TV review: Timeshift

By Simon Round, October 22, 2012

Timeshift: Klezmer, BBC 4

Musician Sophie Solomon: "It's like making your violin speak in Yiddish"

Musician Sophie Solomon: "It's like making your violin speak in Yiddish"

For all of you who think that klezmer is simply Jewish wedding music, this excellent documentary in the Timeshift strand proved that, well, you were absolutely right.

However, what you might not know was that klezmer was possibly the first and certainly the most enduring incidence of the musical mash-up.

This most evocative and nostalgic style brought together cantorial music from the synagogue, Chasidic nigunim and mixed it up with gypsy melodies (the Jews and Gypsies were the only groups able to become professional musicians in Czarist Russia outside of proper orchestras).

Add to this everything from Polish to Turkish influences and you have klezmer.

Not only were the songs unique but so were the instrumental style. As top klezmer musician Sophie Solomon said: “It’s like you’re making your violin speak in Yiddish”.

There is a phrase called a krechtz and another called a kvetch, all expressed on the fiddle or the clarinet, two instruments most suited to mimic the human voice singing in a Yiddish accent.

However, this was a great musical tradition which, during much of the 20th century, no-one was interested in. Immigrants to Britain wanted to dance the foxtrot to big bands. Israeli olim were not interested in evoking their shtetl roots.

Only in the 1970s did second and third generation immigrants living in America become interested in a music which now really only existed on old 78 records. And revive it they did, first in the US, and latterly all over Europe. Now klezmer is played around the world.

So do you need to be Jewish to play Klezmer? Well, as one contributor put it: “Do you have to black to play the blues? Do you have to be fat and Italian to sing opera?”

Klezmer may now be Jewish in origin but we saw it played by Canadian,Germans and Dutch with a heavy rock backing and even fused with ska.

One somehow suspects that the original wandering klezmer players may well have approved.

Last updated: 2:50pm, August 28 2014