Friday, September 12, 2014

KlezKanada 2014: Marching Backwards towards Di Yene Velt

KlezKanada is not a festival. It is not a summer camp. It is not an academic seminar. It is not a Yiddish version of Burning Man.  KlezKanada, however, is all of those things at once and more. It is a festival some times, a summer camp at others, and remarkably, a lot like a Yiddish version of Burning Man (der farbrent mentsh?) albeit with more Jewish grandmothers and Klezmer trombonists in attendance and almost no naked people wearing welding goggles to speak of. 

Dan Blacksberg's all-trombone band, with Rachel Lemish and other trombones. Note: no goggles!
Most importantly, KlezKanada is the focus of a movement to revitalize the use of Yiddish language and culture, to re-purpose Yiddish as a powerful tool in modern Jewish life (and not as some half forgotten source of punchlines to old Jewish jokes.) This was the first year I attended KlezKanada (I have never been to Klez Kamp either.) KlezKanada was founded by the dynamic couple of Hy and Sandy Goldman in 1996 to teach, nurture and present the best of Jewish and particularly Yiddish arts and culture. Frank London does the honors of artistic director: no finer choice could be made. Besides having monster chops and perfect pitch, Frank and I have known each other for something like 40 years, way back to our long haired hippie days in Allston Massachusetts, jamming in pickup salsa bands on Lincoln Street and hanging with the early Klezmer crowd. (Shout out to Samm Bennett in Tokyo, y'all!)

Artistic Director Frank London in a moment of rare calm.
Held at a Jewish summer camp in the Laurentian region north of Montreal, the setting of many of Mordechair Richler's novels and somewhat equivalent to the "Borscht Belt" of Canada. Montreal's Jews have a strong sense of community (held together by their superior bagels, no doubt) and have managed to coexist among many of the nastier differences that weaken American Jewish unity: Zionists vs. Religion, Hebraists vs. Yiddishists, Left vs. Right. They are Canadians, after all, they know how to reach a concensus in crisis. When faced by a strong antisemitic sentiments from the old Parti Quebecois during the 1970s political crisis, the Jews of Montreal stuck together. Yiddish used to be the third most widely spoken language in Montreal after French and English. With the adoption of laws giving French preferential status in Quebec, a lot of English speakers packed up and moved to Toronto. The 100,000 Jews that remained in Montreal? They continue to speak Yiddish, English, and when you least expect it, French as well. 

Many Montreal Jews fled to Ontario in response to French language laws in Quebec.
Many of Montreal's Jews descend from refugees who emigrated to Canada immediately after World War Two, so the use of the Yiddish language is in somewhat better condition there than in the USA. Due to the peculiarities of Quebec's language laws, while English is restricted in education and official use, minority languages in Quebec are encouraged. Italian is widely spoken in Quebec, as is Lebanese Arabic, and I always enjoy speaking Haitian Creole to Montreal cab drivers. 
Gravestone carver in downtown Montreal
Montreal is home to the combined Talmud Torah and Herzliah School, which includes Yiddish language instruction which continues to provide a pool of younger, contemporary speakers of Yiddish who often go on to teach language and participate as artists enriching and "seeding" Yiddish language around the world. (Nearby the Mohawk Indians at nearby Kahnawake have made fluency in Mohawk language a requirement for graduation. Quebec's language laws have produced unexpectedly positive results for endangered language communities.) Without a doubt, this "seeding" of Yiddish among secular, non-hasidic Jews is the most effective method thus tried to keep Yiddish a living language. While Yiddish is spoken - and indeed growing - as a living language among Orthodox Hasidic groups, their communities tend to avoid interaction with secular Yiddish groups. In order to create more contexts for language use, "language nests" like that created at KlezKanada are needed. 

Children are the key to Yiddish culture's survival. Sruli Dresdener and Lisa Mayer's Kids band.
This year's theme at KlezKanada was "Yiddish: Di Yene Velt" which led to a lot of playful "rising from the dead" vampire and spooky house imagery as people celebrated the fact that for this temporary community on a Quebec lake, Yiddish was not dead at all. It doesn't even smell bad. 

Frank and Tine: where is Cousin It?
In fact, given the playfully goofy atmosphere that comes naturally to adults at summer camp, and the number of avant-garde theater folks attending, the evening dances in the Gym were hilarious: check out music director Frank London accompanying his wife, artist Tine Kindermann on musical saw in Adams Family getup, Jake Shulman-Ment' and Sergiu Popa leading the Romanian Vampire Lautar Orchestra, dance leader Steve Weintraub dressed up in ghoulish hasidic garb, and Jenny Romanie's Haunted Sukke took the prize for eerie and weird but wonderful. 

