The sounds coming out of the solo clarinet on stage were more than music. The rich and vibrant tones defied the instrument’s pitch range; so lucid that they shape-shifted into images in my mind, melding music and imagination in a blurry haze that momentarily transcended space and time.
First the clarinet was a child, crying. Then it was a woman, laughing. Then it was a bird, calling in the Amazon.
From a distance, the clarinetist seemed to be dancing with his instrument. The sounds originated in his circular-breathing lungs, were manipulated in his lips, and then released into the space around him through his neck and his shoulders and his elbows.
The audience was dead still. The occasional coughing and rustling and Smartphone screen tapping suspended in an atmosphere heavy with anticipation. Transfixed as in a trance.
That’s exactly what was supposed to happen.
David Krakauer has been pushing the boundaries of the clarinet for the last 2 decades. The musician’s passions lie in klezmer, Ashkenazic Jewish music that originated in Eastern Europe. His most recent musical project melds old klezmer tunes with funk riffs and house beats, a fusion made possible with funk trombone icon Fred Wesley and creative DJ Socalled in a cross-cultural collaboration they’ve named Abraham Inc.
The musical marriage of klezmer, funk and hip hop may seem strange at first. I couldn’t imagine what the aural points of connection would be when I first read about the concert. Krakauer himself labeled the idea as “improbable”. On paper, anyway.
But it is klezmer’s ability to draw people into a trance-like state that Krakauer recognized as an important connection to funk.
“Klezmer and funk are both kinds of trance music,” Krakauer explained. “There’s a certain kind of harmonic simplicity…one or two chords that create a trance.”
And as for hip hop: “Funk is such an important root of hip hop, that it just made so much sense to bring hip hop into a world music collaboration…Any kind of world music, any nationality you can think of embraces hip hop. People respond.”
Beyond connections in musical functions and historical development, however, is an important prism through which each musician in Abraham Inc. interprets his music – evolution. Music is constantly evolving.
The idea may seem counter-intuitive at first, particularly with an old genre like klezmer, which carries with it connotations of Old World music traditions and static images of a by-gone era in black and white.
But according to klezmer scholar Mark Slobin, klezmer has always been a flexible body of music, shifting and expanding to meet the needs of its audience.
With roots as wedding dance music, early klezmer musicians incorporated aspects of both ritual music and popular genres in 19th-century Europe. Later, 20th-century Jewish immigrant musicians in America melded European tunes with what was popular in America at that time – jazz, big band and vaudeville.
The association of nostalgia with klezmer developed during the American revival in the 1970s, when second- and third-generation children of Jewish immigrants from Europe latched onto klezmer and defined it as a significant part of the Ashkenazic Jewish experience. They revived a repertoire of music that had nearly died in Eastern Europe after the Holocaust.
But even then, as they were standardizing a repertoire based on early 78rpm recordings, they also mixed in other musical elements of their own backgrounds, including jazz, bluegrass and techno.
When heard within a historical context, this musical meeting of klezmer with funk and hop hop no longer seems too strange.
When I heard it live, it made perfect sense.
What’s the most interesting musical fusion you’ve ever heard? Leave a comment; let’s start a conversation.