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Keeping Klezmer Alive

Klezmer music has rich history.

By Mira Tweti

The following is an excerpt from the May 2005 edition of the Orange County Jewish Life Magazine

.........Friedland has performed in several accordion symphonies, but he always comes back to Klezmer music as his favorite. "Accordions are used for many styles of music —French musette music, German polka bands, and Mexican bands. The accordion symphonies can play the classics up to contemporary, and the sound is very full. For myself, I have found the best genre for the accordion is anything ethnic."

Klezmer music traces its origins to the shtetls of Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages but may even go back further. The performers were called klezmorim, traveling troubadours and were a staple at joyous occasions and holiday festivities until the second World War. Then the music was carried into the ghettos or lost in the concentration camps. During the war, new lyrics were often given to old melodies to reflect the sorrows of the times.

Initially, klezmorim were considered a lowly occupation. Mostly very poor, the musicians had to move from town to town to eat - and drink. Klezmorim were reputed to have a preference for wine, women, and song, instead of religious studies and were often considered shnorrers. Yet, the music won the hearts of their audiences, and klezmorim were in great demand. It is because of the beautiful music that the klezmer tradition survived its early notoriety and was kept alive through so many generations that we have it today.

In addition to being the first Klezmer group established in Orange County, the Orange County Klezmers have produced a first in Jewish musical history.The band, which also features a violin (performed beautifully by Mari Haig who lives in Corona Del Mar) and a clarinet and flute (both played by Long Beach resident, Steve Hommel), recently released its third CD, Echoes of Vilna. The album celebrates and commemorates the music of the Vilna, Warsaw, Lodz, and other WWII ghettos. This collection of historical Klezmer songs includes all new arrangements, which remain true to the original music but have delivered them in a top-notch production with clarity of tone that is rare to find. Klezmer music can sometimes be heavy-handed, but the musicianship of Orange County Klezmers is so proficient that the songs on Echoes of Vilna are performed as if they were light as air. Through Friedland and his band's efforts, what might be marginalized music is now produced in a way appealing to all generations and protected for posterity.

The music is profoundly moving. Friedland's arrangements keep the familiar songs, like Vu Abin Zol ich Geyn (Where, O Where Shall I Go?) and Ani Ma'amin (I Believe), infused with tradition. The authenticity of the 15 melodies is not overwhelmed by sadness. The echoes of the lyrics, which Friedland chose not to include, seem to be sung through Hommel's haunting clarinet. The half of Friedland's family that remained in Europe during the war was lost in the ghettos and camps. Although this album honors them, Friedland says, "This music is not for the survivors. This music is for the generations that have come since. You can hear these songs, close your eyes, and imagine what life was like then."

The Orange County Klezmers performed at the Orange County Performing Arts Center's annual Chanukah Festival in December and continues to perform at festive events throughout the year to keep the tradition alive in this new century.

Echoes of Vilna is now being sold in Holocaust museums across the U.S., at the Skirball Center, and in many Orange County temple gift stores. You can hear song snippets, contact Friedland for upcoming performances (or book the band to play at your event), and order a copy of the CD at the band's website,