Jake and Rebbe Weinstein
The programs offered included klezmer music instruction at all levels from absolutely the best living masters of the music, language classes and  discussions in Yiddish language, arts and theater programs, poetry readings and workshops, film showings, and a wide variety of programs for children, since many families make the trip to Lake Lantier an annual summer pilgrimage. I taught a class in Jewish fiddle styles with Sankt Petersburg fiddler Mitsia Khramtsov from the bands Opa! and Dobranotch

Get your Fried Chicken song right here!
I had only met Mitsia through Facebook chat before this, but we took a shine to each other and had a great time teaching: me, Transylvanian Jewish processional pieces, while Mitsia ran the class through several rare Ukrainian and Russian Jewish tunes and the Odessa standard "The Fried Chicken Song." Most of our students were from North America, and it was a relief to teach them by ear. For some reason, Europeans who sign up for my teaching workshops can not, or have never tried, to learn music by ear, the way most folk musicians do. Both Canada and the USA have active fiddle traditions, so maybe that explains their enthusiasm for putting aside the music notation and hearing the styles by instinct. 

Friday Evening Nigunnim with Sruli Dresdener.
There really is no distinction between performers, teachers, and audience at KlezKanada. When not teaching I might wander into a class on liturgical synagogue music, or a discussion on Yiddish led by Michael Wex, or a read-through of Rokhl Kafrissen's new play, or just drop by the Rec Centre for coffee and donuts and chance shmooze with some lovely people. Like guests at a wedding, everybody at KlezKanada is mishpocha. The evening concerts were both fun and serious: you had some of the best players in the Klezmer business playing alongside rank beginners, while the audience consists of your peers and other top rate musicians. 

The Kids: Jake Shulman-Ment, Richie Barshay, Josh Dolgin, Dan Blacksberg.
Some of the best contemporary Klezmer artists got their start at Klezkanada back when they were Kids, such as Josh Dolgin "Dj Socalled" and Mike Winograd. Winograd was at KlezKanada this year with his Sandaraa project, which consists of Winograd leading an ace band of musicians from Brooklyn's klezmer scene fronted by vocalist Zebunnisa Bangash, which plays an older form of Pakistani urban music with roots and history surprisingly similar to what Klezmer experienced (urban folk music uprooted by refugee experience finds itself alienated from the religious community that gave birth to it.... heard that story before?) 

Hankus Netsky, Mike Winograd, Dan Blacksberg, Jordan Hirsch, Frank London, Richie Barshay, and Yuval on bass. 
Mike led his other recent effort at KlezKanada: the amazing Tarras Project, playing in the spirit of the great clarinetist Dave Tarras.KlezKanada has spawned a few traditions of its own, the most striking of which is the Erev Shabbes Backwards March. the backwards march has its origins in the shtetls of East Europe. in some communities the musicians would welcome the sabbath by leading a march to the synagogue while walking backwards, in order to face the setting sun and thus welcome the "Queen" - the sabbath is always revered as the Queen of Days. 

Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell greeting the Queen
The tradition was reinstated at KlezKanada with the backwards march from the shore of Lake Luger up the hill to the Mess Hall for the sabbath dinner. First of all, I have never heard so many klezmer musicians playing in one place, and I have been in klezmer parades and festivals all over the world. Most moving, for me, was  memorial service to violinist and music educator Yaela Hertz, who passed on this year. Yaela was a mentor for many of the string students at KlezKanada and a personal teacher of klezmer violinist Deborah Strauss, who led the amassed musicians in a simple, yet profound acoustic tribute to Yaela: a simple scale in the ket of G played purely and cleanly over a Canadian lake shore. It was beautiful and moving. At the conclusion Deborah and not a few of the violinists were moved to tears as the Backwards March melody began. 
The march itself took about twenty minutes. At the conclusion, in a break from tradition, the Brothers Nazaroff broke into a rousing rendition of "A Mazeldiker Yid" by Nathan "Prince" Nazaroff, joined in by a few dozen hale and hungry klezmorim. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. Also one of the most anarchic. Accordions and fiddles were flying around me in a dangerous vortex, trumpets blatted in my delicate ears, as Russians danced complete balagan moves in my proximity. To see that moment, well, folks... you will just have to wait and see the movie! (Coming soon, like next year. Yes, a movie! About Nazaroff and all things Nazarovian. Nazarovye!)


rokhl said...

A lovely tribute to a most magical week. Hope to see you there next year!!!!!

Jordan Hirsch said...

Bob, you summed up so many of my positive feelings so beautifully. As fellow KK rookies and Teaneckers, let's make this just one of our touchstones!

Adam Matlock said...

this is a great summary - some background I didn't know about Montreal/Quebec that explains quite a bit. And really some great descriptions of some of the week's highlights.

NeluThat70sKid said...

Saw Frank, along with the rest of the Klezmatics, perform @ Notre Dame in South Bend in Dec. of 2012 with my parents for my birthday, LOVED IT, couldn't get enough of "Ale Brider" (We Are All Brothers), one of my favorites! Thanks for the update!