Eastern European & Klezmer Dance Music


If you've ever been on holiday to Budapest, Prague and other Eastern European cities, you will probably have heard many musicians busking on the streets for this is a tradition of Eastern European music. The Art of Busking (Intuitive Improvisation, if you like) has, in the view of some people, always been central to the very meaning of musical performance. I'm not sure of this myself, though it is certainly a valid viewpoint. I think there is a place for busking in improvisation and for thoughtful crafted as the distance kind of music, such as a classical Symphony. T however, the he ability to use one's musicianship to interpret the works of other musicians is a great skill.

But the real purpose' of music is to entertain, (though I've been playing with my string quartet or in a Symphony Orchestra, and looked at the miserable faces of some of the audience, I wonder sometimes if this is the case!) But except for those who want to experience intellectual misery, music is about entertainment, especially when it is like a barn dance for a ceilidh, where the music is connected with dance, all with jazz where very often the music is associated with eating and drinking as well as dancing, in all cases unless it is infused with something of the character of the performer, it doesn't have the same impact. The pleasure derived by both performer and hearer when the former is recognised by the latter to be injecting something of his or her very self into the playing is quite incomparable. This is where Busking comes into its own.

How do we do it? (Busking that is) Is it a gift? Well, yes - it can be, but as with all things musical, it is about hard work and in some ways it is also an exact science, and can be taught and learnt - up to the limit of the intellect and patience of the player. A thorough knowledge of Theory of Music and Harmony makes it easy to understand the necessary elements, of course, of someone like me you hasn't really had much interest in that sort of thing, it is the sound in the field that matters.

So let's start looking around Eastern Europe a bit. As take a look at Russian folk music. Russia has been the source of numerous famous composers of classical music, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and many more. It's a musical nation, but we hear relatively little about their folk music and dance. Is that because folk music and dance, the ceilidh and barn dance, is about enjoyment, and the unfortunate Russian population have been subjected to a high level of misery generations.

Russian history has always been determined by fluctuations between phases of perfect isolation from the outside world and phases of almost entirely unreflected reception of external influences. This can also be observed in the development of Russian folk music.

At the beginnings of the Russian state in the 9th century, Scandinavian and Byzantine influences were added to the Slavic roots. The occupation of Russia by Mongolian tribes in the 13th and 14th centuries also had an effect on the country's music. The proverbial "solemnity" of both Russian folk music and the "Russian soul" is mostly due to Scandinavian, Byzantine and Mongolian influences, and cannot be entirely attributed to the Slavic roots. The defeat of the Mongolian tribes was followed by a period of isolation against all foreign influences that lasted several centuries, resulting in an entirely independent form of music could developing which was mostly characterised by the following features:

• Tonal arrangement differs from the Western system of Major and Minor keys - little emphasis on the leading tone while at the same time increasingly focusing on subdominant effects.

• Rhythm is often asymmetric and cannot be arranged in two and three-part patterns.

• Independent form of polyphony with completing and paraphrasing lower voices added to the main voice.

Only traces of these characteristics can be found in Russian folk music as it is performed today and is the result of the "Europeanisation" of Russia by Tsar Peter the Great (at the beginning of the 18lh century) which furthered the integration of Western influences into Russian folk music. In the long run, this development culminated in a simplification and standardisation of the system of Major and Minor keys, and also of forms and rhythms. The constant shift of emphasis between Major and Minor keys can be observed in popularly known Russian folk tunes such as "Kalinka" (fast, merry part in Minor, slow, lyric part in Major); an opportunity everybody with recognise is "Valenky" with the many changes in tempo and the extremely syncopic rhythm.

With the industrialisation of Russia at the end of the 18th and during the 19th century a special culture of folk music developed in the cities, in which the different influences were blended together. The combination of Western music traditions with gypsy music, which pervaded all of Central and Eastern Europe and into Russia, was particularly interesting. Very passionate "gypsy romances" developed, and one of the most popular examples is the song "Black eyes", has been popularised outside the folk tradition.

Much like Irish an English folk music, Russian folk music was played on a wide array of wind and string instruments, as well as plucked and percussion instruments. Basically, people use whatever they could lay their hands on and was easy and cheap to make. From the 18th century on, most of them were not designed for the increasing demand for simpler Minor/Major harmonics and therefore became obsolete. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, musical instruments became mass produced, which in turn limited the range of instruments available within the restricted Russian state to two major ones:

the balalaika Balalaika. This is a plucked instrument originating from Ukraine, a little like a mandolin. In most cases, two of the three strings are equivalent, the third string is tuned in the upper fourth. The balalaika is built in six sizes, ranging from the piccolo balalaika to the bass balalaika. Frequently, only the soprano balalaika is heard being played, but large ensemble arrangements are also possible.

