Because all we ever did in Junior High was play Toonerville Trolley and a couple of other lame things that might have been turned into something interesting at a kindergarten version of the Bang On A Can Festival.
I listened to klezmer music as a child on the two vinyls my mother had, one of which was called “Freilachs!” But no one, least of all me, ever considered I’d get to play it.
Lessons were expensive. I’d always wanted to study ballet and they taught it at the local YMHA. Because we were basically broke, when I was around eight years old I would stand at the open door of the ballet class and then go home and practice what I saw in secret. When I was around ten, my mother asked if I wanted to play the accordion. I said “yes,” if only because I would take any kind of music lesson offered. This was a good thing because once a week we had a music theory class and I learned how to read music. I realized in retrospect that she paid for those lessons because she wanted to play the accordion herself borne out by the fact that she later took lessons with a guy who played accordion at the Catskill hotels and he later became her boyfriend. When I made it to Junior High School despite a raging case of school phobia, I signed up for orchestra since it was a way to get music lessons for free. They asked everyone in class to write down their three choices in order of preference. I wrote “1. Drums. 2. Flute. 3. Clarinet. I wanted to bang on drums and make a joyful rhythm, crash cymbals and generally go crazy with a pair of sticks on skin. I also thought those drum pads they gave the students to take home for practice were kind of cool.
When my mother got home from work I told her how excited I was and how much I hoped I’d get my first choice. She looked at me, incredulous, and said, “You can’t make music with a drum!” I thought she must be worried about the noise I’d create when practicing. So I told her about the drum pad. This didn’t seem to fall into her frame of musical references. I went back to school the next day and asked for my second choice, flute. It was too late because there were only two flutes and they’d already been assigned to two kids who’d put it as their first choice. So I ended up with the clarinet. As it turned out the orchestra was a big disappointment. I played their crappy music for three years from seventh to ninth grade. There was no compensation for the nails-on-a-blackboard yuckiness of a a split reed and the way you had to prepare it every time you played by working up a mighty mess ‘o spit on your tongue and drag it over the grainy wood. So after ninth grade I went off to the H.S. of Performing Arts to study The Method. Much more appealing.
But that was way before I discovered the two genius musicians of Klezmer clarinet. Naftale Brandewein and Dave Tarras. Of course there are some highly skilled, soulful Klezmer clarinetists today. In fact, tonight I’ll be going to see one of my all time favorite groups, Faren Khan at Les 3 Arts in Paris.
But these two guys were the real deal. Naftale Brandewein, what I consider the king of Yiddish duende, was a kind of bad boy of the Catskills, a hard drinking, womanizing star whose charm and sex appeal earned him as many groupies as any rock star.
Tarras, the more serious guy who actually got quite fed up with Brandewein’s antics, had a long successful career.
Both were born in Eastern Europe and grew up in the tradition, developing their own sounds in the context of their contemporaries in the worlds of Klezmer and Jazz.
Whenever I listen to their recordings I always think that if I’d stuck to it, I’d be a venerable, wizened Klezmorim by now. I’d be able to bend those notes and get that squeezed-out- of-the-heart sound I love so well.
Of course if I’d played the drums…
So tonight I’m off to see Faren Khan, a mix of American and European musicians who serve up a delicious stew of energetic Klezmer, Middle Eastern, Indian and Jazz. The group consists of Jennifer Hutt: violin, vocals, Nicolas Portnoi: soprano and alto saxophones, melodica, Jose Navas: banjo, saz cumbus , Benjamin Lauber: daf, davul, Zarb, tabla, darbuka, bendir, voice.
Tonight, May 14, 2011 @ 9pm
Les 3 Arts
21 rue des rigoles, 75010