jazz cellar and dance hall, with a raised area at the back for people to watch and a floor divided between seating areas and a dance floor. The place has a nice atmosphere, maybe because you have a slight sense of exclusivity- everyone’s there to listen to this music, which doesn’t really come under a mainstream label and therefore attracts people with eccentric tastes.

The first group I saw there were ‘Oy Division’, an Israeli band who mix traditional klezmer with more contemporary rhythms. Klezmer began among the Ashkenazi Jews of eastern Europe, a particular style of dance tunes and instrumental display pieces for weddings and other celebrations. Stylistically, klezmer owes a large debt to gypsy and Romanian folk music, a history carried in the Romanian Doinas Sirbas, Horas and Bulgars, among the most popular klezmer dance forms.

This is the music of violins, accordion and trombone, all used to great effect to create expressive melodies bending between sorrow and joy. Oy Division takes these styles, and updates them with a modern ska/punk sensibility.  Their songs have a good dose of black Jewish humour (my favourite: "Oh what a joy it is, to serve in the Red Army tank division") with a lot of power and energy, so that you couldn’t help but dance. The concert finished with the band coming onto the dance floor while everyone danced around them in a circle, kicking their legs in the air, clapping and generally having a good old knees-up.

Although I can’t claim to have ever been to Jewish wedding, after this concert I definitely want to go. Although I’m not usually the sort of person to jump on the dance floor (well, not without a serious amount of lubrication), the music really grabbed me and kept me dancing! Even though I’d been dancing for the better part of two hours, it just wasn’t possible to disengage myself from the masses and take a break! The fact that strangers were grabbing each other and jumping onto the dance floor gives you an idea of what sort of atmosphere this band and their music engendered.

But be warned: This requires a lot of stamina; its a long time since I’ve come out of a club to seen steam rising off me – no lie!  But it is addictive. And so, after a week to recover, it was back to Ost Klub on Saturday night for the next serving of klezmer rhythms.

First up was the Dr. Shuherski Trio. Defining themselves as a ‘klein aber fein’ (small but classy) band from Berlin, they combine traditional klezmer with world musical styles from many different cultures. While they didn’t quite create the same foot stamping atmosphere as on the previous Sunday, they did succeed in warming up the crowd (well, it was only 8pm) and set the record for most notes ever on a clarinet in the shortest time.

Following on from them was the Swedish band Zimmes, with what turned out to be a very danceable version of klezmer and, while it didn’t result in people getting into a huge whirling circle, it did mean everyone was on the dance floor by the end of the night and throwing out the best klezmer/Balkan jazz inspired moves they could muster.

But it was Sunday night that brought the most eccentric event of the whole festival. A 1927 silent Russian film about a Jewish shtettl, with live accompanying music.

But that wasn’t all -- the machine providing the German subtitles had broken down, so the subtitles appeared in the original Russian, while a woman translated to German. Sitting in Metro Kino under the balcony, it was all in all, an unprecedented experience: an odd black-and-white film about a down-at-heel Jewish trader, while two guys play a trumpet, piano and clarinet in the corner and a woman declaims lines like "Oy, Abroham, such a bad luck you bring on our house!" Not how I’d usually spend my Sundays, but what the hell!

The double act were the brothers Wladigeroff, playing a jazzy version of klezmer which suited the 20s style of the film very well. And I take my hat off to them, as it can’t be an easy job keeping track with the film, lowering the volume when the translator declaims the subtitles. A great job of providing the right atmosphere for the film.

To the plot itself – Menachem Mendl decides to leave his shtettl and goes on a business trip, looking for work to feed his family. After a series of misadventures involving himself and his young sidekick (bribing a customs man, trying to sell corsets and life insurance, all with hilarious comedy results).

After a truly odd dream sequence, where he imagines building an empire importing brides from Russia to the U.S.A. (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen women in bridal gowns being hauled onto a freight ship with a crane), he decides to become a ‘wedding-broker’, more misadventures follow (surprise, surprise), the hero gets the girl and Menachem finishes off where he began- still poor.

The best part of the film were the exaggerated expressions and mannerisms typical of silent cinema, although these could feel a bit uncomfortable when your saw how the Jewish actors sidled up to officials and tried to wheedle out of paying a fine, and basically came over like caricatures. This though, was a stock-in-trade character from the Jewish vaudeville scene and should be seen in this context. But, on the whole, it was a sympathetic and quite accurate portrayal of life in the shtettl and gave you an idea of the poverty and lack of opportunities that existed in these places.

So, in the end, did the festival succeed in its aim of combining traditional Jewish klezmer music and contemporary influences? From these bands – yes. Oy Division and Zimmes showed that you can take traditional Jewish music and update it, flexible, expressive, ‘freilech musik’ – joyful music. This is dancing to all the joys and sorrows of the world in one song, with the cascading melodies of violins, clarinets or horns falling all over each other in a pool of lush accordion harmonies and the throbbing pulse of a bass. Next year seems a long time away.

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