The Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band
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The Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band

Sacramento, California, United States

Sacramento, California, United States
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I was introduced to klezmer, really introduced (as opposed to being vaguely disinterested in Giora Feidman in the early '70s, and trying to like, but not being satisfied by the early "The Klezmorim" recordings), by a guy named Jeff Brody, in Santa Cruz. Although Jeff never claimed that klezmer and bluegrass fit together, his own mandolin-playing in the early revival band, Hotzeplotz, as much bluegrass mandolin as jazz hi-hat, was proof that the idea was plausible.

And that was about it for klezmer bluegrass. Sure, there was a lovely interlude in the Finjan CD, Crossing Selkirk Ave., and we all remembered that Andy Statman--one of Jeff's inspirations--was first a bluegrass and avant grade mandolinist before getting together with Zev Feldman and making history with "Jewish Klezmer Music, but it was Andy's clarinet playing that made it klezmer, not his mandolin."

All of which is a long, long prelude to the great music available on this first CD release from Sacramento's "Freilachmakers." From the opening lonely banjo picking of the soon-celebratory and full-band-supported "Heyser Bulgar", or the way "Papirosn" eventually drifts into "Ragtime" Annie, or the "Odessa Bulgar" that ends on a perfect Earl Scruggs note, to the closeing picking on "The Kishinever Bulgar," this is both a klezmer album and a bluegrass album. It's also a toe-tapping, swing your partner in a hora around the room pleasure.

This is such a fun album. From the bluegrass and Irish pieces, to the klezmer that infuses the entire album, to the lovely picking, this is true simkha music for those of us who have feet in European country dances as well as in the world of Jewish tradition. The fact that the pieces flow back and forth in national origin, and that one occasionally starts and goes to oneself, "oh, yeah, that's one of my favorite klezmer tunes, didn't Dave Grisman play it?" is proof that the melding is somehow both complete and still manages to represent all of the traditions rather than mushing them all into something unrecognizable and bland.

Nor is the album instrumental only. The occasional vocals, as on Andy Rubin's cover of "Shtil di Nacht" are done in perfect folk style. In this case, also appropriately evocative of the violence of the actions commemorated by the song (about the ambush of of a German supply truck by Jewish partisans during WWII).

This is the first klezmer album, and I include the relatively sterile Statman/Grisman collaboration on the list that I ponder as I say this, the first klezmer album, I say, that refers back and forth to all of these traditions as though they belong together, and proves that you can't keep a good dance down, regardless of its origin. For the mish mash of Eastern and Central European and Mediterranean traditions that make up klezmer as we knew it, the Freilachmakers have also extended the sense of "klezmer". I mean, here's what it comes down to. When you find yourself dancing, and on the side wondering ("was that beginning not bluegrass? no, I think it was klez. gee, it's great to dance!) then the band can fairly claim to be performing perfect simkha music, which is what you get here (even if you do notice the Celtic piping on the Irish dance that precedes the Medyatsiner Waltz, a Hasidic dance tune, brought to the notice of the modern klezmorim from The Klezmorim's "Streets of Gold" album.

I love this album. It is very special. It's California klezmer in the true spirit of Romania, Romania, yet, also, entirely California bluegrass, too. It is the essential klezmer bluegrass album. (Be honest--before listening to this, did you even know the category existed? How wonderful that it does!) Get a few for yourself. Give another few out to bluegrass and Irish music fans who haven't yet figured out the connection. They'll get it now.

Reviewed by Ari Davidow 8/7/99

- The Klez Shack web page


: Klezmer unplugged
By Jim Carnes -- Bee Staff Writer


"You don't have to be Jewish to like Mrs. Levy's rye bread," Andy Rubin says. Nor do you have to be Jewish to appreciate his band's brand of klezmer music.

Nor do you have to be Appalachian, or Brazilian, or...anything other than open.
"The music is infectious," Rubin says by phone from the "quiet room" at his Sacramento workplace. He's a toxicologist by day, a clawhammer banjo player by night and the occasional weekend afternoon. His Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band will perform at 3 p.m. Sunday at The Palms in Winters.

Rubin founded the Freilachmakers band in Sacramento in 1995 with fiddle player David Kidron. Rubin was a traditional folk musician out of Berkeley, Kidron a "top-of-the-line Celtic fiddler - and Jewish, too,"

Rubin says. They played Irish music together until "at some point we said, 'Why don't we play Jewish music?'"

Klezmer is frequently referred to as "Jewish folk music."

The word, Rubin explains, is a contraction of two Hebrew words: kle, meaning instrument, and zimmer, meaning song. "It literally means instrument of song," he says.

The music originally was performed at weddings and was inherently celebratory. The primary instruments were the fiddle, clarinet and tsimbl, or Jewish hammered dulcimer. The definition of klezmer expanded in the 20th century to include just about any Eastern European Jewish folk music.

