Klezmer-ing in and out of the lines

By Eric Gallippo

After years of playing in rock ‘n’ roll bands, Eric Stein put down his bass, picked up a mandolin and, eventually, decided to start a klezmer group.

Stein, one of the founders of Toronto’s Beyond the Pale, said the transition from jam rock to the traditional sounds of Jewish Eastern Europe was natural.

“The thing about klezmer and Eastern European folk that drew me in is the same thing as rock music,” Stein said. “It’s a certain kind of energy and the ability to transport a transcendent quality in music that takes you to another place.”

Ten years later, Beyond the Pale is still transporting listeners, and themselves, to new musical places. “We really walk this line. We play traditional klezmer music — we love it and play a ton of it — and traditional music from the Balkans and Romania,” Stein said. “But we try not to limit ourselves by anything but our imagination.”

The group’s namesake, then, is a reference to its roots in Jewish culture and an aesthetic of not being limited by “generic, stylistic borders.”

Stein explained that in the Czarist Russia of the 19th century, Jews were restricted in the Pale of Settlement (“Pale” means “fence” or “fence post”) that stretched from the Black to the Baltic seas, in what is today Eastern Poland, the Ukraine and western Russia.“The idea of being beyond the pale, as an expression, is more that you’re breaking boundaries, breaking rules,” Stein said.

Not that stretching the definition of “klezmer,” a fairly ambiguous genre, is something new. Since the klezmer revival of the ‘70s, artists like The Klezmatics and even avant-garde saxophonist and composer John Zorn have invoked the term, if not for themselves, than by music scribes trying to get at Jewish elements in their music.

“Even within the klezmer world you can’t accurately portray what you do unless you had a hyphenated name, like klezmer-rock or klezmer-funk,” Stein said. “It’s a very general category heading that references history and increasingly reflects a kind of adventurousness, a tendency toward improvisation of a certain kind — the kind of cutting-edge impulses that are found in jazz music or folk music today.”

As the klezmer umbrella grows wider, Stein believes it’s more important than ever to make sure the original music survives.
“There’s a real importance to learning from the source,” Stein said. “I think it’s especially so, because the sources are all dead. They were all wiped out in the Holocaust, and the second generation in America had been homogenized. When the revival came in the ‘70s, the music had been dead for a generation.”

To get as close to the real thing as he could, Stein studied “super scratchy” 78 rpm records produced in the 1920s, listening to them at half-speed to hear the nuances and inflections of the players. He also studied historical manuscripts and field recordings from ethnomusicological expeditions that were made to Eastern Europe.

“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t contributing to a broken-telephone effect,” Stein said. “That’s the danger now. More and more people are learning klezmer music from people who learned klezmer music from someone who listened to a recording once.”

While the band prides itself on its ability to stray from the source material, Stein said it’s always rooted in tradition. “We allow ourselves the freedom to color outside the lines and transcend musical borders, but we try to be as authentic as possible in our background departure points,” Stein said. “We understand that we’re coloring outside the lines.”