Charlotte's Viva Klezmer blends ancient, traditional folk music

12/06/2012 5:42 PM

12/07/2012 10:04 AM

At sundown Saturday evening in Jewish households across Charlotte, menorahs will light up, celebrating the first night of Hanukah, the Festival of Lights. The traditional candle lighting is in remembrance of the rededication of the ancient Jewish Temple that was recovered from the Syrians and restored by the Maccabees.

In acknowledging there is light, even amid darkness, Hanukkah marks a festive holiday.

The annual winter celebration is most often ushered in by traditional music and song. For the residents at Charlotte’s Carriage Club, a senior living center, that means a very special Hanukkah Klezmer concert Monday evening featuring Yiddish folk music by Charlotte’s only established Klezmer band, Viva Klezmer.

Two songs certain to be on the play list are the “Dreidel Song,” and “Who Can Retell” (or “Mi Y’mallel”).

The term Klezmer comes from the combination of the Hebrew words “Kle or Klei” (instrument) and “Zemer” (song) and is often loosely translated as musical instruments.

Klezmer, according to Boston-based musical historian Ari Davidow, refers to the Greek and Central/Eastern European music played at Jewish celebrations such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and holiday parties. Traditional Klezmer bands are instrumental, says Davidow, who is founder of the wildly popular Klezmer blog and website,

Referred to by some as “Jewish Jazz,” this term is often eschewed by traditionalists as too limiting and not deferential enough to Klezmer’s origins and history. Klezmer enthusiasts point to the instrumental folk music of the Jewish people extending to the 16th century: Klezmer has a style and ornamentation that borrowed from a liturgical style of singing. The clarinet and violin are the two main “voices” in Klezmer music, which some compare to Baroque music.

Soulful and expressive

Charlotte’s Viva Klezmer was founded in 1984 after Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Gene Kavadlo, became enthralled with a recording by Giora Feidman, the Argentinian-born Israeli clarinetist.

“I heard an audio documentary on the Jewish people, and the music accompanying the program was done in the Klezmer style,” said Kavadlo, 67. “The music was so soulful and expressive. While I’d heard Klezmer music before, I never heard it played with such artistry. It motivated me to explore and see if I could capture the sound.”

Kavadlo enlisted the support of his wife, Ali, retired principal violist with CSO, guitarist Mike Mosley and bass player Leo Bjorlie, and Viva Klezmer was born. Kavadlo remembers the group’s initial performance in 1984 at Temple Israel, then in Dilworth.

“We were invited to fill out the musical program,” recalled Kavadlo. “The crowd reaction we received was so warm and enthusiastic, we knew we were on to something. We’ve been playing at simchas (celebrations) and concerts around town ever since.”

The band has played at numerous churches and is going into its third decade of playing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg elementary schools, where they offer a program on cultural diversity and tolerance. The band’s most recent school concert was at Lansdowne Elementary, though funding for such programs through grants from the Arts & Science Council has waned. Where they once performed 15-20 school concerts a year, they now do only a handful.

Viva Klezmer retains three original members; bassist Bjorlie was replaced by Charlotte freelance bassist Ron Brendle several years back. The band has a repertoire of dozens of traditional tunes. Many, such as “Hava Nagila,” are immediately recognizable by Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike.

Klezmer revival

The revival of Klezmer music in America has a North Carolina connection, says Tom Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. Hanchett explains that in the late 1970s, award-winning Klezmer revivalist Henry “Hank” Sapoznik traveled from his home in New York to Round Peak, near Mount Airy, to study with old-time fiddle and banjo star Tommy Jarrell.

“Jarrell was said to ask Sapoznik, ‘Don’t your people have their own traditional music?’ said Hanchett. “This launched Sapoznik on a quest which led the beginning of the American Klezmer revival.”

Sapoznik started Klezcamp, a Yiddish folk arts program, in 1985. The organization has been a training and recording ground for aspiring and established Klezmer practitioners ever since.

Kavadlo notes that one need not be Jewish to play or enjoy Klezmer music. Like a well-worn flannel shirt on a cold winter day, Klezmer music embraces the listener, immediately familiar and comforting.

Be forewarned, however; after hearing a lively “freilach” or upbeat tune, uncontrolled dancing has been known to break out.

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