When non-Jews play klezmer

When non-Jews play klezmer


norman lebrecht

January 12, 2020

Jessica Duchen has written very circumspectly in the JC about a klezmer album played by gentiles.

Klezmer is music borrowed by travelling Jewish bands from the lands they passed through and mingled with their own. It belongs to no-one.

But the ironic inflexions are Jewish.

That needs to be understood.

Along with a few choice Yiddish words.


  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Smacks of reverse cultural elitism.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    Actually it is much easier for people from near east to get into the spirit of such music, even if they are not Jewish. I remember in my teens immediately recognising oriental features in Gustav Mahler’s earlier symphonies for example, that seemed very familiar to me somehow. The same goes for Mendelssohn’s second violin concerto.

  • Irish folk music smacks of klezmorish fllavor. And here is a link to Kroke a completely goyish Polish group that plays great klezmer, often with Nigel Kennedy. So what? If Irving Berlin could capture the essence of the greatest Christian Holiday in “White Christmas” anyone can do anything when it comes to music.


  • sam says:

    Don’t even go there, otherwise one gets into a debate one doesn’t intend but that logically follows, like “When Jews Play Aryan Music” (Wagner, Beethoven, Bach…)

    • Mathieu says:

      With all due respect this is a false equivalence. There is no such thing as “Aryan music”, in the sense that there would be a specifically Aryan culture which would have informed Bach’s or Wagner’s idiom. There is a specifically Yiddish culture, which has informed a specific musical genre. Whether outsiders can contribute to this culture is another problem. I have no objection to gentiles (or sefardic Jews for that matter) playing klezmer as long as they are immersed in the relevant culture. Otherwise it’s only dilettantism.

      • V.Lind says:

        Thought music was supposed to be universal. I REALLY object to objections to “certain” people being permitted to play music because it emanates from a certain source. Once they do, they must be prepared to be judged on how well they have done it, but they are as entitled to read the notes on klezmer pages as on any other.

        • Mathieu says:

          Nobody is saying that people should be permitted or forbidden to play the music they like… Although I realise there may have been an ambiguity, when I said “can contribute”. I was meaning : “are able to”, not “are permitted to”.

          To sum up: the question is whether one is able to make a significant contribution to a given culture without being a part of it. My tentative answer is: yes, if you do the homework.

          So I guess we are in agreement after all 😀

        • Kolb Slaw says:

          The ONLY universal thing about classical music is the love of it. It is completely tied to its cultural origins and context, and the failure of any musicians to grasp that is what is killing classical music as an art.

      • M2N2K says:

        Fine, just replace “Aryan” with “German” – you wouldn’t say that there is no German culture, would you – and then sam’s point becomes quite a valid one.

        • Mathieu says:

          Maybe you’re right, although my feeling is that things are a bit more complicated than that. I am not sure that there is a specifically German musical *idiom* (a set of structural elements), although there is most certainly a German style of music writing. The circulation of the musical styles themselves throughout Europe (from Germany to France to Italy and back) has been constant ever since the XVIth century. And of course Jewish musicians have heavily contributed both to the idiom and to the various musical styles, so it makes no sense at all to ask whether Jews can play Bach or Wagner (let alone Mendelssohn, Mahler or Schoenberg).

          Klezmer music, on the other hand, is more about a specific musical idiom, which was created in very close-knit communities. Those communities are long gone, and klezmer (the way it is played today) is already somewhat of a reconstruction. Maybe nowadays nobody (Jews and gentiles alike) plays klezmer in a genuine way after all. Who knows?

          I am not too sure about all that, to be frank. I don’t think it’s a very clear-cut issue.

          • M2N2K says:

            This “issue” seems more “clear-cut” to me than many others: anyone can play anything either well or poorly, depending on that individual’s broadly defined talent.

      • Kolb Slaw says:

        There is “Aryan” music if you are talking about a Nazi context. And such people, led by Wagner, certainly did take that view. In fact, the German musicians who left Germany after 1848 and established the music schools in the United States brought with them their xenophobic views of German superiority in music, which thoroughly permeates to this day, our musical culture. The three Bs indeed. Bragging, bullcrap, and baloney.

    • anon says:

      like When Jews Play Black Music

      Gershwin, Goodman, Getz, Previn, Amy Winehouse…

  • Beaumont says:

    There’s a German joke: How do you know that the party you are attending is given by a gentile? The Klezmer music…

  • Brian v says:

    One doesn’t have to be Afro American to play jazz. Example Gerry mulligan
    Benny goodman. Andre Previn. Stan Getz all great players

    • Kolb Slaw says:

      Klezmer is not jazz. Klezmer is the music of an oppressed, socially isolated people of Eastern Europe, just like Gypsy music. Jazz and blues and gospel are native to all kinds of people from the south and elsewhere.

      • V.Lind says:

        A ;ot of those “kinds of people” were pretty oppressed, too as I recall. Please do not start a comparative victimology here.

      • Barry Guerrero says:

        Nobody HAS to be anything to play any kind of music. Period.

