The Bagg Street Klezmer Band

Klezmer is Jewish history set to music, a mixture of joy and sadness

The klezmer music of the Bagg Street Klezmer Band fills the warm August night air at the Trudeau Park bandshell in Côte Saint Luc, QC.

Rick Goldman, Bagg Street Band emcee and band clarinetist/saxist, introduces each selection, adding colour commentary to the music such as the rollicking Odessa Bulgars, the drinking song, Vi bist du gevesn far prohibition – Where Were You Before Prohibition? – and  the melancholy Papirosn, a Yiddish melody that tells the tale of a Jewish orphan boy who must sell cigarettes on the streets to survive.

As the first magical sounds fill the air, women from the audience leave the stands and make their way stage front to dance. They stay there dancing and swaying to the music until concert’s end. A klezmer chorus line.

Like Hearing My Grandmother Talk

“I think it is  part of the broad movement of people to get in touch with their roots, which perhaps started in the ’70s, says Rick Goldman, who was one of the band’s founders in 1992.

“I grew up hearing some Yiddish and many of the folk tunes that are played in Klezmer music and felt a special connection with the music from the time I first found out it existed when I was in my 20s.

“As David Krakauer, a leading klezmer clarinetist put it, when he first heard klezmer music “ ‘It was like hearing my grandmother talk.’ ”

The band takes its name from the venerable Bagg Street Shul located on Bagg and Clark in Montreal’s Old Jewish Quarter.

Joining Goldman on the bandstand are Minda Bernstein, violin, Stephen Errington, keyboards, Lorin Levine, baritone sax and guitar, Harle Thomas, percussion and Philip Weech, trumpet and flugelhorn.

Being a klezmer musician is no key to riches, Goldman says. It’s a labour of love. Just in case, they all have day jobs ranging from social worker to refugee lawyer.

He recalls that when the band started, there was no sheet music available.

“We learned mainly by ear either at klezmer music camps or from cassettes made of old ’78 vinyl recordings. That was the typical way to learn at the time.”

Today, there are sheet music and arrangements. But that doesn’t mean that the klezmer sound spills from the sheet music. It takes soul, a feeling for the music and the history behind it.

The Roots of Klezmer

Klezmer is the contraction of the Yiddish words kele zemer, musical instruments. Played by klezmorim in kepelyes, bands, klezmer is the musical tradition of Ashkenazi – European – Jews.

It’s a musical stew of sounds gleaned from the music the klezmorim heard in their wanderings over the centuries in Eastern Europe. From village to village, they played at weddings and other simchas, festive occasions.

The music arrived in the United States with Jewish immigrants in the 1880s. Some of their children – Artie Shaw, Ziggy Elman and the Barry Sisters– brought the music to the ears of North American listeners. That’s when klezmer began to swing.

In the 1970s, the genre experienced a roots revival as klezmorim explored the pre-jazz sounds. Later, immigrants from Russia added more sounds.

Typical klexmer instruments are violin, clarinet, accordion, trombone, trumpet, piano, bass,  cello and flute.

The Future of the Bagg Street Klezmorim

“We are quite happy as a community band, playing a mix of public concerts, weddings and other private events, and benefit events for good causes,” Goldman says. And happy carrying on the klezmer tradition.

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