ART DARTS: Klezmer in Vancouver

Who knew Vancouver had a cabaret-bohemian-gypsy music scene?

Credit: Joanna Chapman-Smith

Meet the talent behind East Vancouver’s Klezmer scene

Wander around East Vancouver venues like Café deux Soleil or the Ukrainian Cultural Centre and, if your timing is right, you’ll hear sprightly melodies emanating from the area’s cabaret-bohemian-gypsy music scene.

To help anchor your search, here are thoughts from local players:

Geoff Berner

Klezmer-punk Geoff Berner is not only preparing to release Klezmer Mongrels, the third album in a trilogy of klezmer-themed albums, he’s also immersing himself in books, recordings and musicians about the genre.

“Klezmer is the folk music of Eastern European Jews, and it’s defined by certain music modes and scales that don’t appear in most other kinds of music,” he explained. “The instruments and melodies imitate the vocals—the human voice in all its range: crying, laughing.”

Berner arrived at Klezmer from the punk rock of his teenage years, during which he attended Vancouver’s Beth Israel synagogue. After hooking up with alt-country musicians Corb Lund and Carolyn Marks, he was struck by how they used punk ideas to make more immediate-sounding, energetic music than the stuff he was used to. Soon he was applying a similar aesthetic to klezmer and travelled to Romania to study with Roma musicians.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that punk groups like the Ramones were Germanic Jews—I think there might be a subterranean connection between punk rock and Jewish folk music,” he said. “Every musician is working in a tradition, whether they know it or not, and if you treat music as an accessory to a lifestyle, like a handbag or a pair of shoes, and throw it away when it goes out of fashion, it loses its meaning.”

Read Klezmer! by Henry Sapoznik

“He’s a breezy, fun writer who’s very knowledgeable. He was also one of the leading lights of the first Klezmer revival in the 1970s.”

Watch A Tickle in the Heart

“I haven’t seen this documentary yet but I’ve heard it’s really good.”

Visit Dumneazu: Ethnomusicological Eating East of Everywhere

“It’s a blog written by Bob Cohen, who’s the leader of my favourite klezmer band, Di Naye Kapelye. It’s really entertaining, knowledgeable and fun.”

Joanna Chapman-Smith

A singer and clarinet player, Joanna grew up around Eastern European music, but describes herself as more of a “dabbler” than an expert on klezmer. She remembers jamming one day with a 60-something clarinet legend named Abe who pointed out some Klezmer influence. Intrigued, Chapman-Smith started exploring the genre in more detail, and was soon hooked.

“It has such exciting tonalities and chromatic stuff going on,” she said. “I started looking into it, and the melodies really get me going.”

For the uninitiated, Chapman-Smith had the following suggestions:

Meet established players and listen to their wisdom

“I met a guy named Dan the Man who used to be a one-man band. He was always wearing a wide-brimmed hat, had long scraggly hair and a round nose, wrinkled skin and a twinkle in his eye, and he would jump on stage to play harmonica. He gave me the soundtrack to Rembetiko, and told me to burn candles, turn off my lights and listen to it all night—and I did. The movie is great, too.”

Check out media collections at public libraries

“Try browsing through a library collection. I remember finding a recording that was a composer’s take on Klezmer—it had the energy and melodies [of the genre] but was super composed.”

Listen to Rowan Lipkovits and Bruce Triggs

Find them on Co-op Radio, or online. Or head to the “Squeezebox Circle” at Spartacus Books.

Geoff Berner releases a new CD for Klezmer Mongrels January 27, 2009. See the live show at the Biltmore February 27 (9 p.m./$10).

Joanna Chapman-Smith plays the Ukranian Hall on January 30 to launch her new album, Contraries.