If you know the term at all, klezmer might seem nearly synonymous with “Jewish music.” That’s a fair starting point; the word is Hebrew — “kle” for “instrument” and “zmer” for “song” — and the genre grew out of traditional songs played at weddings and other ceremonies in Eastern European Jewish communities. But klezmer’s reach extends beyond Judaism, from gypsy folk to jazz.
Henry Shapiro, a local klezmer musician and cantor at the Parkway Jewish Center in Monroeville, points to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Palesteena” as an early example of klezmer’s cultural interplay. It’s a tune from 1920, pure Dixieland, but the melody sounds distinctly foreign, or Jewish, or klezmer, depending on where you are, musicology-degree-wise.
“It went back and forth from jazz to the klezmer tone,” says Shapiro. “That’s sort of like doing the ‘YMCA’ and ‘Hava Nagila’ in the same dance.”
- Henry Shapiro
This year, Shapiro is releasing his debut klezmer album through a crowdfunding site called Jewcer. The album is nameless to date and the track list is a work in progress, mixing traditional, improvisation and originals. But what is set in stone is Shapiro’s decision to play lead melodies with the guitar instead of clarinet or violin. The latter two might be historically better suited for klezmer’s vocally emotive melodies, but Shapiro thinks the guitar brings a distinct new flavor to klezmer.
“It seemed to me that if you really put your heart into it, and think about it, and look to touch the core of what the music is, then it doesn’t really … I won’t say I can get it on the kazoo,” says Shapiro, “but you can find a way on your instrument to make it sound like it’s always been there.”
Shapiro fell into klezmer after playing mostly jazz, swing and folk during his college days at University of Pittsburgh and Berklee College of Music. He started with a side gig performing at Jewish gatherings, but eventually grew into a career that has sustained him for over 25 years. He’s hoping to finish the album by the High Holidays, which, fortunately for Shapiro, arrive late this year.
You can donate to the project at www.jewcer.com/klezmerguitar.