Detroit native brings klezmer to masses

By: Eric Czarnik | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published July 11, 2012

The violin will sizzle this July in the Detroit-Windsor area with the strains of a lively yet ancient form of Jewish music.

Detroit native and klezmer performer Yale Strom will perform July 15 at Detroit’s Burton Theater as part of a tour that includes Mackinac Island, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Windsor, Toledo and Cleveland.

Strom, 50, is more than a violinist. He is also a klezmer scholar, writer, filmmaker, photographer and composer for his klezmer band, Hot Pstromi.

Although he lives in the San Diego area today, he looks forward to bringing his music to his hometown this month.

“Some of my earliest synagogue memories are from Detroit. My father took me to Orthodox synagogues,” he said. “I will always feel connected to Detroit and the Jewish history.”

According to Strom, klezmer is a form of East European Jewish instrumental dance music that today includes instruments such as the violin, the clarinet and the accordion.

He said klezmer expresses many moods, but one of the most common is the joy of weddings and other ceremonies. One example of jubilant klezmer music is “Hava Nagila” (“Let’s Be Joyful”), a tune sometimes played in sports stadiums.

Strom said the dancing tune starts slowly and gradually escalates and quickens.

“It plays on all the human emotions,” he said. “The beautiful melody of the words and speed and rhythm create a whirlpool of melody that sucks you up into a vortex.”

Strom said klezmer’s origins drift back at least a millennium, and its musical scales compare with those used in Arabic music. But klezmer also melded influences from the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, Belarus, Hungary and Romania, he said.

“A lot of the music changed to add other scales when Jews were living in Europe,” he said. “One of the things about Jewish music, klezmer music, is it has the tonality and scales from the synagogue and everything else.”

Strom said the Hasidim Jewish movement also influenced the musical style in the 18th and 19th centuries with its emphasis on prayer, song and dance as a way to reach a higher, trancelike realm of holiness and adhesion to God.

“It was the manner in which they sang. It was the intensity and duration that really created a new genre,” he said. “They would sing one tune for 30, 40, 50, 90 minutes. … Physically, it’s like you’re creating a lot of endorphins.”

Strom said klezmer’s influence hit its peak in America in the late 1800s to the 1930s due to eastern European immigration and Yiddish theater. While cultural assimilation, the Holocaust and other trends threatened the genre’s legacy, it made a comeback in the 1970s and gained a second wind until around the turn of the new century, he said.

These days, klezmer bands are continuing to push the genre by mixing in other worldwide styles such as jazz, bluegrass and Afro-Cuban. And as a klezmer composer himself, Strom said he tries to do the same thing.

“They’re trying to find new audiences and excite them,” he said. “Like any genre, it needs to grow. It shouldn’t stay as a museum piece.”

New York klezmer clarinet musician Norbert Stachel said he has played alongside Strom before, adding that the two hit it off musically.

Stachel said his interest in the genre emerged as he listened to his parents and their record collection while growing up in a culturally Jewish household in California. As his interest grew, he began meeting klezmer band players and became so impressed that he wanted to be like them.

“By that time, I was already playing multiple kids of music,” he said. “I was attracted to the sounds of the (klezmer) music, the feeling that Jewish music has, along with other kinds of Middle Eastern music.”

Klezmer violinist Yale Strom and vocalist Elizabeth Schwartz will perform at 4 p.m. July 15 in the Burton Theater, 3240 Cass Avenue, in Detroit. To learn about tickets and their prices, call (313) 891-2514.