Klezmer music was first played about 600 years ago. Jewish immigrants brought it to New York in the late 1920s, but, Rubin says, "the music almost died out with the Holocaust and the restriction of Jewish immigration."

"As the first-generation immigrant groups began to die out," Rubin says, "so did their music. Yiddish-speaking 'seeds' didn't pass it on to their offspring, which was almost the death knell of the music."

The American folk-music boom of the late '50s and '60s led to a rediscovery of klezmer music in the 1970s, with musicians in Boston and Berkeley, especially, "discovering the music of their parents, unearthing it, playing it."

But klezmer music - particularly the music played by the Freilachmakers band - isn't staid, historic or stuck in the past.

"Things change. They evolve. That's a better word for it," Rubin says.

Contemporary klezmer musicians introduced new instruments and lyrics to the music. Freilachmakers (the name means "makers of freilach," the Yiddish word for joy) is no exception.

There has never been a clarinet in the band - "we're horn-free," Rubin says. The instrumentation, except for the accordion, perhaps, resembles a standard bluegrass band.

"We think that maybe this is the way the music would have been played in the Appalachians, if it had been played in the Appalachians," he says, only partly joking.

"We really wanted to bring that old-timey string band sound to klezmer. There's not much of that going on (in the klezmer music world). And we've gone more into vocals - because it's so much fun to sing."

Co-founder Kidron left the band about five years ago and was replaced by classically trained violinist Annette Brodovsky.

Bassist Lou Ann Weiss - "the heartbeat of our ensemble," Rubin says - is a classically trained cellist and an original band member.

Felipe Ferraz joined the group in 2000. A Brazilian guitarist and vocalist, he has allowed the group to expand its repertoire to include Sephardic music (music of Jews from Spain and Portugal, who were displaced by the Spanish Inquisition).

The band was without an accordionist for a while but recently added Wayne R. Lutzow.

His playing "complements the strings very well and provides a fullness and little bit of pizazz that we really love," Rubin says.

But an accordion in a string band?

"Why not?" Rubin asks. Appalachian Jewish folk music with Brazilian, gypsy and Celtic influences - why not, indeed?


- The Sacramento Bee, June 24, 2005


Sacramento band strings together unusual klezmer sound
by dan pine
staff writer

Andy Rubin may be the world’s only living toxicologist/klezmer banjo player. Split personality aside, these are good times for the Sacramento-based bandleader.

His Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band has just released a new album, “And I in the Uttermost West.” Add to that the renaissance in Yiddish culture, which they proudly represent in the Sacramento-Davis area, and things couldn’t be more freilach for the Freilachmakers.

(For the uninitiated, freilach is Yiddish for “joyous.”)

Anyone looking for cookie-cutter clarinet-centered klezmer music would be surprised by the Freilachmakers sound: a Jewish-Irish-Appalachian hybrid a hop, skip and a shpring from bluegrass. “We do something different,” says Rubin. “We kept the string band element in our music.”

The new album includes several traditional Eastern European shtetl tunes, some Yiddish songs of more recent coinage, a few original compositions and, in a first for the band, several songs in Ladino.

This expansion into Ladino was due in large part to the addition of Brazilian-born guitarist Felipe Ferraz. The only non-Jew in the lineup, Ferraz joins violinist Annette Brodovsky, bassist/cellist Lou Ann Weiss and Rubin. Everyone in the group sings.

The origins of the Freilachmakers sound goes back to Rubin’s early fascination with Celtic and American folk music, which he discovered while attending Berkeley High School.

Soon after, he picked up the banjo, got his hands on a Pete Seeger teach-yourself-banjo book and forged ahead, building a repertoire of American folk songs, union songs, fishing songs, cowboy songs and the like.

Says Rubin: “When I picked up the banjo and realized just how rooted the music was, I felt envious. Appalachian hardscrabble farmers of Scots-Irish descent had this music that meant a lot. It was part of their communal life.”

Little did the teenage Rubin realize that his own Jewish tradition offered an equally rich musical legacy: klezmer. It wasn’t until the 1990s that he found a way to marry his clawhammer banjo style with traditional klezmer. Thus the unique Freilachmakers’ style was born.

Klezmer not only brought Rubin closer to Yiddishkeit, but to Judaism as well. Today, the former Berkeley hippie is a devoutly observant Jew.

In his other life, Rubin has a doctorate in physiology/biophysics and works as a pesticide toxicologist for the state’s Environmental Protection Agency. “I figure out how to kill bugs,” he says.

He can also be found on any given Thursday afternoon, joining a few other musical pencil pushers from the state government and playing lunchtime concerts in the plaza.

Is he ever tempted to mainstream the Freilachmakers’ sound? Not a chance. “If we brought a clarinet into this group,” he says, “we would immediately be in a bin with 10,000 other klezmer bands. But if we keep this old-time string band face, then we’ve got all kinds of new ground to plow.”

Given the relatively small Jewish community in their part of the Central Valley, the Freilachmakers are looking to broaden their audience and hope to do more shows in the Bay Area in the months ahead. Meanwhile, it’s the wedding circuit and grabbing gigs where they can. But wherever they play, the freilach works both ways.

Says Rubin: “Playing the music and being among people who respond to it makes me realize what live music … can do for the Jewish communities we’re involved with. It crystallizes the emotions communities feel.”




“And I in the Uttermost West” by the Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band is available for $15 plus $2 shipping at www.freilachmakers.com.

- The J. (The Northern California Jewish Bulletin), Feb. 11, 2005


This is only the third recording by this interesting group, which hails from Sacramento, California, and released its first album way back in 1998. What makes these folks stand out from the burgeoning klezmer pack is their decided use of only string instruments – banjo, guitar, violin, mandolin, string bass, and cello – to convey a music that, more often than not, relied on a clarinet and drum, not just a fiddle, to entertain. Moreover, they clearly took their time fashioning this latest outing, which is simply exquisite. Like many others, the band relies on varied sources when playing a bulgar, sirba, or freilach. But the members also tackle a pair of Sephardic love songs, including “Puncha la Rosa,” which was first popularized by Judy Frankel. And they deftly “klezmerize” their version of “The Ballad of St. Anne’s Reel,” an Irish reel [turned into a song by Dave Mallet], about halfway through so that it sounds like something suddenly injected with new DNA. They do a wonderful take of the Abe Schwartz classic, “Di Grine Kuzine (The Greenhorn Cousin),” and a beautiful Shabbat song, as well. Most songs here are covers, although they really shine and stake out their individuality on an original composition, “Lament for a Burned Shul (Synagogue),” an ode to the June 1999 night when three Sacramento synagogues were simultaneously burned to the ground in a hate crime. The poignancy conveyed is equal to the mournful wailing found in klezmer tunes sung generations ago about a lost love. A fine album for anyone who appreciates the klezmer genre, string instruments, and emotional fare. - Dirty Linen magazine, October / November 2005, #120


One of the interesting aspects of the klezmer revival is the vastly different approaches that various artists bring to the music. While many bands have a jazz influence in their music, California’s Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band approach the music with old-time string band instrumentation (no horns here) and influences. They complement the traditional Ashkenazic melodies originating in Eastern Europe, which are the stock-in-trade of klezmer bands, with the less-familiar Sephardic melodies of the descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th Century. They also include a couple of songs in English that, while not drawn from Jewish sources, nicely complement the songs they’re paired with. And I in the Uttermost West is the band’s second album and it is a passionate, compelling and beautiful collection.

The album opens with the traditional “Pedostsur’s Tants” and “A Freilach for Rick Abrams,” composed by Andy Rubin, the Freilachmakers banjo player. The two lovely tunes comprise one of the several two- or three-track suites spread throughout the collection. Another interesting pairing is “Mayn Rue Plats,” a classic Yiddish labor song that dates from the 1920s when newly-arrived Jewish immigrants toiled under intolerable conditions in the sweatshops of New York’s Lower East Side, with “Ten and Nine (TheJute Mill Song),” a kindred song from Scotland sung in English by Rubin and Lou Ann Weiss. The other English song is David Mallett’s “Ballad of St. Anne’s Reel,’ combined here with an exciting Romanian circle dance tune.

Guitarist Felipe Ferraz comes to the band from Brazil and takes the lead vocals on several Sephardic songs sung in Ladino including the spiritual “Bendigamos (We Shall Bless).” The Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band have taken seemingly disparate styles of music and turned them all into parts of a seamless whole.
- Sing Out magazine, Summer 2005 – p. 140


The Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band is lead by Andy Rubin, as far as I am aware, the first klezmer musician to incorporate "clawhammer" banjo into klezmer, and to wonderful effect too. More recently, Rubin also joined with David Kidron, and Vince Wolfe and Lewis Santer of Driving With Fergus, to form CeiliZemer to record the stunning soundtrack to Valerie Lapin Ganley's documentary about the Jewish community of Ireland, "Shalom Ireland", but the album reviewed here is with his regular band. The Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band, in addition to Andy Rubin on 5-string clawhammer banjo, mandolin and vocals, in this past line-up features Elaine Fingerett on accordion, Dave Kidd (aka David Kidron) on fiddle, balalaika, pennywhistle and vocals, David Rosenfeld on guitar and mandolin, and Lou Ann Weiss on string bass. "The Flower of Berezin" is their debut album, first released in 1998.

Describing themselves as five Jewish musicians from Northern California, The Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band blend klezmer standards, original compositions, Balkan, Irish and American Old Time Dance tunes in their own unique style, distinguished by finely nuanced and highly punctuated interpretations and brilliant arrangements. They prove themselves a fine bunch of zany and superb musicians with very fine ensemble playing on "The Flower of Berezin".

The opener is the classic "Der Heyser Bulgar", in an arrangement that's very tempting to describe as "Klezmer Mountain". It's a brilliantly stunning interpretation of an incredibly versatile tune. The Yablokoff standard "Papirosn" features Dave Kidd's excellent vocals (and outstanding diction) and a decidedly un-sentimental interpretation that contrasts the poignancy of the lyrics with a wonderful slightly newgrassy up-beat arrangement that segues seamlessly into an equally superb version of the American Old Time dance classic, "Ragtime Annie". And if by now you don't find the urge to jump up utterly irresistible, then you probably suffer from two left feet and never dance anyway. "The Flowers of Antrim" is a well-known traditional Irish hornpipe that manages to sound even jollier than any other interpretation that I have heard, and that segues seamlessly into an Andy Rubin original, the title track "The Flower of Berezin", a klezmerized mirror to the Irish hornpipe. A memorial to Rubin's grandmother who came from the city of Berezin in Belarus, its mood is more on the reflective side, though evidently full of happy memories and filled with a great sense of affection. The old favourite klezmer hora, a stately dance, "Baym Rebn in Palestina", features Andy Rubin's clawhammer banjo at its most subtle, and indeed Rubin's sensitivity and soft playing is not only a delight but also something that's not heard too often in this particular style of banjo playing. This segues to "Tantsl firn di Makhetonim", a somewhat livelier dance that here is given an added, original, modal variation. "The Odessa Bulgar", another well-known bulgar, opens with gypsy-style fiddle and guitar work, then adds American old-timey and norteno licks to great effect. Andy Rubin's warm, rich baritone vocals feature on "Shtil di Nacht", a superb song about the Jewish partisans of the Vilna region rendered with greatest sensitivity and inspiration, uplifting and inspiring. One of the best known klezmer tunes, "Leibedik un Freilach", an exuberant freylekh, is given an equally exuberant old time dance treatment. "Sonny's Mazurka" again explores traditional Irish music in The Freilachmakers unique style, segueing into an exuberant, even breathtaking Macedonian "Horo". A Chassidic nign of the Medyatsiner Rebbe (Rabbi), "The Medyatsiner Waltz", segues into another Rubin original, "The Minsker Corporal's Waltz", modelled on the Irish tune "Rosin the Beau". The closing track is made up of "Der Rebbe is Gegangen", given a beautifully meditative treatment, and "The Kishiniever Bulgar", a joyful bulgar.

The Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band's "The Flower of Berezin" simply bubbles with exuberance and a great sense of fun. The playing is highly virtuosic, yet subtle. Truly original and inventive, The Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band have come up with a style that is as compelling as their album and of equal charm and wit. "The Flower of Berezin" has to be essential in any serious contemporary klezmer collection and will be equally at home in any general world music, (post-) Newgrass/Old Time Dance Music, and even modern Irish/Celtic collection.

- Rainlore website: http://www.rainlore.demon.co.uk/Reviews/FreilachmakersKlezmerStringBand-Berezin.ht


THE BANJO NEWSLETTER VOL. XXXIV JULY 2007, pages 24-31

By Dan Levenson

Boy, it’s been a busy year so far. As I write this I’m getting ready for Mt. Airy Fiddler’s convention (yes, lots of banjos there too!) and realizing that it has been since early April that I’ve even had time to update my webpage. So I’m kind-a glad we’re getting this issue of the Old Time Way to you in time for your mid-summer reading. Festival season is in full swing, and I’m sure lots of you are planning on attending at least one or two.
This month we key in on several
CD’s as sources of inspiration. First, a something a little different. Old-time varies from region to region and came here from many sources. Andy Rubin of the Freilachmakers
convincingly mixes southern old-time clawhammer with eastern
European music to give us this unique sound. Enjoyable music, with a twist.

Also in this issue is the long delayed review of Mark Schatz’s “Steppin’ in the Boiler House.” Mark is not nearly as well known in the old-time scene as
he should be, and I’m sure you’re going to enjoy this CD as much as you’ll enjoy playing the tabs he
has given us. Next, a tune from Bob
Carlin and his time with the John Hartford band. Wild Hog In the Redbrush was requested by a
member of Banjo Hangout
(www.banjohangout.org) and Bob has transcribed his banjo playing of the tune as well as provided us with John’s fiddle version in John’s own hand. Finally, a story about a local jam in Northeastern Ohio. Clawhammer jams and support groups are springing up more
and more, in response to the desire to play old-time while staying in the same key for a while, and also without having to always explain what the music is to the uninitiated. I hope to have more of
these vignettes in future issues as well as provide you with some ideas for setting up your own jam session. Remember, it’s the social situations which make old-time
music what it is, so you’ll want to know about those opportunities.
Well, that’s what’s happening this
month. My banjo camp at the Ohio
homestead is coming up next month and I hope to see many of you at Clifftop next month. My complete schedule is at my website, www.ClawhammerBanjo.
us. Until next time, play often and Play
Nice! —Dan

Klez-hammer Anyone?

By Dan Levenson

An interview with Andy Rubin

If old-time is considered to be
whatever old music your parents and grandparents played and passed on, then Andy Rubin’s brand of clawhammer Klezmer certainly belongs here. If we
limit ourselves by saying that old-time is synonymous with music from Southern Appalachia, mostly from the early 20th century and only played by rural musicians who (allegedly) had no formal music training, then perhaps not. The Old
Time Way is intended to primarily focus on southern clawhammer style. But, as I have traveled, both in this country and others, I’ve found that a broader definition of old-time must be reckoned with. I
love—in fact, my favorite type of music is—the string band music of Southern Appalachia. But perhaps we cut ourselves off from some
wonderful opportunities by holding such a narrow definition. So, with the intent to broaden your
perspectives, I present to you a review of The Freilachmakers latest CD and an interview with their
founder and clawhammer player, Andy Rubin of Sacramento, CA.

Dan Levenson: Could you tell me about you clawhammer banjo
history—the folks you heard first, who made you want to play
clawhammer.

Andy Rubin: I picked up a banjo for the first time around the age
of 16 on the suggestion of a friend of my sister’s. Having grown
up during the sixties in Berkeley, California, I was exposed to a
fair amount of folk and folk-influenced music. Joan Baez, Judy
Collins, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Herb Alpert, Trini Lopez—they were all played on the stereo in my house. My parents and sister were good singers, and my father and sister accompanied themselves on guitar, so I thought the banjo idea was worth investigating (though I think my main contact with the instrument to that point was Flatt and Scruggs doing the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies and John Hartford playing Gentle on My Mind on the Glen Campbell Show).

OTW: How did you actually go about learning to play?

AR: I rented a Kay 5-string at the local band shop for five dollars a
month, while finding my way to copies of Pete Seeger’s instructional
manual “How to Play the 5-String Banjo” and Peggy Seeger’s “The
5-String Banjo: American Folk Styles.” It was through these books
that I first really encountered old-time music. I remember picking
through Sourwood Mountain from Peggy’s book and thinking what an absolutely gorgeous tune that was, even though my only experience of it was my own meager attempt to play it from her tab. Of course during that very early period I was trying to up-pick everything, sort of like I’d seen other people do with guitars. So it came as a complete surprise when I reached the chapter on frailing in Pete’s book and found him telling me to hit the string on the way down. I mean, wasn’t that totally bassackwards?

OTW: Who were your teachers?

AR: After several months of effort coaxing my right hand to move in the right direction, I signed up for lessons with Mac Benford, who was living and teaching in the Bay Area at the time. I ended up taking two lessons from Mac at $4/hour (!). He got my hand properly straightened around and told me to point my fist up the neck a touch more prominently than I was doing. But other than those two lessons, I’m pretty much self-taught. Interestingly, once I caught on to clawhammering, I never seriously considered 3-finger styles. I guess the signature plunk was just too compelling a sound to leave alone.

OTW: Wow, Berkeley in the 60’s! And lessons with Mac! What else
was happening out there at that time?

AR: A couple of other musical things were happening. I’d spent some summers during high school working in a camp for mentally
disabled children near Santa Cruz. Two or three other counselors
there happened to be wonderful guitar-picking folk musicians. We
used to gather all the campers in the shade of a tent platform every
day after lunch and belt out these great old songs (or at least now
they’re old)—St. James’ Infirmary Blues, Irene Goodnight, Tom Dooley, Four Strong Winds, Summertime, and the like. I absolutely loved that time of the day—I’d hang onto every word they sang and note they picked, trying to re-create the sounds on my Kay. Right about the same time, probably 1969, my mother bought me a Kingston Trio live double album (which I still have). I thought,
hey, nobody could hit a banjer like Dave Guard (a frailer) and John
Stewart (a finger picker). To this day I can still hear Nick Reynolds
yelling “Frail pardner!” at Guard as he launched into his Seegeresque solo on Darlin’ Corey.

Funny thing, though—I started
slacking off on the banjo during college. I was playing mostly guitar and fiddle, and collecting folksong lyrics. I’d pick up my banjo (a Gagliano that I’d bought for $75, a slight step up from the Kay) only
occasionally, keeping up this pattern through college, graduate
school and six years of post-doctoral work in Boston. Through
this whole period I was slowly becoming infused with Jewish
folk-musical traditions—I actually met my wife doing Israeli folk dancing at MIT in the early eighties. We moved back to the Bay Area in ’88, ending up in Sacramento in ’92. It was then that my interest in Jewish music exploded and the 5-string came back into my life in a big way.

OTW: How did that happen?

AR: It turned out that among the members of my small Sacramento
synagogue were two traditional musicians of some repute. The first was Rick Abrams, one of the best clawhammerists of our generation and the founding father of The Piney Creek Weasels string band [BNL featured Rick in July 1994]. Rick’s spectacular clawhammer attack—he’s the only one I’d ever
seen start his downstroke from two feet above the string—not to mention his encouraging personality and wry humor, helped
start me back down the banjo trail. When a melanoma claimed him in 1997, I lost a good friend and we all lost an elemental force in old-time music.

The second was Celtic fiddle and pennywhistle master David Kidron. Dave had moved to Sacramento after performing during the seventies with the famed Australian bush band, The
Bushwackers. One of the great things about Dave, besides his inimitable musicianship, was his ear for finely rendered traditional music. I soon realized that the recordings Dave listened to—particularly Budowitz, Alicia Svigals and other modern traditionalists of the klezmer revival—were the very
ones I could really learn from. That said, Dave and I decided to try our collective hand at klezmer, the Eastern European Jewish
instrumental tradition. Thus was born The Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band (still going strong after 12 years) and with it, my great desire to apply the clawhammer technique to this lovely music.

OTW: How long did you play what might be called traditional
clawhammer?

AR: My exclusively “traditional” 5-string phase didn’t last much
beyond high school. In those days I listened to recordings of old-timers like Roscoe Holcomb and Fred Cockerham, and revivalists like The New Lost City Ramblers and The Old Time Banjo Project. But I was also keen on Lester and Earl and other bluegrassers, not to mention the more pop-oriented groups like
The Kingston Trio and The Chad Mitchell Trio. I also fell in with the musical traditions of Ireland and Scotland—people like Liam Clancy, the Chieftains and Archie Fisher—and the maritime music of the American northeast, particularly as
interpreted by Gordon Bok.

OTW: What was the historical or perhaps better, regional sense
of your goals (Southern Appalachian, New England, Irish,
Yiddish, etc.)?

AR: Through those years I’m not sure I had exclusively historical
or regional goals. I will say that I never lost my love for the
Appalachian style; when I “returned” to the banjo in 1994-5
as part of my accelerating interest in klezmer music, I thought I could make a contribution by playing freilachs and horas in the old-time American string band style.

OTW: When did the Irish bug hit?

AR: My parents were listening to Irish music through the midsixties.
Little did they know that once their interest in the music waned, mine would go on forever. For a number of years I tried to become an Irish fiddler. I even played fiddle for a Jewish band in Seattle in the eighties (fiddle, keyboard and drums—how’s that for instrumentation?), but we concentrated on what we now call “simcha” music (i.e., celebratory Jewish music with strong American and Israeli influences popular
largely in modern Orthodox Jewish circles), not on klezmer per se. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late nineties that I picked up the tenor banjo and mandolin to play Irish traditional dance music. Irish is not my main gig, but it’s sure a lot of fun. At my workplace (the California Environmental Protection Agency
in Sacramento, where I work as a toxicologist) we formed a group of five Celtic musicians. We call ourselves “Clan Eire” (a play on “clean air”, which we’re supposed to be maintaining) and sit on the Cal-EPA plaza for an hour at noon each week to assault other employees with Irish music as they walk by. (The security personnel really like it...)

OTW: How about the klezmer?

AR: That started in 1994-5. The Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band played its first concert in December of 1995 on the Delta King, a riverboat with a small theater parked on the river in Old Sacramento. That gig was so much fun we kept right on with it.

OTW: How does clawhammer fit into
klezmer music? I mean, the tenor,
okay, but a five string?

AR: Well, let’s start with the more
general question of how the banjo
(5-string, 4-string, whatever) fits
into klezmer. And my answer? Quite
nicely, thank you! Its incisive tone is
a fitting complement, both melodically and rhythmically, to the klezmer leads usually taken by the clarinet, fiddle and accordion. It takes the place of the tsimbl (or tsimbalom), the Eastern European form of the hammer dulcimer,
which was common in klezmer bands through the 19th century, and which can be heard now in several revival bands. (In fact, Pete Rushefsky, the author of an instructional manual for bluegrass-klezmer banjo that I reviewed in BNL in 1999, is a terrific klezmer tsimbalist—so there’s even
precedent for musicians using both
instruments.)

Now to the more specific question of
the use of clawhammer in klezmer. It has been argued that the clawhammer banjo’s strong southeastern US cultural roots make it contextually invalid for
klezmer music, which, after all, grew
out of the Yiddish speaking world of
Eastern European Jewry. Clearly this is not so much a musical as a sociological argument—and one with which I have a great deal of sympathy. After all, the sound of a frailed banjo really does stir cultural memories of hardscrabble
Appalachian farms. To drop those
memories, or at least to squeeze
memories of Bessarabian shtetlach
[villages] onto the shelf beside them, may be asking a lot of listeners.

But I personally never drew as
forbidding a cultural line as that.
Maybe it’s my Berkeley-in-the-sixties
upbringing or my lumper-over-splitter personality. Or maybe it’s just the fact that I could clawhammer a few notes, so why shouldn’t those notes be Dminor
bulgars? In my klezmer musical
journeys I’ve found people who really love the klezmer clawhammer sound. And it’s certainly true that, despite being well received in some quarters, the sound hasn’t exactly tsunamied the klezmer world (though I might mention that clarinetist Margo Leverett’s
bluegrass-klezmer band, The Klezmer Mountain Boys, very deservedly received great acclaim with their initial—alas, banjo-free—recording). But this hasn’t deterred me, as I think the clawhammer banjo does fit well into this musical style. Or at least, it has its
place.

Admittedly, there are certain aspects of klezmerology that are difficult to re-create with clawhammer. Tying together groups of triplets, daily bread
for the klezmer clarinetist, is quite the challenge. So are upward arpeggios—though these can be negotiated with Galax licks and hammer-ons onto unplucked strings. And there are important rhythmic points that don’t
easily lend themselves to the standard clawhammer handstroke. In any event, I’ve found that a modicum of melodic and rhythmic creativity can be useful in such circumstances. My attitude is that
until it becomes unconstitutional to frail a freilach (and you all wondered where the term “frailing” comes from!), the field is open.

OTW: What tunings do you most utilize in your playing?

AR: I use two tunings most of the time: first, gCGCD, often capoed up two frets due to the fact that many freilachs, bulgars and horas are, or start in, Dminor, and secondly, gDGBD, which is great for tunes, interestingly enough, in G-minor (another common key). I’m including tabs for two tunes from
our CDs that use each of these tunings. I’ve also used gCGCE (again, capoed up two frets) and, especially recently, gDGBbD, which is useful for playing in G-minor and capoed up into A-minor.

OTW: So, what banjo(s) are you playing these days?

AR: The 5-string I usually play nowadays is a 1988-vintage Bart Reiter Standard. It gets a beautiful, clear tone and stands up well to hard clawhammering in full band contexts. This particular instrument actually belongs to a friend of mine who has lent it me on a longterm
basis. My impression is that it’s heavier than the BR Standards available today. Bart told me that he made a few back in ‘88 with extra heavy tone rings—I think this is one of them.

I also play a wonderful instrument made in 2000 by Dave Godwin, who now lives in Mountain Home, Idaho. It’s got two metal tension rods in the pot, an unusually wide neck and responds well to a more delicate downpick, producing a beautiful tone with lots of interesting overtones.

OTW: Finally, could you give us a brief definition of klezmer?

AR: In its more specific usage, the term klezmer refers to the instrumental folk music of Eastern European (or Ashkenazic) Jewry, particularly as played for weddings. The music encompasses a plethora of time signatures and scale modes, and grew both to accompany various dance styles and as a source of straight performance pieces. Both the
music and the dance were related to the regional styles common in heavily Jewish areas of Eastern Europe. Given the long period of co-evolution of Jewish and non-Jewish folk music, it is difficult to discern what aspects of klezmer music derive from which culture. Even so, what has come down to us today as klezmer is consummately
Jewish. Part of the reason for this is that klezmer is in many ways the musical counterpart to the Yiddish language, which was spoken by virtually all Ashkenazic Jews until the Holocaust. It also contains the musical inflections used by generations of cantors to intone
the Jewish prayer service.

The Yiddish word, klezmer, is actually a conjunction of two Hebrew words: kle, meaning musical instrument, and zemer, meaning song. In the old country the term usually referred to the musicians themselves, and was not
always complimentary (“Oh, he’s not a real musician—he’s just a klezmer.”). This reflected the view that the klezmer (i.e., the musician) did not rise to the level of the formally trained musician. Of course such societal views did not
countenance the actual ability of the
klezmer, which was considerable in
many cases. In fact, several of the most prominent Jewish classical musicians of the 20th century, particularly violinists, were influenced by the klezmer music
of their youth, Itzhak Perlman being
only the most recent example.

Klezmer music nearly died out with the abrupt end of the Ashkenazic migrations to the U.S. in the 1920s, and with the Holocaust in the 1940s. Fortunately, groups of young Jewish American musicians began to rediscover this music in the 1970s, taking advantage of archival recordings, sheet music
collections and the few European-born klezmers still around to convey their art. The resulting “klezmer revival” is now
over 30 years running, with the music continuing to live and breathe and grace the lives of many of us right down to the 21th century.


Freilachmaker discography:
“And I in the Uttermost West” (2005)
“The Flower of Berezin” (1998);
“Shalom Ireland” (2003), their
collaborative soundtrack by Ceilizemer

About the tablature: The Odessa
Bulgar. First, the 5th string is tuned up to Bb—I spike capo to A and then tune the string up the remaining half-step with the 5th string tuner. But since the 5th string
isn’t fretted on that tune, it doesn’t really matter how you get the string up to Bb (as long as you don’t break it, of course...). The full Freilachmakers version of this tune appears on our “Flower of Berezin
“album. It can also be heard on my Banjo Hangout site (www.banjohangout.org/
myhangout/home.asp?id=16336). Bulgars are fast circle dances, usually in 2/4 time, derived from a Bessarabian/Moldovan dance form. They are very popular in American klezmer circles. This particular
clawhammer version should be accessible to intermediate players—it is indeed fast and moves up and down the neck, but doesn’t involve alot of double thumbing.

The Trisker Rebn’s Khosid (The Hasidic Dance of the Rebbe of Trisk). In this tune, the 5th string is tuned to the conventional G (i.e., no capoing), even though the rest
of the strings are capoed to the 4th fret (so the actual final “tuning” of the banjo is: g-E-B-E-F#).

The Freilachmakers’ version of this
tune appears on our “And I in the Uttermost West” album as a fiddle-banjo duet and can also be heard on my Banjo Hangout site. A khosid is a slow-to-moderately paced Hasidic dance. Warning: this
version is not easy, as it requires a fair amount of thumbfretting of the fifth string to negotiate the scale runs. But it’s quite fun once you get the hang of it. —AR

- The Banjo Newsletter, July 2007


Discography

CD #1: The Flower of Berezin (1998)

CD #2: And I in the Uttermost West (2005)

CD #3: Shalom Ireland (2003) - A collaborative album involving two Freilachmakers and two traditional Irish musicians from the group Driving With Fergus.

Our CDs are played on folk music radio programs and Jewish music radio programs all over the USA. We are featured regularly on AOL Radio's klezmer channel and on Radio Free Klezmer (Live 365).

Photos

Bio

We are a 5-piece ensemble from the Sacramento area specializing in klezmer (Eastern European Jewish) and Yiddish music. Our approach hearkens not only to the string band traditions of Eastern Europe, but also to those of the Appalachains and Ozarks. Sephardic, Irish and gypsy influences are also present.

One radio programmer recently described our music as “great string band klez – [a] totally unique sound”. Klezmer webmaster Ari Davidow described our approach as “true simcha (celebratory) music for those of us who have feet in European country dances as well as in the world of Jewish tradition ... California klezmer in the true spirit of Romania Romania”. In the words of one reviewer, the Freilachmakers’ music “bubbles with exuberance and a great sense of fun”, their playing “highly virtuostic, yet subtle”.

Personnel:

Andy Rubin (5-string banjo, mandolin, guitar, vocals). Andy founded The Freilachmakers with fiddle player David Kidron in 1995. Until that time specializing in American and Celtic folk music, Andy began adapting the "clawhammer" style of 5-string banjo playing to the klezmer genre, which became an essential part of the distinctive FMer sound. He lives with his wife and three children in Sacramento, California, where he works by day as a pesticide toxicologist.

Marc Epstein (clarinet). Marc comes to the Freilachmakers from the MiraMar Klezmers, a group he co-founded with Israeli accordionist Mira Yemini in the suburbs of Washington, DC in 2002. He has an eclectic musical background that also includes classical music and jazz of various eras and regions. His other passion is entomology - he is known internationally as a specialist in tropical moths. Marc works as a specialist in Lepidoptera for the California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, after spending 15 years at the Smithsonian. He lives with his wife and son in Sacramento.

Wayne Lutzow (accordion). Trained as a classical accordionist and currently the owner / operator of Twelve Tone Piano Service, Wayne has concertized throughout California. A resident of Lincoln, CA, he and his wife Diana are the parents of three daughters, and have nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Lou Ann Weiss (string bass). Lou Ann's background was primarily in classical music before she joined the Freilachmakers in 1995. Her sensitive playing provides the glue that turns the Freilachmakers from five disparate musicians into a working ensemble. Lou Ann lives with her husband and three children in Sacramento, where she works as a nurse.

David Rosenfeld (mandolin, fiddle, guitar, percussion). One of the original Freilachmakers, Dave has recently rejoined the band. Also a regular with the San Francisco klezmer band Kugelplex, Dave brings with him multifaceted experiences as a composer of "new-klezmer-classical" music, as a teacher of music for children and adults, and as a badchan (court-jester-juggler).