The Bajan. This is an Accordion with press buttons on both sides. The monophonic half-chromatic model called "chromka" is most popular.

The ensembles which today continue the tradition of Russian folk music focus mostly on voice. Balalaikas and modern accordions are almost exclusively used as accompanying instruments, with the lower registers of the accordions taking over the bass function, the high registers filling the harmonies and the balalaika being used like a percussion instrument. For variation purposes sometimes old wind instruments are still used for solo parts. In urban songs and gypsy romances the Russian seven string guitar is used.

In some ways, Russian folk music is somewhat akin to Greek folk music, as heard within the UK. Most people know a few well-known Greek tunes, mostly popularised by Hollywood films with the occasional semi pop singer, and are quite unaware of the vast range of complex and wonderful music that exists. Russian music is somewhat similar, but probably even less well-known, since the James Bond films which often portrayed connections with Russia, never seemed to use any Russian music. I guess everybody knows the music of Tchaikovsky, which is very Russian and includes variants of folk seems, but as to true folk music its limited, so let's look at a few well-known tunes:

1) Kalinka - combination of a Pljaska (kinetic dance song designed for ecstatic effects with simple melodies limited to a to a narrow tonal range) and a protjaschnaja pjesnja (lyric "languid" song with increased ambitus and plastic melody). The text also shows the most important features of the two types of songs:

Quick passages = merry, buoyant dance song with no explicit meaning of the text. The slow passages tell about a young man who lies down for a nap under a fir. He wishes for the tree to stop rustling and longs for his beloved to return his love.

2) Black Eyes - gypsy romance. This is a very passionate, desperate love song:

"Black eyes, passionate eyes, fiery and beautiful eyes. How much I love you, how much I fear you, sometimes I wish I had never seen you ..."

3) The Moon is Shining - merry, cheery dance song (Pljaska):

The protagonist cannot sleep and would like to visit his beloved, but he does not know where she lives. He could ask a friend, but this friend has a better reputation and is more handsome than he and might steal his girl. But then the moon comes out and lights his way ...

4) Steppe all around - lyric, narrative, "languid" song (protjaschnaja pesnja) that was mostly performed in a concerted form.

It is winter in the steppe. A coachman dies from the cold. He asks his friend to bury him in the steppe and take his marriage ring to his wife - she is to marry another man.

5) Valenky (winter boots) - ironic dance song (Pljaska):

The protagonist cannot visit his beloved because there are holes in his winter boots. Everybody advises him to mend his boots rather than waste his time with his girl. Finally he runs to her through the snow on his bare feet.

Moving now to the Jewish tradition which spread throughout Eastern Europe and beyond. Klezmer is the traditional instrumental music of the Jewish people of Eastern Europe. A music with universal appeal and power to communicate, it reflects the spirit of Judaism - and in particular the celebration of its weddings. Purists tend not to like the word 'klezmer' on the grounds that it has more to do with recent revivals of the music than with its origins in the Ukraine, Galitsia and Romania. But for the rest of us the word has its own resonance and magic, calling to mind an exciting musical world full of emotional intensity and vitality.

Considering how very different to British music this is, it's fortunate that there are many early recordings of klezmer musicians. You have to listen to some of the staff to get the hang of it. It's rather like Marmite, you either love it or hate it, and I think many classical musicians find it quite difficult to stomach, but for the enthusiast of American barn dance music, where klezmer influences abound, and jazz which has something of the spirit of klezmer in being very often about suffering, it is much more easily digestible. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews left Eastern Europe in vast numbers, driven out by the latest waves in centuries of persecution. Many went to North America, arriving, as it happened, just as recording technology and the record industry were beginning to take off. Many of these recordings from the 1910s and 1920s have now been painstakingly collected, lovingly restored and reissued on CD.

If you go around Europe and the musical point of view, and listen to Bosnian music and traditional gypsy music one realises that klezmer is closely related and is part of the folk music and folk dance traditions that run through the Balkans, bringing with it exotic scales (the freygish of klezmer, with its augmented second between the 2nd and 3rd degrees of the scale) and a spontaneous, improvisatory approach which makes every performance and adventure. Another similarity between klezmer and gypsy music is the lineup of the band: violin lead, viola, bass and cimbalom, and very often a clarinet , (unfortunately the Cimbalon is a rare instrument be heard played these days, as although it is amazing to hear when played well, it's rather a lunatic instrument in terms of its layout and hellishly difficult to play. Remember being told by a Cimbalon player in Budapest that it took two lifetimes to learn to play, so you would never hear a really good player.)

