Klezydeco? Zydemer?

There was something about Benny Goodman’s clarinet in yesterday’s post — plaintive, longing, with a quiet tenaciousness behind it all — that reminded me of klezmer music, so I thought I’d do some digging.

Klezmer (from the Yiddish כּלי־זמיר, which in turn comes from the Hebrew k’li zemer כלי זמר, meaning “musical instrument”) is a tradition of non-liturgical Jewish music that was developed in the 15th century by musicians called kleyzmerim or klezmorim. They drew on devotional traditions extending back into Biblical times, but their musical legacy continues to evolve today.

Here are David Orlowsky’s Klezmorim performing “Let’s Be Happy”:

The modern repertoire is largely dance songs for weddings and other celebrations. Klezmer is easily identifiable by its characteristic expressive melodies, reminiscent of the human voice, complete with laughing and weeping, as you can hear in this performance by the Budapest Klezmer Band (you’ll need to go to YouTube to see the video—just click below):

Here’s the renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman making music with some modern klezmerim:

Klezmer music influenced the work of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. The opening of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was a nod to klezmer clarinetting:

And in researching it, I find that I’m not the first to note how much of Benny Goodman’s clarinet style is derived from klezmer. At the same time, non-Jewish composers were also turning to klezmer for a prolific source of fascinating thematic material. Dmitri Shostakovich, in particular, admired klezmer music for embracing both the ecstasy and the despair of human life, and he quoted several melodies in his chamber masterpieces, such as his Piano Trio in E:

Now, for no good reason at all except, perhaps, for the violins and the energy, I tend to associate klezmer music with zydeco. Maybe it’s the prevalence of Zs in the words. Maybe it has more to do with the music of oppression. Maybe not.

Zydeco, as near as I can suss it out (and I’m sure music ethnologists will have quite a bit to say about my heavy-handed redaction of its history), evolved from the music of two separate cultural communities.

First came the Cajuns. They are an ethnic group consisting of the descendants of Acadian exiles (Catholic French colonists from the Canadian maritime provinces, many of whom were expelled from the region by the British in 1755 and migrated south, settling mainly in Louisiana) together with other ethnic groups with whom the Acadians eventually intermarried. The Cajuns make up a significant portion of south Louisiana’s population and have exerted an enormous impact on the state’s culture. Their music featured jigs and ballads, with the violin frequently their instrument of choice (once again, click so you can view this one on YouTube):

Then you have the Creoles, the descendants of settlers in colonial French Louisiana before the Louisiana Purchase. Creoles form a broad cultural group of people, usually black or multiracial with French or Spanish ancestry whose forbears came directly from France or from the French-speaking islands of the Caribbean.

Zydeco (a transliteration in English of zaricô, the Creole word for “snapbeans”) was born from the late 1800s call-and-response “juré” vocal music of the Creoles on the prairies of southwest Louisiana, and derives from from “Là-là,” a genre of music now defunct. Since Cajun French had been the lingua franca of the prairies of southwest Louisiana since the 1800s, zydeco was initially sung only in Cajun French, and Acadian/Cajun music added its own distinctive flavor to the musical mix:

Usually up-tempo and dominated by the button or piano accordion, zydeco is related to Swamp Pop, American Blues, Jazz, and more typically Cajun music. An instrument unique to zydeco music is a form of washboard called the frottoir, a vest made of corrugated aluminum played by using bottle openers or caps down the length of the vest:

Zydeco music was originally created for house dances so the blacks and free people of color of south Louisiana could gather for socializing. As the Creoles further established their communities and worshiped separately as well, the music moved to the Catholic church community center and then later to the rural dance halls and nightclubs. As a result, the music integrated waltzes, shuffles, two-steps, blues, rock and roll, and most dance music forms of the era.

Here is the renowned Queen Ida and the Bon Temps Zydeco Band:

And Beau Soleil, performing “Zydeco Gris Gris”:

Last but not least, here’s Buckwheat Zydeco doing the country standard, “Hey Good Lookin'” with a decidedly Cajun flavor:

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~ by Craig R. Smith on 8 September 2007.

6 Responses to “Klezydeco? Zydemer?”

  1. I love klezmer. I love zydeco. It would never have occurred to me to post them together.

  2. It was probably an unwise combination. It was just how my fevered brain works.

  3. No, no no. Yes, it was a totally and wonderfully wise combination. Both have taken the roots of a culture or cultures and have made them part of the everyday, keeping them alive and vibrant.

    I am a big fan of both of these. I am delighted to see the mention of Beau Soliel.

    I was a constant fan, in Gainesville, FL, of The 24h Street Klezmer Band. They would usually be followed by zydeco.

    Klezmer is played by all sorts and all over. Check out Minniapolis’s all girl Klezmer band or the band from Knoxville comprising two lawyers and a physicist.

    Or Incus, a band that is not known for klezmer but incorporates it so well (the lead, Jason Cohen says, “I’m Jewish. Of course there’s going to be klezmer!”), they are helping spread it into the darkworld scene. http://www.incus.net/

  4. OK, Adamus, now you have to explain what “the darkworld scene” is. I’m such a dinosaur.

  5. The music tends toward the lush and deep, bowed bases behind cellos and violas, strong, long rhythms and unusual combinations of instruments including accordions and other instruments able to create long notes.

    The music is often ambient and emotional.

    If you give a listen to Incus you can hear a good example. The link I gave you has three samples of their music on it.

    You might like Grails better. http://www.monkeyclaus.org/?p=130

    As best as I can tell, the name for the genre comes from, of all places, the Nintendo game “Zelda” and the music that was used in the corrupted “Dark World” version. That I cannot confirm. I have never, believe it or not, played a home video game.

  6. No home video games for me either. I had the Myst and Riven computer games. I got into the second Riven disc and got stuck (and a little bored). I bought one of the Sims, installed it, and never played it.

    I know a lot of people who are huge gamers. I just can’t fathom the attraction. But they are similarly nonplussed by my love of television.

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