Ukraine is the cradle of klezmer music, which is famous throughout the world but forgotten in our country — Andrii Levchenko

What is klezmer music? Why this name, and how did this music influence Ukrainian traditional music? Or is it the reverse: Can one trace the influence of Ukrainian music on klezmer?

We discussed all these questions in the latest installment of Encounters, our program dedicated to Ukrainian-Jewish relations.

Our guest on the program was Andrii Levchenko, who is a historian and researcher in the field of traditional music and performance, and the co-founder of the cultural-musical project Rys and the first school of traditional music in Ukraine. He is also a member of the group US Orchestra.

Mr. Levchenko holds a master's degree in Jewish Studies from the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, where he researched the music of klezmer musicians.

Vasyl Shandro: Let's begin with the terminology. What is klezmer music? Who are klezmer musicians? And is there an equal sign between Jewish and klezmer music?

Andrii Levchenko: This is an excellent and important question because when we talk about klezmer music, it is first and foremost instrumental music. It is traditional Jewish instrumental music, that is, music that could be heard in small Jewish towns during celebrations, for example, at weddings or some other festivities. This music was performed exclusively by men. But there was also Jewish music, which could also be traditional. For example, if we are talking about the Hasidic milieu, there could be nigunim, a vocal genre without words, specific chants. Later there were urban songs in Yiddish, and we know some of them as "Odesa songs."

Vasyl Shandro: Is this a type of urban folklore?

Andrii Levchenko: You could say that, but it is often mistakenly called klezmer, although, in fact, it is not quite klezmer music because klezmer is, first of all, instrumental music. Everything else is Jewish music, but not klezmer.

Vasyl Shandro: What is klezmer music from the standpoint of the structure of a band or a group? Are there any clear-cut rules or criteria that distinguish klezmer music or which are accented in klezmer music?

Andrii Levchenko: Here, we have quite a simple but interesting situation, because it is reminiscent of traditional Ukrainian instrumental music performed by Ukrainian musicians. This history is mentioned by Pavlo Chubynsky in his multivolume work. He writes that Ukrainians have a violinist, a bassist, a cymbalist and, for example, a drummer. Further in the volume about Jewish music, he writes the same thing: that there are Jewish musicians, and they consist of a violinist, drummer, cymbalist, and bassist.

This thesis is developed subsequently by the researcher Moisei Berehovsky [Beregovskii], the most authoritative twentieth-century researcher of klezmer music and generally of Jewish music in the world. Chubynsky was more of an ethnographer who recorded and described this music. He worked with Klyment Kvitka of the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. In his book — I believe it was a dissertation that later came out as a book entitled Ievreis′ka narodna instrumental′na muzyka (Jewish Folk Instrumental Music) — he writes that Jewish groups, these klezmer groups, could consist of a varying number of musicians, and this depended on economic and social conditions, and where those musicians resided.

Vasyl Shandro: From resources, basically. In other words, klezmer music is not defined simply by the number of musicians. Can we put it that way?

Andrii Levchenko: Yes, we can. There is also a question of antiquity. But if we are talking about the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, then it was usually a violin; a clarinet was added later, although, again, the clarinet is regarded as a particularly Jewish instrument. But before the clarinet, it was violin music, and the most famous Jewish musicians that Sholem Aleichem wrote about, who were legendary throughout Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus, were, in fact, violinists. That is why we can say that this kind of musical crowd was formed around the violinist, depending on antiquity and location.

Vasyl Shandro: Musical infrastructure — yes.

Andrii Levchenko: Locally, yes; a very small one. For example, there could be a violin, cymbals, and a drum — something very minimalist. But there are also references to musicians (a shot in the dark, one can say) in Radomyshl. There you already have a band, approximately eight or nine musicians and, in addition to a violin, there are several violins, there is a double bass as well as a drum, and wind instruments.

Vasyl Shandro: Well, that's already quite a large collective if there are eight or nine people. How could people in such conditions, without a professional education, organize themselves into group performance? Was this a complicated or usual matter in those days?

Andrii Levchenko: That's an interesting question, because if we compare to Ukrainian traditional musicians, they were based more in rural areas, but if we are talking about Jewish musicians, this is urban territory. As a result, there was greater access to obtaining, if not an education, then at the very least some experience in associating with musicians who know how to read music or, for example, to purchase sheet music and learn. And there are references to this, to musicians who lived in Bila Tserkva or Fastiv and had this opportunity. Thus, some of them — not all — but some of them were proficient in musical notation. And there is this additional factor; this is the current researcher's theory. I mentioned Moisei Berehovsky; he is deceased now. He was a Soviet Ukrainian researcher.

