“Klezmer gave me this thing to hold onto, something strong about my Jewish identity. I started having Jewish content in my life.”
By Cindy Mindell
A prolific and eclectic musician, David Krakauer is an American clarinetist raised and based in Manhattan, the grandchild of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. He is known for his work in klezmer music as well as classical music and avant-garde improvisation. He is also considered an accomplished jazz player.
Krakauer’s performance career focused on jazz and classical music before he joined the Klezmatics in 1988. He sees klezmer as his “musical home,” saying “I can write music within klezmer, improvise, do experimental stuff, be an interpreter and a preservationist. Every side of me can be fulfilled within this form.”
In 1995, he formed the Krakauer Trio, described by Jon Pareles in the New York Times as a band that “hurls the tradition of klezmer music into the rock era.” In 2006, Krakauer and rapper Socalled formed the band Abraham Inc. with trombonist Fred Wesley (James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Count Basie Orchestra). Abraham Inc.’s music mixes klezmer, funk, and hip hop and has performed nationally and throughout the world.
He will perform on Sunday, June 2 at Beth El Temple in West Hartford as part of “Israel, Mon Amour,” a concert celebrating Israel at 65. He spoke with the Ledger about his journey to klezmer, and how he’s working to keep the genre fresh.
Q: When were you first exposed to klezmer music and at what point did you decide to focus on the genre?
A: When I was studying at Juilliard in the ‘70s, there were little pieces that my teacher’s teacher – Simeon Bellison, a Russian Jew who came to New York in 1920 and was principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic until 1948 – taught my teacher, and she did arrangements of Jewish tunes. I eventually came back to the world of my teacher’s teacher.
As a kid, I was a totally assimilated person. I had a bar mitzvah, which was kind of mainly to please my grandparents. In New York, you take Jewishness for granted: in my school, three-quarters of the kids were Jewish, but I didn’t even think about being Jewish. My grandparents may have made an effort to lose their Jewishness: I didn’t grow up speaking Yiddish, even though my grandparents spoke it; they mainly used it when they didn’t want the grandkids to understand what they were talking about. But there was a very distinct move toward assimilating; for example, we didn’t do High Holidays. I didn’t have Jewish content in my life after my bar mitzvah.
I really didn’t think that much about my being Jewish until the late ‘80s, when I was in my early 30s. Thanks to a chance meeting and a series of coincidences, I got into klezmer music. I was looking for something musically and klezmer presented itself to me as an opportunity to have a musical home and relate my music to my cultural background. I felt strongly culturally Jewish, but not in a religious sense. Klezmer gave me this thing to hold onto, something strong about my Jewish identity. I started having Jewish content in my life.
Since then, I’ve been on a Jewish journey. I went to the town where my great-grandfather was from, played at the Krakow Jewish Music Festival, met Jews from all over the world who sense that by playing klezmer music, it’s almost a political stand without waving any flags or getting up on soapboxes.
Jews were the multicultural Europeans before World War II, and in the post-1989 world, people were saying, ‘Oh yeah, there used to be Jews in Europe,’ even though there still were, and they started examining the whole thing. Presenting yourself as a Jew in Europe is a stance in favor of multiculturalism, especially in with the current rise of neo-Nazism and right-wing political factions.
Q: Klezmer is Jewish soul music. What would you say it is about klezmer that makes it speak to something deep within?
A: Klezmer is a very emotional, beautiful, earthy part of a culture that I had no idea about. It started as something connected to rites of passage and lifecycle events. I played it at a lot of weddings and clubs. Now, you ask people what the predominant Jewish wedding music is and many say a wedding band because they no longer have the cultural attachment to hearing the Jewish wedding music the way it was played in the ‘20s and ‘30s; they prefer rock. I also play at world music festivals. There was a little spark of interest in klezmer in the U.S. that has sort of faded out; there’s more interest in Europe.
Now I’m doing chamber music, concertos, basically doing things with the whole experience around the music to create works of art. The Jewish journey continues: for me, that means making works of art, doing new projects, doing things linked to identity.
Q: Other Jewish artists have referred to you and your music as their entry point into Yiddish and to Jewish culture. What do they mean?
A: With the opening up of Eastern Europe in the late ‘80s, a transformation occurred, and that was important for a lot of us in terms of our Jewish identity. Klezmer music wasn’t being played much at weddings any more, and was not part of our daily life, the daily life of the Jewish community. Other groups have their own music: Puerto Rican people play salsa; Dominican people are playing merengue, African-American people play funk, soul, and rap. These are cultural continuums that Jews really didn’t have, because our culture was shattered by assimilation, the Holocaust, and Stalin, so we had to find it again.
So at the time, a bunch of us were rediscovering our Jewish identity in a much more intense way. My heroes were always the great jazz musicians. So to come to klezmer music and start meeting Jews in Eastern Europe and understanding about being Jewish in the world, that was profound for me.
Q: I read that you give klezmer a contemporary feel. How do you achieve this?
A: By being involved in projects that are saying, we’re going to make a work of art, something new. A lot of klezmer musicians copy the music from the old records. That’s not dealing with the music; rather, I see it as a point of departure. But from there, you put your own spin and sound on it.
I’m playing new contemporary classical works influenced by klezmer, by bringing in jazz musicians and improvisers, and by experimenting with other sounds. Music should evolve, and I believe that klezmer must continue to evolve, because I don’t want to see it die out.
“Israel, Mon Amour!” A concert for Israel@65 featuring the music of Ravel and Debussy with clarinetist David Krakauer and Israeli cantor and tenor Chayim Dovid Berson will be held on Sunday, June 2, 7 p.m., at Beth El Temple, 2626 Albany Ave., West Hartford. For ticket information call (860) 233-9696 or visit www.bethelwesthartford.org.
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