Friday, June 05, 2009


Klezmer, Book One: Tales of the Wild East (First Second, 2006) is a graphic novel by Joann Sear following a group of musicians in their wanderings through pre-World War II Eastern Europe. Among other things it made me want to read more about the history of Odessa, another of those early multicultural port cities like London and Marseille.

It includes an appendix with the author's reflections on klezmer:

' True to the idea that you're better off practicing useless activities than doing harm, I put my memories into klezmer songs. They're better off there than elsewhere. Those are Jewish voices, but they don't speak only to Jews. I think back about Shostakoviich, who for years carried around in his suitcase his Opus 79, 'On Jewish folk poetry'. And each time Stalin or the others would forbid him to present it. I think about Isaac Babel, whose short stories on Odessa were scattered, banned, lost. I love that mad project they had, of getting people to like the Jews.

I think human populations need friendship. When men sense that they are not liked, they invent the blues or Gypsy music or klezmer. That's how they make their condition understandable to others. Their language then reaches out to everyone and from within the most self-constrained communities rises a universal song. Extending a hand to a neighbour is a momentous thing in fact. The fact that klezmer is still played today, and with such gusto, and with so many non-Jews on stage and in the audience - which is great - says that plenty of people are willing to carry a bit of Jewish memory on behalf of the Jews. And as a result, klezmer is no longer music that is played by Jews for Jews. That gets us out of the realm of folklore; we all dance together while drinking up a storm, we have fun. From a personal standpoint I ask for nothing more'.

Not totally convinced about the blues or klezmer coming about to communicate outside of communities, I think that's probably a secondary function, but I like the idea of the notion of 'universal song' being able to extend across boundaries.

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