There were a thousand women, and they were on their feet, swaying to a klezmer beat. The place was the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, the most successful of the many all-women’s music events that are held all summer across the United States. Isle of Klezbos was playing on the “night stage,” the primo venue at the festival, “the culmination of the whole event,” says Eve Sicular, the band’s leader and drummer. “ People told me later about how this was unlike any experience they had there. I couldn’t see all this,” she recalls, “but the horn players could. And it was thrilling.”
Women have been a part of Jewish music since Miriam and her Israelite sisters took up their tambourines to celebrate the miraculous destruction of Pharoah and his troops. The loving Jewish mother murmuring a Yiddish lullaby to her drowsing child is one of the great cliches of our folklore, likewise dark-eyed Sephardic beauties singing romanceros in Ladino to their far-off beaus.
But klezmer? Jewish women with clarinets? A shayne maydele beating drums?
Well, not in the old country, whatever Molly Picon may have done in “Yidl Mitn Fidl.” But, as they say, that was then and this is now. Jewish women have been an integral part of the klezmer revival that has been going on since the ’70s. And now, they have stepped to front of the bandstand, carrying their sisters in other Jewish musical traditions along with them into the spotlight.
Actually, there is some historical precedent for women in klezmer. Henry Sapoznik, a pivotal figure in the klezmer revival and author of the new book, “Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World” (Simon and Schuster), noted in a e-mail last week, “A. Z. Idelsohn mentions that women were active in klezmer bands in Europe before the 16th century. By the turn of the [20th] century the piano made instrumental music an acceptable undertaking for women, so we see the first women klezmer pianists like Dora Cherniavsky with Cherniavsky’s Hasidic-American Jazz Band and Sylvia Schwartz playing with her fiddler father, Abe.”
However, Sapoznik adds, “It’s not until recently that women have taken an active part in klezmer front lines.”
Just ask Elaine Hoffman Watts, the drummer for KlezMs. and a third-generation klezmer musician, daughter of the famed xylophonist Jacob Hoffman, and the first woman to graduate with a degree in percussion from the prestigious Curtis Institute.
Remembering her struggles in the 1950s, she said, “They didn’t use women musicians. They had girl singers, but not a girl instrumentalist. It was their club, their thing. I wasn’t a part of the club. I played when it was my father’s job, when he was the leader. Otherwise they did not use me because I was a woman.”
But all that has changed. Watts plays drums with an all-woman band, whose leader is her daughter Susan Sandler, and at 67, is having the time of her life.
For the first time in the history of the form, numerous important predominantly male klezmer bands are being led by women (as opposed to being fronted by female vocalists), and these klezmer musicians are instrumentalists first and foremost.
Some of the bands have been around a while, such as the Wholesale Klezmer Band (out of western Mass.), led by clarinetist/composer Sherry Mayrent; Chicago’s Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, led by guitarist Lori Lippitz; and D.C.’s Lox and Vodka, led by accordionist Caron Dale. Others are of more recent vintage, including the New York-based Metropolitan Klezmer, whose leader is drummer Sicular.
Another sign of changing times on the klezmer scene is the proliferation of bands whose members are all or nearly all women. If you want proof, look no further than Philadelphia, where last month the InterGalactic Jewish Music Festival featured an entire day of all-women bands at the International House Folklife Center in west Philly. The bill included KlezMs., Mikveh and Judith Cohen, an ethnomusicologist who performs a wide range of diaspora Jewish music in a duet with her 13-year-old daughter, Tamar Ilana Cohen Adams.
Mikveh is a fascinating test case for the all-woman klezmer band. Essentially, the aggregation is the first “supergroup” of New Klez, a spectacularly talented quintet drawing from the top Jewish music groups working today. Led by clarinetist Margot Leverett (an original Klezmatic, now a member of Kapelye), the band’s personnel includes Alicia Svigals on fiddle (Klezmatics), Lauren Brody on accordion (ex-Kapelye), singer Adrienne Cooper (Kapelye and just about every major Yiddish vocal collections released in the past decade) and one ringer, jazz bassist Nicki Parrott, whose resume includes stints with Clark Terry, the late Doc Cheatham and the women’s big band DIVA.