Bulgar from Odessa This is one of the many tunes named after this Ukranian city. The bulgar is an up-tempo dance form, with a characteristic three-note up-beat. Enjoy the contrast between the bold character of the first four bars and the more serpentine quaver movement which follows - where you might well add some ornamentation.

At the Rabbi's Feast This is a classic example of the chosidl, a dance style with a stately and processional character. Playing the melody in third position helps to create a rich, dark sonority. In the original recording of this piece by I. J. Hochman, the opening semiquavers of the third section are played almost as a glissando - try playing them with one finger!

Freylechs from Bukovina Freylekh is the Yiddish word for "happy" or "joyful", and a freylechs is a lively dance tune. Like many klezmer melodies, this one is known by several titles, including Mitzvah tants. Try playing the opening in third position, with B natural grace notes before the semiquaver groups. The static chords in the third section are a favourite klezmer device.

To many people in this country klezmer is even more obscure than Greek or Russian folk music, and their possibly no teens they would be familiar with. Here are some the tunes that I play with my band, with the notes that the arranger and collector of the music made about them. One has to be very grateful there are people who go out and collect and arrange this kind of music to make it accessible to us now. Here are some the pieces

Freylechs from Warsaw You can see why this scintillating tune is so popular with the new klezmer bands - it demands to be played with almost reckless abandon! The accompaniment features a characteristic klezmer syncopation, grouping the quavers 3:3:2. The melody suits the violin well: play the opening quavers off the string, enjoying the string crossings. In the last section you can add some gritty double stops across open E and A.

Leading the In-laws Home This sublime melody is an example of a hora - a slowish, triple-time dance with, characteristically, a silent second beat in the accompaniment. Its composer, Naftule Brandwein, was a clarinet virtuoso who emigrated to the United States from Galitsia in the early years of the 20th century. His 1923 recording is an improvisational tour de force, with the recurring refrain constantly varied rhythmically and melodically.

In-laws' Dance This is another classic chosidl which should be performed with a sense of weight and dignity. As a composition it is a model of how magic can be created with just six notes and two chords! I learned the tune at a klezmer workshop in Leeds, but only later discovered the name Dance of the In-laws on an Abe Schwarz recording of 1918. The title is perfect - you can imagine the two sets of in-laws dancing together, wary at first but warming up as the dance progresses! As in many klezmer tunes, you don't have to be too accurate with the triplet quavers. (And that's just as well!)

Sweet Father This klezmer showpiece needs to be played fast and with a lot of panache. There is a performance on record by Joseph Moskowitz, recorded in 1916. Start near the heel so the syncopations have real punch. The middle section appears to take off in a country-fiddle style before finding its way back to more familiar klezmer territory. (Rather as in American folk music, and indeed in some styles of Irish and Scottish folk music, open strings are used regularly. In classical music open strings are generally frowned upon, because they sound much harsher and stick out compared with stocks notes, and in much classical music it is the smoothness of the melody that is all-important. Not so in folk music, where open strings can be used for playing chords and increasing the volume of the sound, but artistically I used to provide emphasis and make certain notes cut through everything else that is going on.)

Doina this is a general name for many piece of music of a certain style and function. Originally they were performed at military recruitment events, designed to stir the emotions and get the adrenaline going of young man, so that they signed up to the army. A doina is a rhythmically free, almost improvisational form, much favoured by the virtuosi of the early klezmer recordings. A doina will often lead directly on to a faster, more rhythmic tune, most typically, as here, a hora, which suddenly brings the tempo down and can have a dramatic effect when paired with the Doina.

Street Melody This is perhaps the best-known hora of all, and is one of those few klezmer tunes that might be recognised by people in general. The title refers to the melody's function - it is played in the street after a wedding when escorting the in-laws home. The two sections of the tune are quite different: the first twists and turns over a wonderfully unpredictable harmonic sequence; the second section, with its patterned rhythm and static harmony, suggests a long diminuendo down from the high Gs. This needs to be played very rhythmically, and is a sharp contrast to the free rhythm and passion of the Doina that has preceded . In a performance it comes as something of a shock to time to take stock of the craziness that is proceeded.

Jewish Wedding Song is a great pity that this kind of music isn't a general accompaniment to weddings in the UK. It's so exciting and so passionate. If I'm playing with the right lineup of band instruments, and sometimes include some klezmer music in a barn dance or ceilidh. It certainly stops people in their tracks, may take notice, and mostly it's enjoyed. This jaunty, bulgar-style melody cruises along over a fast and motoristic accompaniment. Enjoy the spiky three-quaver upbeats in the melody, contrasting with the more legato crotchet movement.

Dance! Dance! Perhaps the best-known of all klezmer tunes - you can hear it played in many different styles, from a fast freylechs to a slinky chosidl.


