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Arts & Culture London Klezmer Festival is British, but Musicians Are Playing Yiddish

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Last week, London’s School of Oriental and African Studies hosted a Saudi-sponsored conference on the Middle East that excluded Israelis.

This week, the school was swinging to the sounds of klezmer.

The strains of clarinets, trumpets, violins and accordions filled the hallways between rehearsal rooms, while in a lecture hall, more than 20 people of all ages debated what constitutes a Yiddish ballad.

London was experiencing KlezFest, the first festival dedicated to the “Jewish jazz” that grew out of the Jewish celebration music of Eastern Europe.

The event ran from July 1-4 at the London school, home of the Jewish Music Institute, which organized the festival.

About 150 participants from around the world joined the faculty of 40 for four days of master classes and performances — as well as workshops on literature, language, humor, history, folklore and, of course, music.

The event was the brainchild of Geraldine Auerbach, the director of the music institute.

“There were lots of bands around the U.K. saying they played klezmer, but they didn’t really know much about it,” she told JTA.

“I knew people who could teach klezmer,” she said, so she put the festival together.

KlezFest attracted musicians from across this country, 11 from the former Soviet Union and more from Switzerland, France, Denmark, South Africa, Canada, the United States, Australia, Israel and Japan.

Not all of the participants spoke English, and Auerbach had difficulty asking Russian pianist Marina Lebenson if she wanted an electric keyboard for rehearsals.

A Ukrainian musician stepped in to translate the question. Lebenson wrinkled her nose at the idea. She wanted a real piano.

With the Ukrainian patiently translating, Auerbach succeeded in explaining that Lebenson would have a real piano for performance, but that there was no way to get one into the room where she would be rehearsing.

Lebenson’s face lit up. “Oh, for rehearsal, that’s fine,” she said in Russian. She smiled at Auerbach and produced that universally understood English phrase: “No problem.”

Auerbach zoomed off to find Guy Shalom, a young musician from Manchester, England.

“I’ve ordered percussion for you for tomorrow night,” she said, and was on her way again.

Shalom plays in a duet called Shalom-Bakhshayesh, and he’d been invited to join an American band the following night for a concert.

“The Klezdispeners’ drummer couldn’t come over, so I’m joining them tomorrow night for their concert at the South Bank Centre,” one of London’s most prestigious classical music venues, he said.

Lucy Skeaping, a British broadcaster and musician who performs with the klezmer group Burning Bush, said the revival is due to several factors: a general interest in older music, including Renaissance and Baroque; enthusiasm for “world music” from many cultures; and the desire to identify with Judaism.

“It’s a way of doing something Jewish without having to do the whole ritual and going to synagogue,” she said.

KlezFest faculty included American klezmer stars such as Michael Alpert of Brave Old World and Deborah Strauss of the Klezmer Conservatory Band.

They were joined by leading British figures of the Yiddish and klezmer scenes, along with two bands from Ukraine and one from Russia.

In addition to musicians, teachers included filmmakers, actors, dancers, historians and Yiddish language experts — including one from Japan.

Russian and Ukrainian musicians joined faculty members from the United States and Britain for the first night’s performance.

Like much of KlezFest, the evening also linked generations — some bands were made up of young musicians, while others are in their 70s

Once considered a dying art form, klezmer has been revived in the past few decades and now has a wide following in the United States and Europe.

“These are people who heard Yiddish and klezmer at home when they were growing up. The young people have had to relearn it,” Auerbach said.

The interest in klezmer is a way of connecting with a past that was not valued in the 1960s and ’70s, Skeaping said.

“The whole of old culture was ignored,” she said. “Now we’re interested in old things. We’re discovering it all late in the day.”

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