The Accordion: A Traditional Musical Instrument in Klezmer music




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Yiddish Klemzer Music

What is Klezmer Music?

The etymology of the word Klezmer tells us that this word is a blend of two Hebrew words. “Kley” translates to a vessel and “Zemer” translates to a melody.

This word initially denoted an ancient musical instrument. Only a hundred years ago this word was used in Yiddish to refer to a musician of Ashkenazi origin. (Eastern European Jews from the regions of Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Slovakia, and Romania). Some Jewish musicians even define Klezmer as “Jewish Jazz.”

Klezmer is a traditional Jewish musical style that dates back centuries. It has evolved over the years, incorporating new instruments and influences from around the world.

One instrument that has become synonymous with klezmer music is the accordion. The accordion has become an integral part of klezmer, adding a unique flavor to its sound and becoming an indispensable element of Jewish culture.

The accordion was first introduced to klezmer music in the late 1800s when it began to gain popularity among Eastern European immigrants. It quickly became a staple of klezmer bands, replacing older instruments such as violins and clarinets.

The accordion could be heard at Jewish weddings and celebrations throughout Europe, often played alongside other instruments such as tsimbls (hammer dulcimers) and trombones.

Although most older generation Klezmer virtuosos think that Klezmer is actually a misnomer and should only be used to refer to a Musical Instrument player in Hebrew, the word has now become commonly associated with this musical genre.

What is Klezmer? Video courtesy of Yiddish Book Center

What instruments are played in a Klezmer band?

The Accordion in Klezmer Music

Since the accordion is genuinely a universal folk instrument to many ethnic groups, its malleable and adaptable nature found an irreplaceable role in Yiddish folk tunes.

The accordion is an incredibly versatile instrument with a wide range of tones and textures that can be used to create intricate melodies or thumping rhythms. Its versatility makes it ideal for klezmer music which often includes complex improvisations that require an instrument capable of producing different sounds on demand.

The use of the accordion also allows klezmer musicians to create dynamic shifts in tempo or volume without requiring multiple instruments, making it easier to move between fast-paced dance tunes and slower ballads without missing a beat.

“Like the pioneering Italian American virtuoso accordionists, Jewish musicians felt equally at home playing classical and folk music. The select analysis of early accordion playing styles and stylistic characteristics sheds light on the interaction and interplay of klezmer musicians with their surrounding worlds—Old and New.”

Courtesy of NPR. Klezmatics band live in NPR studio.

What makes Klezmer music unique?

“A distinctive feature of the early “klezmer sound” was the accordion’s imitation of the human voice heard in liturgical, paraliturgical, and Yiddish songs. By the late 1930s, the accordion was often used for chordal accompaniment (rather than as a solo instrument).”Quoted from “The Accordion in the Americas.” By Helena Simonett.

Klezmer music is unique in its ability to blend elements from different genres while still maintaining its distinct sound. This blend is made possible by instruments like the accordion which are able to bridge gaps between styles while still retaining their own unique character.

Klezmer music is a vibrant blend of influences, incorporating elements from the joyous and celebratory Hassidic movement alongside famous Jewish pieces as well as secular dances.

This combination also includes an expressive Ashkenazi cantorial style known as Hazzanut that consists of ornamental decorations like krechts (sighs) and memorable melodies called niggunim which are easy to repeat without words!

In addition, through its use of improvisation, klezmer music can take on endless forms, making it highly adaptable for any situation or occasion.

Klezmer and Sephardic Tunes

33 Traditional Pieces for Accordion

Klezmer and Sephardic Tunes for Accordion presents 33 beautiful pieces ranging from well-known traditional tunes to the newly composed. The collection is ideal for those looking to explore Klezmer music in more depth, as well as the lesser-known music of the Sephardic Jews- drawing on the culture’s roots in Medieval Spain and the Balkans. The book contains notes on all of the pieces as well as points on general interpretation and is accompanied by a CD with all pieces performed by Merima Kljuco.

“It was an integral element of the popular Hasidic bands of the 1960s and the “klezmer ensembles” that embraced the new Israeli music and earlier “Palestinian” music. Although it was often deemed “an outsider,” for the revivalists of the 1980s and beyond, the accordion has been characteristic of the klezmer style.”By Helena Simonett.

What scale is the Klezmer music played in?

Klezmer music is based on folk scales. (Harmonic major and minor as well as Phrygian scales). These scales have their roots in Slavic, Middle Eastern, and Greek melodic modalities.

Klezmer music is steeped in tradition, and its history can be traced back to the rhythms of Ashkenazi Jewish dance. The five mode types typically used are primary , natural minor, harmonic minor and ascending minors as well as three special modes known as shtaygerim that draw influence from Middle Eastern maqamat scales or Indian ragas.

Binary rhythm makes up most of this traditional style but pieces like Taksim or doyna often feature unmeasured improvisations backed by accordions or cymbalom playing a steady chord progression for soloists to riff off .

Yiddish folk music is often compared to Bosnian Sevdah music not only because it is often played on an accordion and violin but also because of their similarities in musical scales and melodic arrangements. Both genres have the same roots and it is no surprise that they sound so much alike.

Klezmer uses a unique scale that is neither major nor minor. The scale in Klezmer tunes is rather a hybrid of the two. Major scale on the bottom and minor scale on top.

What makes Klezmer melodies unique is that extra accidental note or the flattened 2nd note just as the video below explains. The accordionist in the video is playing the Beltuna piano accordion. Genuine Italian accordion, described in detail below the video.

Video courtesy of Liberty Bellows

Beltuna Piano Accordion

120 Bass buttons/41 Keys

  • Genuine Italian handmade in Castelfidardo
  • 4/5 LMMM Treble: 41 Keys
  • 5 Registers 
  • Weight: 24.5lbs / 11.1kg
  • Suitable for Klezmer accordionists

Piano Accordion

Hohner BR48B-N Bravo

  • 26-Key
  • 48 Bass buttons
  • Suitable for entry and professional level Klezmer players
  • Genuine HOHNER luxurious black colour
  • Lightweight and compact
  • Comes with a durable gig bag

Revival of Klezmer Music and the Accordion

We are going through an age of renaissance for many folk music genres. From Ukrainian to Basque and Irish to Salvadorian, folk bands and instruments are becoming increasingly popular. Klezmer is one of those genres that is going through a revival on a global scale.

With origins that span Eastern Europe, klezmer music has intrigued people for centuries. Blending sounds from Romania, Russia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire amongst others; it’s often considered one of earliest ‘fusion’ styles.

Today it is played by artists all over the world – regardless of origin or religion- transcending traditional boundaries to become a genre with its own unique place in culture today!

This resurgence in popularity started over 30 years ago with a band from California called The Klezmorim. With the evergrowing popularity of folk tunes, accordions are being sought after as instruments of choice for young as well as seasoned Klezmer musicians.

A few final words

Klezmer music has broken away from its traditional roots, as musicians have embraced experimentation and pioneered new fusions. Jazz, world music and contemporary genres are all being brought into the mix to create something progressive yet respectful of Klezmer’s origins.

Fans will find no shortage of variety when it comes to experiencing this unique sound – whether they prefer classical-style renditions or more modern takes on classic tunes! The future definitely looks exciting for Klezmer music lovers everywhere.

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