If what you have read has inspired you, you can follow the links below to see the bands that perform in your county. Only some bands include Klezmer and Eastern European, so you will have to search for them by reading the band's descriptions. Enjoy!

Barn Dance Bands: Bedfordshire Barn Dance Bands: Hertfordshire Barn Dance Bands: Suffolk
Barn Dance Bands: Berkshire Barn Dance Bands: Huntingdonshire Barn Dance Bands: Surrey
Barn Dance Bands: Berwickshire Barn Dance Bands: Kent Barn Dance Bands: Sussex
Barn Dance Bands: Buckinghamshire Barn Dance Bands: Lancashire Barn Dance Bands: the East Midlands
Barn Dance Bands: Cambridgeshire Barn Dance Bands: Leicestershire Barn Dance Bands: the East of England
Barn Dance Bands: Central Scotland Barn Dance Bands: Lincolnshire Barn Dance Bands: the North East
Barn Dance Bands: Central Wales Barn Dance Bands: London Barn Dance Bands: the North West
Barn Dance Bands: Cheshire Barn Dance Bands: Mid Wales Barn Dance Bands: the Scottish Borders
Barn Dance Bands: Cornwall Barn Dance Bands: Norfolk Barn Dance Bands: the Scottish Highlands
Barn Dance Bands: County Durham Barn Dance Bands: North Wales Barn Dance Bands: the South East
Barn Dance Bands: Cumbria Barn Dance Bands: Northamptonshire Barn Dance Bands: the South West
Barn Dance Bands: Derbyshire Barn Dance Bands: Northumberland Barn Dance Bands: the West Midlands
Barn Dance Bands: Devon Barn Dance Bands: Nottinghamshire Barn Dance Bands: Wales
Barn Dance Bands: Dorset Barn Dance Bands: Oxfordshire Barn Dance Bands: Warwickshire
Barn Dance Bands: England Barn Dance Bands: Scotland Barn Dance Bands: Wiltshire
Barn Dance Bands: Essex Barn Dance Bands: Shropshire Barn Dance Bands: Worcestershire
Barn Dance Bands: Gloucestershire Barn Dance Bands: Somerset Barn Dance Bands: Yorkshire
Barn Dance Bands: Hampshire Barn Dance Bands: South Wales Barn Dance Bands: Yorkshire and the Humber
Barn Dance Bands: Herefordshire Barn Dance Bands: Staffordshire
Ceilidh Bands: Bedfordshire Ceilidh Bands: Hertfordshire Ceilidh Bands: Suffolk
Ceilidh Bands: Berkshire Ceilidh Bands: Huntingdonshire Ceilidh Bands: Surrey
Ceilidh Bands: Berwickshire Ceilidh Bands: Kent Ceilidh Bands: Sussex
Ceilidh Bands: Buckinghamshire Ceilidh Bands: Lancashire Ceilidh Bands: the East Midlands
Ceilidh Bands: Cambridgeshire Ceilidh Bands: Leicestershire Ceilidh Bands: the East of England
Ceilidh Bands: Central Scotland Ceilidh Bands: Lincolnshire Ceilidh Bands: the North East
Ceilidh Bands: Central Wales Ceilidh Bands: London Ceilidh Bands: the North West
Ceilidh Bands: Cheshire Ceilidh Bands: Mid Wales Ceilidh Bands: the Scottish Borders
Ceilidh Bands: Cornwall Ceilidh Bands: Norfolk Ceilidh Bands: the Scottish Highlands
Ceilidh Bands: County Durham Ceilidh Bands: North Wales Ceilidh Bands: the South East
Ceilidh Bands: Cumbria Ceilidh Bands: Northamptonshire Ceilidh Bands: the South West
Ceilidh Bands: Derbyshire Ceilidh Bands: Northumberland Ceilidh Bands: the West Midlands
Ceilidh Bands: Devon Ceilidh Bands: Nottinghamshire Ceilidh Bands: Wales
Ceilidh Bands: Dorset Ceilidh Bands: Oxfordshire Ceilidh Bands: Warwickshire
Ceilidh Bands: England Ceilidh Bands: Scotland Ceilidh Bands: Wiltshire
Ceilidh Bands: Essex Ceilidh Bands: Shropshire Ceilidh Bands: Worcestershire
Ceilidh Bands: Gloucestershire Ceilidh Bands: Somerset Ceilidh Bands: Yorkshire
Ceilidh Bands: Hampshire Ceilidh Bands: South Wales Ceilidh Bands: Yorkshire and the Humber
Ceilidh Bands: Herefordshire Ceilidh Bands: Staffordshire