Asked about the band’s origins and message, Margot Leverett is blunt. “For me it was wanting to play with the very best musicians, and they happen to be women. I find it very satisfying to work with men. We are all working in successful other bands with men. But there’s something we need to say that we can’t say in other bands. We have a unique message in a female band, to focus on the experiences of Jewish women in our music. That’s a message that other bands aren’t able to cover.”
Cooper adds, “What we represent is a moving from that decorous one-girl-per-band thing to a front line of women. We don’t exactly understand the effect on the audience, but it seems to boggle their minds to see a front line of women in a band. We’re not setting out to do ‘women’s music,’ but what it means is there’s something that radiates to the audience as female energy, interaction between women players on stage. Something’s happening.”
For many of the women involved in klezmer and other improvisational contemporary Jewish music, what’s happening is that women’s voices are being heard. Simply put, vocal music expresses a highly specific viewpoint (if it’s any good at all), and for too long, the viewpoint of 51 percent of the Jewish world was as ghettoized within the Jewish music community as Jewish music is marginalized in the rest of the music world.
Basya Schechter, the leader of Pharoah’s Daughter, a highly acclaimed Brooklyn band that plays a heady mix of Middle Eastern, chasidic and folk-rock, tinged with a klezmer beat, came of age in the Orthodox community of Borough Park. Growing up, she seldom heard popular music, let alone women’s music. Her own growing success seems entirely logical to Schechter, a Jewish equivalent of what has happened in the pop world.
“Women singer-songwriters are getting so much attention in the regular music world,” she says. “I think that’s the historical paradigm. Men have begun most of the waves, but at some point [other] people have their viewpoint and want some balance.”
Schechter is writing about how it feels to “leave the fold,” and more precisely, how that feels as a young Jewish-American woman in the ‘90s. Talking about the next Pharoah’s Daughter recording, which should be released in the spring, she says, “It’s about my emotional relationship with the past. I think my approach is very feminine, very emotional. And I haven’t seen that many men who left the fold who are musicians.”
For instrumentalists, however, the situation is a bit different. “We do a lot of vocal music from a female perspective but instrumental music has no gender,” says Mikveh’s Leverett. “There is no difference in playing based on gender. If you were blindfolded you could not tell the gender of an instrumentalist from a recording.”
On the other hand, there is no question that for many women, the environment found in a predominately female band is different. Sandler says, “Women relate to women in a different way than women and men relate to each other. … It’s more like being with your sisters.”
However, Sicular attributes her active career in Jewish music — she leads Metropolitan Klezmer, and two all-women bands, Isle of Klezbos and Ana and the Tevkas — to her connection to veteran klezmer sax player Howie Leess.
Sicular says, “He was so enthusiastic. It was so encouraging. He has old-school good politics from the heart and he’d seen so much of the music business.”
And Leverett is a protégé of Leess’ occasional partner, Sid Beckerman, a great second-generation klezmer clarinetist. “Sid learned this music from his father [the legendary Shloymke Beckerman], his kids didn’t want to do it, so he passed it on to me instead.”
Ultimately, for many of these women, winning acceptance as musicians — and Jewish musicians — is more important than being perceived as “female musicians.”
Dale, leader of Lox and Vodka, is emphatic. “I’m a Jewish musician,” she asserts. “The gender is not the issue. I’m a musician who performs Jewish music and someone who is proud to be a Jew. I’m thrilled and honored to perform Jewish music.”
They would all agree with Leverett’s assessment of klezmer and its musical relatives.
“It’s great music. Music essentially has no gender and it has no religion. It’s just great music and I love it and that’s why I want to play it. This music tells the truth for me.”