I'm not Jewish, but I'm a Klezmer musician

Violinist Meg-Rosaleen Hamilton loves the emotional intensity of Jewish folk music


If you think that Klezmer is only enjoyed — and only played — by Jews, it’s time to think again. Meg-Rosaleen Hamilton, violist of the vibrant Kosmos Ensemble, has become a powerful advocate for this irresistible strand of east European Jewish folk music and, together with her fellow performers, is helping it to reach a whole new audience. Klezmer, she says, is quite simply for everybody.

There’s a bittersweet quality that underpins many types of Jewish traditional music, she suggests, which helps to give it a strong universal appeal.

“We might be dancing to some lovely, upbeat music, but there’s an underlying emotional intensity in the music that draws me in,” she says.

“I feel a deep connection with this kind of music because for me it’s about that emotional intensity. Then there’s all the history it conjures up of the Jewish people and beyond.

“Music transcends all boundaries, and that’s what Kosmos is all about.

“My personal philosophy is that all music is one — and so one doesn’t have to be Jewish to play Jewish music.”

Hamilton, who was born in Japan and first started learning the violin in the Suzuki method there, trained as a classical musician at Edinburgh University, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Trinity College of Music in London before a childhood friend, the violinist Sophie Solomon, encouraged her to involve herself more profoundly in the study of Klezmer.

“I applied for a Millennium Award through the Jewish Music Institute, which was a huge turning point in my life,” Hamilton says. “That award enabled me to study Klezmer music, to go to Klezfest which happens every summer at SOAS, to work with Jewish composers, and to take workshops that helped to spread the music everywhere, whether schools or prisons.

“Then I joined the Klezmer ensemble She’Koyokh, which is a huge education in itself.

“Kosmos in some ways grew out of She’Koyokh and that is also an ongoing education. We’re always learning, together.”

Kosmos, in which Hamilton works with the violinist Harriet Mackenzie and the Serbian classical accordionist Miloš Milivojevi, seeks to bring together different strands of music from all over the world, from Poland to Argentina to Japan, highlighting its common roots, while also commissioning new works for their distinctly unusual instrumental mix.

This past summer they premiered a new triple concerto written for them by the leading British composer Errollyn Wallen, which draws on traditions as disparate as Venezuelan dances and Orthodox liturgical chant.

Their latest album, Pinnacle Ridge came out in the autumn and there are plenty of plans afoot for more, building upon the ensemble’s increasing popularity for its fresh, original and open-hearted approach.

Next, says Hamilton, “We’d like to bring in more tango from various different countries, and more improvisation too.

“And we look forward to writing music of our own, inspired by music from around the world. In this CD’s programme we try to take music back to its roots. The next step is to create our own music from scratch.”

‘Pinnacle Ridge’ is out now on the Nimbus Label. Kosmos are now on tour in Scotland.

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