        • Kolb Slaw says:

          B.S. If you are not French and steeped in French culture, you will never play Ravel correctly unless you become educated and steeped in French culture, which is probably why most people play Ravel so badly now.

      • Jeff says:

        OK….. Jazz originates from the negro spirituals of black slaves in the United States. They were oppressed….. And socially isolated. This lack of education is truly unbelievable.

        • Kolb Slaw says:

          It does not. You don’t know what jazz is. It developed out of ragtime, in the bars and bordellos and night clubs, and mixed with all other musical forms, and got drunk on booze and sex, and they started to swing the rhythms. Incorporating the modal scales of Jewish and Negro music is the least of it.

      • M2N2K says:

        No, they aren’t.

    • D** says:

      There are several comments here about klezmer and jazz. It’s true they aren’t the same and have different roots, but there’s no doubt that klezmer musicians in the United States in the early 20th century heard plenty of ragtime and early jazz. There are different styles of klezmer (depending on where one was from), and it isn’t inconceivable that some of these American popular music influences crept into the performances of these klezmer performers.

      Were early African American jazz musicians influenced in any way by klezmer? Possibly, but I don’t have a definitive answer to that question. We do know that the Karnofsky family of New Orleans gave a great deal of help to a young Louis Armstrong and bought him his first instrument. The family was from Lithuania, and it would be interesting to know if Armstrong was influenced in any way by the music they probably knew well.

      Jazz is not purely African in origin, and it does have some European influences. African American musicians have played klezmer (Don Byron comes to mind), and there’s nothing wrong with that. There are also many who have successfully created various types of jazz-klezmer fusion.

      Barry Guerrero points out that “nobody HAS to be anything to play any kind of music.” Barry, you’re right!

      • ArabesqueCookie says:

        Yes. As one commenter mentioned above Don Byron recorded klezmer, and Branford Marsalis performed with the Klezmatics (one of my favorite Klezmer bands). See the Klezmatics albums: “Rhythm+Jews” (1990), “Jews with Horns” (1995), and “Brother Moses Smote the Water” (2005) recorded with gospel singer Joshua Nelson. Lyrics in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.

      • Kolb Slaw says:

        You know so little about Klezmer, it’s remarkable you even wrote about it. The American Klezmer musicians totally adopted jazz elements and, having to work, blended perfectly into popular music. And Gershwin blended it all together.

    • Kolb Slaw says:

      Paul WHITEMAN.

  • Glerb says:

    I’m not picking up any circumspection from Jessica Duchen’s tone in the linked article. The few words of her own seem simply factual; the whole article seems encouraging.

    I do wish you wouldn’t read between lines that aren’t to be read between.

  • Kolb Slaw says:

    It’s not borrowed. That’s a fairly racist statement. It has elements of, just as Yiddish does, but its essence is Jewish. It says that Jews were not part of any land they lived in, which is frankly anti-Semitic, though technically true. I am bothered by non-Jews playing Klezmer, certainly, unless it is a Gypsy or very mixed group.

  • Malcolm says:

    I thought we’d recently been told by someone (whose name I’ve already forgotten) that we don’t understand irony?

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Oh, Norman…. Please, as Sam suggests, don’t even go there.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    A little Klezmer goes a long way.

    Just the few Jews doing it was enough.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    I generally agree that internalizing a non-native idiom is not unachievable, but very difficult. I don’t know enough about Klezmer in particular, but easily see why Norman Lebrecht points out all the importance of understanding the cultural context. It all sounds very intuitive to me.

    By the same token, central European musicians in general, and Austrians in particular, have a great cultural advantage with idiomatically playing Viennese music, and are a better fit for the Vienna Philharmonic. For every Mitsuko Uchida, who grew up in Vienna and can sound musically native, or for every Polish trained Fouts’Ong who truly mastered Mazurka nuances, there are many other “foreign” musicians who struggle with local idioms. So why do people make such a big deal about the lack of ethnic diversity among VPO players? Am I the only one to see some double standards here?

    I hope some Austrian Jewish musician will weigh in.

    • Kolb Slaw says:

      How about the gypsy elements in the music of Liszt and Brahms, to name but two composers? The Central European school is one of the many to be stomped on by the German school, when it is the far-more important school. Prague was the musical center of Europe well before Berlin or Vienna. Prague was the more cosmopolitan cultural center. And I would rather listen to any Hungarian music than any Austrian music.

  • D** says:

    If a non-Jewish person takes the time to understand the music and the culture, I see nothing wrong with it. Michele Gingras, professor emeritus of clarinet at Miami University (Ohio), has French Canadian ancestry, but she is a very accomplished klezmer performer. I’ve heard her play, and she’s amazing. Good for her!

  • Eddgar Self says:

    Non-Jews play klezmer in the second movement whenever Mahler’s first is performed, especially if Bruno Walter conducted.

  • RAM says:

    For example, some non-Jewish musicians in Hungary, Romania, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, etc. ought to be able to play klezmer instrumental music well. Back in the day, there was a lot of musical cross-fertilization between Jewish and non-Jewish musicians there. It’s basically no different from Gershwin or Kern absorbing elements of black music.