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Conversation with… Seth Rogovoy: Yidstock program director talks about the “universal language of klezmer”

Seth Rogovoy

Seth Rogovoy

By Stacey Dresner

AMHERST – Yidstock 2013, The Yiddish Book Center’s annual summer music festival, featuring performances by several generations of the most accomplished and influential klezmer musicians, will run from Thursday, July 18 through Sunday, July 21 at the Yiddish Book Center, 1021 West St., on the Hampshire College Campus.

The Klezmer Conservatory Band will kick off Yidstock on Thursday.

Also performing at the festival will be Klezperanto and Margot Leverett & the Klezmer Mountain Boys; Brass Khazones: Steven Bernstein and Frank London; the Wholesale Klezmer Band; Golem; and the Yidstock All-Stars.

A massive jam will be held at the end of the weekend — a “Yidstock All-Stars” band with players from the weekend’s bands, under the musical directorship of Frank London. Among those all-stars are two of the greatest clarinetists in klezmer: Ilene Stahl of Klezperanto and Margot Leverett of Klezmer Mountain Boys.

A series of workshops and talks is also on the schedule, including a Yiddish Folk Dance workshop lead by Steve Weintraub; a lecture by Hankus Netsky (a founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band); an instrumental klezmer workshop; and a talk by Rogovoy, who besides his work with Yidstock is a writer, music critic, and author of The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music (Algonquin Books, 2000), the all-time bestselling guide to klezmer music.

The Jewish Ledger recently spoke to Rogovoy about Yidstock and what will be new there this year.

Q: What can the audience expect to experience at Yidstock?

A: We have programmed the four-day festival to include a broad menu of contemporary Yiddish music and klezmer, as well as opportunities for enhancing one’s appreciation for the culture with lectures and workshops; opportunities for singing along and exploring the more reflective, spiritual aspects of the tradition in a thoroughly contemporary manner; and dancing, which of course has always been one of the main functions of klezmer.

Q: Is it just for Klezmer fans or will fans of other kinds of music who may not be familiar with Klezmer appreciate it too?

A: Klezmer is really a universal language, and this year’s lineup in particular has some brilliant fusions that should appeal to fans of many styles of music and not just klezmer. Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys, for example, explore the affinities between klezmer and bluegrass — sort of Old Country meets New Country music. And the band includes some legendary country, bluegrass and old-timey musicians. Klezperanto is all about fusion; it’s in the group’s very name, and in its style that combines klezmer with zydeco, funk, Latin and rockabilly.  Fans of cantorial music can bliss out on Steven Bernstein and Frank London’s Brass Khazones. And most of these players are also awesome jazz musicians, and the festival finale, the all-star jam session, will be sort of a jazz-jam-band-klezmer-funk thing — Think the Grateful Dead playing the shtetl.

Q: What is new at Yidstock this year?

A: The incorporation of a dedicated dance program is an innovation this year, in part because many people asked for it, and also because it just makes sense, since dancing is such an essential aspect of klezmer. We will have with us for the entire duration of the festival the world’s leading Yiddish folk dance instructor, Steve Weintraub. Steve has worked with most or all of the musicians performing at YIDSTOCK already; he basically spends his year traveling around the world to festivals like ours, and no one better knows how to incorporate dancing into these sorts of events. So at most of the concerts, Steve will either formally or informally encourage or lead dancing among the crowd; he will also offer a dedicated Yiddish dance workshop on Friday afternoon.

There are so many other new things, including three bands led by women (Golem; Klezperanto; Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys); the world premiere of Brass Khazones: Steven Bernstein and Frank London Play Cantorial Music (an idea that originated with us — we proposed it to these two brilliant trumpeters, and they agreed); and the festival finale jam session, which will basically be a Yiddish-klezmer supergroup featuring a unique, one-time only jam session among some of the world’s greatest klezmer clarinetists, trumpeters, violinists, singers, etc.

Q: How do you see Yidstock growing in terms of its programming and popularity since last year?

A: Well, this is only our second year, and it hasn’t happened yet, so it’s a little premature to speculate. But we clearly have grown the educational portion of the festival — last year we had one talk and one workshop — this year we’re having two talks, two workshops, and a discussion. We have now spread out the live aspect of the festival over four days instead of two that we had in our inaugural run last year. And we are already way ahead of last year in terms of ticket sales, so I suppose that is a measure of popularity.

Q: How do you see Klezmer changing and where do you see it going in the next few years?

A: Klezmer has been “changing” or evolving for many decades — centuries, really. I wrote a whole book about that very thing! (“The Essential Klezmer”).  The klezmer you heard in Poland in 1850 was different from that in Odessa in 1881, which sounded nothing like what they were playing on the Lower East Side of NYC in 1912, which hardly resembled the golden age of klezmer of the 1920s, which of course couldn’t have predicted the “Yiddish swing” or the 1930s and 1940s, which bears little resemblance to the klezmer-rock fusions of the 1980s and 1990s and the experimental and hip-hop fusions of the oughts. What unites it all is a solid grounding in the nuts and bolts — the musical fundamentals — the modes, or scales, the ornamentations, the basic melodies. It’s the same basic language, just speaking in a different dialect or accent appropriate to its time and location. This will undoubtedly continue as it always had, and I’m sure somewhere right now someone is tinkering with a fusion of klezmer and EDM (electronic dance music), which I for one cannot wait to hear!

 

For more information about YIDSTOCK and to purchase tickets and Festival Passes (a limited number of passes are available and sell out quickly) visit yiddishbookcenter.org/yidstock or call (413) 256-4900.

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