The Rough Guide travel books are well known to people (like me) who like to travel, but stay a bit off the beaten path. What is (at least to me until recently) less known is that the Rough Guide also produces music compilations. Among these is the Rough Guide to Klezmer Revival, produced in association with World Music Network.
For the uninitiated, klezmer music is a genre of Jewish music that goes back centuries. Originally played by itinerant musicians traveling from shtetl (village) to shtetl, they played at weddings and other joyous occasions. Klezmer music owes its distinctive style to numerous cultural influences — from Jewish liturgical prayer modes to the folk music of Romania, Poland, and Russia. As klezmorim (klezmer musicians) traveled they picked up musical motifs and incorporated them, weaving a rich tradition, characterized by the weeping of mellow clarinet (Benny Goodman's classic "And the Angels Sing" is in fact a klezmer melody called "Der Shtiller Bulgar" that long predates Goodman's use of the tune); the frantic and joyous tripping of a bow playing across a fiddle at near-impossible speed (think Fiddler on the Roof, only more authentic), and other (usually portable) instrumentation.
The Rough Guide is a collection of 18 klezmer tunes performed by some of the most important names in modern klezmer music. Although klezmer music has been around since the 15th century or so, the 1980s saw a renaissance, a revival of interest in this ancient Jewish folk music. Andy Statman, The Klezmer Conservatory Band, Kapelye, and Klezmorim were at the forefront of a rebirth and re-invigoration of this joyous genre.
Building on what these revival groups began, new groups, also represented in this compilation, sought to seize upon true klezmer tradition by importing the flavors of modern American music, including jazz, rock, and bluegrass.
Having performed klezmer music for more than 15 years, it was refreshing to see a compilation that did not include only the "usual suspects" — the standards. The album's selections are slightly more obscure, including several that I have never before heard performed. They were brought to life by klezmer luminaries such as the clarinet virtuoso Giora Feidman ("Dancing with the Rabbi") and The Klezmer Conservatory Band (one of my favorite klezmer ensembles). I enjoyed the smoky, very jazzy, vocals of "Café Jew Zoo" performed by Yale Strom with Hot Pstromi and Klass J. "Ode to Favourtism and Corruption" by the UK-based Merlin Shepherd Kapelye is a classical-influenced ditty, that was an amusing finale to the CD.
The liner notes by Canada-based journalist Dan Rosenberg are informative enough for newcomers to the genre to get a feel for the history and influences of klezmer music, and the artists and their music.
The only down-note in the package is the promise of "music and travel information" from Rough Guide books if you play the recording in your computer. I was expecting something of the Guide's caliber, perhaps historical or geographical context for the collection's music. I was disappointed that instead, when you click "Travel" you get information only about Polish history and culture. Selecting "religious and cultural festivals" brings up information on the country's Catholic religion and the celebration of Easter, at best, a real faux pas on an album of Jewish music, since Poles have historically been amongst the most anti-Semitic of cultures, and Easter was always a time of particular persecution for the minority Jewish population there. There's very little here that gives any true context for the album's music.
All in all, a nice find, more than an hour's worth of great music. Play it for the tunes, not for "extras."