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Fiddlers Find Roof in City

By Sergey Chernov

Next week's seventh annual "KlezFest" - a celebration of Jewish music - will bring many international Klezmer musicians, as well as their counterparts from various corners of the former Soviet Union, to St. Petersburg. Among those expected to appear are Amsterdam-based Yiddish singer Shura Lipovski and Berlin-based clarinetist Christian Dawid.

This year's KlezFest will consist of two different events. The first, a free event, will take place on Sunday evening at the Hesed Avraam Welfare Center in the city's Vyborg Side. The main event, the KlezFest Gala, will be held at the Beloselskikh-Belozerskikh Palace on Nevsky Prospekt and starts next Wednesday.

Michael Alpert, a musician and music teacher from New York who has been a pioneering figure in the klezmer renaissance for over 25 years, will be a headliner at both events. Alpert was scheduled to play at last year's festival, but failed to arrive due to illness.

This year's KlezFest will also feature the Chisinau, Moldova-based singer and composer Yefim Chyorny, Ukraine's Stas Raiko and the Kharkov Klezmer Band, and local folk band Dobranotch. These artists, plus some other, less well-known acts, will appear at both shows.

Although he is not, strictly speaking, a folk musician, Klezmer-influenced singer/songwriter Psoi Korolenko will be appearing at the festival for the second time.

Korolenko (real name Pavel Lion), a coarse-voiced singer, who backs himself on a basic Casio synthesizer, which he calls a "garmokha" (a diminutive for harmonica) is a rare sight in St. Petersburg but very popular on the Moscow club circuit and frequently tours U.S. universities.

The festival's headliner, Michael Alpert, internationally known for his performances and recordings with groups such as Brave Old World, Khevrisa and Kapelye, explained some of the reasons for the current prevalence of klezmer music, speaking with The St. Petersburg Times by phone from his home in New York last year.

"In Odessa and other big cities of the former Russian Empire - for instance, Warsaw - there were a great number of Jews, and they were represented in all the strata of the city's life," he said. "This is why there has been such a great influence of Jewish music."

The term klezmer - which means musician in Yiddish - was coined to describe the traditional instrumental music of the Yiddish-speaking people of eastern Europe, whose origins can be traced back to the Middle Ages.

Klezmer music grew out of the shtetls, or small villages, of Russia and eastern Europe, and provided toe-tapping music for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other festivities. Early klezmer bands consisted of two to four klezmorim - members - but, by the turn of the century, bands had grown to include between six and 12 players.

Around that time, klezmer was introduced in the U.S., where it became hybridized with jazz and other popular-music styles. By the 1950s, however the genre was in decline - largely due to the Nazi destruction of Jewish communities in Europe and the cultural assimilation of Jews in America.

But a new generation of klezmer performers revived the genre in the 1980s, when it became remarkably popular as part of the world-music scene.

"First of all, I think that Jewish music is a very rich and particularly sophisticated musical language," said Alpert. "Much of it was developed by professional musicians and singers. Instrumental klezmer music is analogous to the music of the gypsies - in other words, you had people who, for centuries, were involved in making music professionally - not only as a spare-time thing."

"That [created] a high degree of musical sophistication and a very broad and diverse repertoire of music," he added.

Dobranotch, a local folk band taking part in the event, has two separate programs - one of Balkan folk and another of Klezmer material - and frequently performs at local rock clubs.

"I like different kinds of folk music: I've been interested in folk for a long time, mostly European," said the band's violin player, Mitya Khramtsov, who once played with the popular local Afro-Cuban band Markscheider Kunst.

"As for klezmer, I simply like it. I like its intonations - they touch your heart, I don't know why."

Khramtsov claims that despite dating back to older times, the music still ignites response from the audiences.

"It's not as relevant as house or drum 'n' bass, but when we play it with Dobranotch we get a response - it doesn't go to the void. People react to it."

For the first time in KlezFest's history, there will also be two concerts outside St. Petersburg - at the club Project O.G.I. in Moscow (July 18) and at the Chekhov Russian Drama Theater at Chisinau, Moldova (July 19).


Originally published in The St. Petersburg Times (July 11, 2003)