Klezmer is a Jewish folk musician of eastern Europe, played by small, traditionally itinerant bands. Musicologists have noted similarities between Klezmer and other improvisational styles such as gypsy music and jazz. Klezmer is a Yiddish name that can either be applied to the type of music – or the musician playing the music. The term derives from two Jewish words: kle (vessel or instrument) and zemer (song), literally meaning “instrument or vessel of song”. Klezmer was first used to describe the traditional instrumental music of Yiddish speaking Jews in Eastern Europe.
Klezmer music began as an oral tradition passed down from one musician to another orally, instead of through music notation. Although the basic harmonic and melodic structure of a piece may remain the same, the interpretation and sound of the music varies with each musician and performance. Since klezmer music is based on cantorial singing from synagogues, many ornamental effects are used to try to imitate the sound of the human voice. For example, krekhts (Yiddish for moan), means the instrumentalist should try to create a wailing sound; kneytsch refers to imitating the sound of a sob or catch; and tshok refers to a laugh-like sound. Additional characteristics of klezmer music include ornamentation such as trills, mordents and vibrato.
The roots of klezmer music stem from vocal styles of cantorial chanting, wordless melodies called nigunim (sung by Hasidic Jews), and local popular songs and dances. Klezmer music also reflects folk and cultural elements from the countries klezmer musicians lived in such as Russia, the Ukraine, Romania, and Poland (including the cross-influence of gypsy music—klezmer and gypsy musicians often played together and influenced each other’s styles).
Instruments originally used in klezmer bands were a lead violin, second violin (or viola), bass or cello, and a cimbalom. Flutes and a small drum were occasionally used, and beginning in the early 19th century, the clarinet became a prominent part of the klezmer band. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, additional instruments were added such as brass instruments, the accordion, bass guitar and percussion.
There was a resurgence of interest in klezmer music, first in the age of jazz in the 1920s in New York but it was not until the 1970s and 1980s a revival of interest in klezmer music took place in the United States and spread to other countries around the world.