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As it matures in Russia,
klezmer begins to make the club scene

By Lev Krichevsky

MOSCOW, July 27 (JTA) - A video of a klezmer show altered Stanislav Raiko's career.

"I just saw this one single show and realized that this was my music and I wanted to play it," recalled the Ukrainian-born violinist.

Raiko said he then began listening to old recordings of Eastern European Jewish folk music to help him master the genre. In the late 1990s, Raiko, a classically trained musician, started a group called the Kharkov Klezmer Band.

"It takes a real team to make this music - something I couldn't find in a classical orchestra," he said while sitting in the semi-darkness of a Moscow club minutes before going on stage to play.

On stage later, Raiko announced a popular tune, "Noch a Glezl Wein," which he said "has been always played at Jewish weddings in Ukraine, Moldova, the States, or wherever Jews are."

Earlier this month, Raiko was among four dozen musicians and singers from across the former Soviet Union who took part in the seventh annual KlezFest in St. Petersburg.

The event, a brainchild of the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center, included professional workshops, Yiddish classes and jam sessions, culminating in concerts in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kishinev, Moldova.

Most music professionals in the field credit the KlezFest for the revival of klezmer in the former Soviet Union.

Each year, the festival brings in a professional from the West to teach music skills נalthough some of the local musicians now have a decade of experience of playing Yiddish folk music.

"It's so nice that people can be that open about what makes their roots," said Alla, an 18-year-old Moscow student of architecture who attended the performance with some of her Jewish and non-Jewish classmates.

"I've noticed that this music easily speaks to all types of audience. Perhaps the older folks make better listeners, but just anyone who has Jewish genes will start tapping one's foot when listening to this beautiful, open, simple and very danceable folk music," Raiko said.

The Russian KlezFest has been so successful that a group of enthusiasts recently started a similar annual event in Ukraine. This year's KlezFest Ukraine is due to take place in late August in Kiev. The New York-based Jewish Community Development Fund in Russia and Ukraine supports both festivals.

"We are glad to greet you in this club filled with smoke," Yefim Cherniy, an Yiddish singer, who himself has just put a cigarette away, greeted the artist-student crowd that packed the basement of the O.G.I. club. "We will now try to get through this smoke to you with our Jewish songs."

The downtown Moscow club is known as one of the prime spots in the Russian capital's club scene for avant-garde, jazz, folk and acoustic rock music.

But on a recent Friday night the club hosted a second concert in three weeks by Jewish musicians playing Yiddish folk music. A club manager said both shows sold as many tickets as a local rock artist with a solid following.

Many in the audience at the club came to see Psoy Korolenko, a popular member of the Moscow underground scene, whose own songs often weave in elements of Yiddish folklore.

The singer has recently become interested in klezmer, and this year took part in his second KlezFest.

That night, the sturdy bearded performer who sported a baseball hat with the word "Brooklyn" on it sang a Chasidic song with unusual rhythmic interpretation.

Another concert highlight was a performance by Arkady Gendler, an 81-year-old Moldova-born Holocaust survivor. The Yiddish song enthusiast, who teaches Yiddish at a Ukrainian Jewish school, recently recorded a compact disc that was released by a California-based label.

Matvey Gordon, another vocalist, was introduced to the audience as the "patriarch of youth Klezmer music." The 16-year-old high school student from St. Petersburg said he learned his first Yiddish song at age 5 while attending Hebrew school.

"Four years ago, I began to study Yiddish and Jewish tradition. Of course you can learn just the lyrics, but I guess this wouldn't be serious enough if you don't go a little farther."

Yevgeny Hazdan, a composer and KlezFest artistic director, says local Jewish communities benefit first from the klezmer revival, but that the klezmer movement has a broader goal.

"We are trying to make this music נfrom traditional Yiddish songs to Chasidic folklore נa part of Russia's world music scene."

So far, Hazdan said the annual festival has already become a prominent part of St. Petersburg's Jewish life.

"Between ourselves we joke that there are two Jewish things about St. Petersburg that most people know: the Choral Synagogue and KlezFest," he said.


Originally published by JTA