Today we have Walter Zev Feldman, who is an American researcher, and he writes that in the mid-nineteenth century, Jews began to be recruited into the imperial army, where, owing to their aptitude for music, many of those who entered the service were taken into military orchestras, and that is precisely where they acquired this education, with which they later returned and could then continue to play and recruit more musicians. Moreover, he writes that they introduced a vogue for wind instruments and, perhaps, the clarinet.

Vasyl Shandro: Is klezmer music a generally Eastern European phenomenon or more of a Ukrainian one, for example?

Andrii Levchenko: To a greater extent, this is a Ukrainian phenomenon, because Hasidism was born in Ukraine in the early part of the eighteenth century. Music occupies a very important place in Hasidism because it is through music that you can enter into direct communication with God. That is why where Hasidism was — specifically, the territory of Ukraine — there were excellent, favorable conditions for the development of music, especially instrumental. And the greatest number of klezmer musicians were from Ukraine: Chudniv, Bila Tserkva, Berdychiv, Uman, Ternivka, Brody. Those are the small towns that today are tiny, tiny, but once upon a time, Jewish instrumental music was bubbling and boiling there.

There were, of course, musicians in Belarus also, for example, and in Poland, but things were not so saturated and heady there. There were also Jewish musicians in Lithuania, for example, but this was a different history because Litvaks [Lithuanian Jews—Trans.] lived there. Hasidim lived in our country, Litvaks lived there, and the music was different, and there were different contexts. However, to put it a little pretentiously, Ukraine is the cradle of klezmer music. This music is known and played all over the world, but in our country, unfortunately, few people are aware of it.

Ukraine is the cradle of klezmer music, and this music is known and performed all over the world, yet in our country, unfortunately, only a few people know about it. 

Vasyl Shandro: What do you know about the repertoire? Were these always original compositions, or were they some kind of basic and recognizable melodies that might belong to various ethnic traditions but which were performed by musicians depending on where they resided? Could these klezmer bands play Ukrainian music and other kinds of music?

Andrii Levchenko: Of course, they could — and they did. There are many references to this. The primary reason was economic and business-related, because the more that you, a musician, know a repertoire, the more opportunities and likelihood that you will be invited somewhere to a wedding, for example, a Ukrainian or Hutsul one (one and the same thing in principle, but speaking locally with regard to the latter) or to the Poles.

Incidentally, in his memoirs, Oleksander Koshyts mentions Zvenyhorod, in today's Cherkasy oblast. He writes that Jewish musicians performed at a ball there, a small ball held by local landowners. They did not play traditional Jewish music but the music that was required to be performed at the time. In the context of this small-town culture, where there were influences or at least a vogue for polonaises, there are many references to polonaises performed by Jewish musicians.

If we are talking about repertoire, then, of course, this depends on geography. For example, Jewish musicians who lived in Khabne (today: Poliske in Kyiv oblast, near the Chornobyl zone) performed a Jewish repertoire and a Ukrainian repertoire. For example, the "Cossack dance," or kozachky, from the Ukrainian repertoire, was popular in the Jewish milieu; there were many different versions of this name. The story was different in the south, where there were Ottoman or Balkan musical influences, generally speaking.

If we look at the repertoire now, at recordings or sheet music collections of Jewish klezmer musicians, they contain, as I have already mentioned, kozachky, or kozatske, as well as melodies that we can hear today from musicians from Turkey, the traditional ones that they play. And this depended, on the one hand, on the conservatism of a Jewish community. On the other hand, this was very interesting but not quite polyphony, but one can say that it is polyphony in that some Jewish musicians could play not just Jewish music but the music of their ethnic neighbors as well.

Vasyl Shandro: So, was this basically a professional or semi-professional musical group of performers? We are discussing not so much a certain ritual purpose of music, where many other components are important, but the possibility of performing a great variety of music to suit the needs of very different people in various situations. In other words, this is what requires professional musicians or professional artists, who do work on commission.  

Andrii Levchenko: You could say that. This, of course, is multifunctionality if we are talking about repertoire. It raised the status of musicians but, if we are talking about a traditional Jewish wedding, then, of course, these musicians should have had — and they did — an excellent familiarity with the continuity of these rites and melodies that were performed during these rites.

Incidentally, there was the question of the typical repertoire performed by klezmer musicians, which also echoes the Ukrainian tradition in an interesting way. These are dobrydni songs: When they played music, they performed special melodies marking the start of a daytime wedding, when the musicians walked along the streets and played a dobryden, as a sign that we are beginning a wedding. Later, over the course of the wedding, there were typical Jewish melodies and simple tunes, like, for example, the matchmakers' dance, when the matchmakers dance, or the bride does. These musicians performed them. And what is interesting about this is that they were quite traditional but, at the same time, they could go outside [the tradition].

