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Klezfest 2004

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2004-08-19

Klezfest class

Klezfest class

For the fourth year running, musicians from all over the world gathered in London for the annual Klezfest event. This year SJ's Caroline Westbrook joined them.

With klezmer music currently enjoying a huge revival, it's no surprise that London's annual Klezfest event – which has been held every August for the past four years – is so popular.

Around 120 musicians from all around the world signed up for this year's event and spent five years brushing up on their klezmer skills – or in some cases learning the art of klezmer from scratch. This year I was lucky enough to have the chance to visit Klezfest - which took place at the School Of Oriental and African Studies at the University Of London – and to see what exactly goes on.

The day kicked off with a bit of exercise, in the shape of an hour-long Yiddish dance class led by Merlin Shepherd, one of the leading klezmer performers in the UK. Students then split up into
groups, depending on their field of expertise – while musicians would attend one lecture, over in another part of the building the singers trooped off for a spot of vocal practice.

The day I attended they were rehearsing a Klezmatics song, I Ain't Afraid (which appears on the album Rise Up!, ably assisted by Yiddish song expert Adrienne Cooper.

It was just as fascinating to watch the smaller tuition groups that took place for the remainder of the morning. In order to take part in Klezfest you have to be proficient in a musical instrument (at least to an intermediate standard) but you don't have to have any experience
in actually playing klezmer – and this was reflected in the classes, which covered all levels from klezmer beginner to klezmer expert. All the teachers were impressive, especially Oi Va Voi frontwoman Sophie Solomon, who gave a great show of her violin-playing talents, and Canadian DJ musician Socalled (aka Josh Dolgin), who was busy giving one-on-one piano tutorials when he wasn't teaching students how to mix klezmer tunes with hip hop beats.

Other highlights included a lecture from songwriter and musician Judith Silver, in which she invited participants to listen to a range of new Jewish music (everything from Jewish-tinged rock to hip spins on traditional tunes) and discuss what they had just heard.

I was particularly impressed by a gospel/rap-inspired interpretation of the Pesach standard Had Gadya, by the Freedom Music Project – which raised plenty of eyebrows around the room.

One of the reasons Klezfest seems to work so well is the friendly atmosphere – teachers and students mixed happily together at lunch and during coffee breaks, and even though I wasn't actually taking part in the event I was made to feel very welcome by those people taking the
classes – in some cases they even handed me a songsheet and insisted I join in with the singing.

But ultimately it's the chance to see and hear so many musicians getting the chance to play and practise together, on a wide range of different instruments (everything from accordion to double bass), that makes Klezfest so enjoyable – and it's just as much fun to see so much talent on display.

Thanks to Geraldine Auerbach at the Jewish Music Institute.

To find out more about the Institute, visit: