What follows is a piece written for Lee Barclay and Chris Porche West's great collection of short pieces by New Orleans residents from all across the city and its complex social layers. It was written after the 2005 hurricane that wiped out so much but then there was the city wide pondering over What Can't be Lost. The roster of contributors is epic and being invited to participate was an honor. It's still available here...
Though the book is a few months old now and the subject even older I'm still including it under "What's New?"...because it hasn't been seen outside the book yet.
Jewish-New Orleans Art?
Over the last 16 years, playing with the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, I have had a close view of what a hybridized New Orleans- Jewish art form might be and, more interestingly, what forces in any locale might contribute to the alteration of certain sounds in music.
The common definition of Klezmer music is usually given by the translation of the word coupled with the origins of the sound. The word Klezmer is from two words, kley and zemer, meaning vessel of song. Some go on to say that this describes the musician who is the vessel who channels the melodies that in a sense are already out there in a metaphysical space given by God. From a cultural or ethno-musicological standpoint, Klezmer denotes Eastern European Jews playing the secular music of those regions but with an instrumental inflection from the liturgical-singing style of the Chazzans or synagogue cantorial soloists of those regions.
It is interesting how people begin to identify with phenomena such as sounds and places and relate to those things as being their own. Since this band started playing the bars of New Orleans in the early nineties, the energy of that world began to seep in. People wanted to dance, and they wanted rhythmic, ecstatic music that lasted for hours into the night. That was their idea of New Orleans music at that time. People who saw that element said that we were New Orleans players; that we played New Orleans Jewish Funk. On the other hand, many said that we were keeping alive a traditional Jewish form; that the sound was Jewish, and they seemed proud that we were giving public voice to an unsung tradition in New Orleans.
What was happening on the inside? The beauty of these melodies and styles that we heard on record or distantly remembered from our childhood fascinated us. However, we decided to play them without limiting any of the other ways in which we played. We wanted to play the melodies responding to the energies and immediacies of the moment rather than confining ourselves to a preconceived framework. One could say it was like the energy you might see delivered by one of the young local brass bands of the time. In this way we were vessels, but for the collective energy of the city at that time. The song melodies from another place and time were transformed into a delivery system for an underlying local spirit.
What is this spirit? New Orleans is often described as spiritual. The word spirit comes from Latin where spiritus meant to breathe. How the city does seem to breathe- even under water as the world discovered towards the end of 2005. Music, similarly, is equated with spirituality and the breath.
Although we breathe approximately 21,600 times a day, no two breaths are exactly the same. Change happens moment by moment; can we ever decide that the breath is ours? Try holding it in. What happens to “your” breath? Perhaps it is the same as the attempt to claim ownership of any phenomena that breathes- like music or even a remarkable city. To whom do sounds or communities belong?