Vasyl Shandro: As regards celebrations and not just them, but also important events in general, where could this music or the services of these musicians be used? Are we talking only about weddings or performances in taverns, for example? In what kinds of important events could musicians participate — important and, perhaps, completely insignificant, quotidian events, say in a tavern or on the street?

Andrii Levchenko: In terms of percentages, I think that between eighty to ninety percent of Jewish musicians' engagements were for weddings. However, in addition to weddings, if we are talking about the Jewish milieu, there could be celebrations of the coming-of-age of a Jewish boy. Then musicians could be hired, and dancing and festivities took place. And, of course, there were balls where wealthy landowners entertained themselves. These, too, were not just Jewish weddings but other people's weddings.

Vasyl Shandro: In other words, Jews could also play for non-Jews?

Andrii Levchenko: Yes, Jews could also play for non-Jews, and this was quite a typical practice. Everything depends on the conservatism of a community, but there are references in Berehovsky to musicians who, during the Jewish fast, do not have the right to play, and during this period, they travel out of town to perform and earn money from Ukrainians, Poles, and Belarusians, and elsewhere. Later, once this period ends, they return and continue living their customary life together with the Jewish community.

Vasyl Shandro: Could these musical collectives be mixed in some extraordinary situations? For example, a member of a collective might leave or die and have to be replaced right away? Or could it be like this: An old Ukrainian fellow plays the drums, and another old fellow plays the violin, and they play together. Was this a likely scenario?

Andrii Levchenko: This was the reality, but it is difficult to say how widespread it was and in what circumstances it took place. There are testimonies about the existence of such mixed teams, mixed groups. And the first thing that comes to mind is Bohdan Lukaniuk's article in the journal Rodovid — an interesting issue — which talks about a Hutsul violinist who played in a Jewish cappella. Moreover, he fulfilled the role of first violinist. And this is an interesting point because the first violinist has to know everything. He must know the entire repertoire. He must be familiar with the entire sequence and, it would seem, [there was a question—Ed.] whether someone else can play, [that is] not a Jew for Jews, or not a Ukrainian for Ukrainians. But there was this kind of story.

Another story also comes from western Ukraine, from Transcarpathia. There is a well-known photograph that has been circulating on the Internet for quite a long time, which I believe depicts five musicians. They are distinguished by their clothing: three Jews and two Ruthenians [Ukrainians—Trans.]. The photograph exists, and it is obvious that it shows both Jews and non-Jews, but under what circumstances this collective was photographed —had they been playing for years, or was this just by accident, this is difficult to say, but there was this experience in general. The only thing is, as I have already mentioned, that it is difficult to say how frequent this was, how this was formed, how it was.

Vasyl Shandro: To conclude our conversation, I would like to ask whether we could talk, from the musical standpoint, about mutual influence, concretely about Jewish and Ukrainian music in connection with the fact that these groups, as well as musicians, were frequently able to hear one another, cross paths, and, perhaps, borrow melodies, mannerisms, and devices from each other.

Andrii Levchenko: Undoubtedly, and this is indicated by the fact that Jewish musicians knew the repertoire that was required for a Ukrainian wedding. Obviously, owing to a love of music and certain tastes, the repertoire that they might play remained with them, and out of sentiment, they could play it and continue to do so. These were not isolated cases limited to Jewish musicians. Ukrainian musicians also adopted the Jewish repertoire. In fact, there were many, many such cases, and many recordings have been preserved.

But another interesting example confirming this theory is the music that can be heard in Odesa oblast, in Kodyma raion. There are several villages there, including the village of Shershentsi. It has a wind orchestra; you might say a folk wind orchestra, featuring musicians who are local to the area, but they perform a repertoire that was played by their parents and grandparents. They were ethnic Ukrainians, but the repertoire itself is a significant blend of Ukrainian and Jewish music. In other words, they play this music that is absolutely natural for them, because in that place, in that geography, this music was quite popular, and for some time, it became very closely interwoven with Ukrainian music. Today you cannot even spot where the Jewish music is and where the Ukrainian music is. They simply play this music, and it is very, very reminiscent of Jewish music.

Vasyl Shandro: Like our music?

Andrii Levchenko: Like ours, yes. I did not mention the klezmer repertoire, which includes famous melodies called freylekhs. Some musicians in Shershentsi say: "These are our freylekhs, this is the music that our grandfathers played. These are our freylekhs."

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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