Krazy for Klezmer (Close Up)

Carol Scott

Most freshmen spend Fall Quarter of their first year wandering the campus with bemused expressions on their faces. Not Communication sophomore Raysh Weiss, who lost no time in starting Northwestern’s first Klezmer music ensemble, WildKatz Klezmer Band, in the fall of 2002. PLAY sat down with Weiss, who is also a cartoonist for the daily, to chat about Klezmer music, Yiddish culture and the band’s one-year anniversary.

PLAY: I know you get this a lot, but what exactly is Klezmer music? It’s traditional Jewish music, right?

Raysh Weiss: Klezmer music is not so much Jewish music — it’s the ultimate wanderer’s music because it brings together so many musical influences. There’s Slavic and there’s Romanian, there’s American jazz, then there’s classic Bulgarian, Russian, German influences. Half of our band isn’t even Jewish.

PLAY: How did you get started playing Klezmer?

RW: I’ve been playing since I was 11. I played saxophone, a little bit of clarinet and I sang too. I was immediately drawn to it — it was so rich and vibrantly emotional that I was addicted. It’s a very special kind of music because it’s so eclectic, especially now that there’s been a revival.

PLAY: You founded the band during your first quarter at NU. Why?

RW: When I came here, I was surprised that there was no Klezmer band, especially because there has been such a resurgence in Klezmer music. Because of this revival, a lot of college campuses have started their own Klezmer bands — Yale, Brown, Columbia. I thought it was really weird that we have our own music school here and we didn’t have this music on campus. It was really important to me that the people around me know about this music and that other students can play this. Arthur Weil, who went (to NU) in the ’40s, was really amazing by sponsoring the band and supporting us.

PLAY: Why is there a revival of Klezmer music now?

RW: It started in Europe, a couple decades age. Ironically, in the most historically anti-Semitic countries, there’s been a huge interest in Klezmer. It’s kind of a nice thing that shows a genuine attempt to bridge the gap. There’s this strange phenomenon with music where nobody talks about it, but then all of a sudden it’s everywhere all at once. It’s making a huge comeback in the United States now. It’s really an exciting time to be playing Klezmer.

PLAY: What’s a typical song about?

RW: Well, they’re usually in Yiddish, which is a crazy amalgam of Hebrew and German. A lot of the songs are really funny. In Yiddish, there’s really colorful insults — more than any other language I’ve ever encountered — and the songs are either really funny and lighthearted or tragically depressed. A lot of songs describe working conditions. We play a song called “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn,” which has been so assimilated into American culture that it’s a standard jazz song. There are a lot of drinking songs.

PLAY: Where do you find your members?

RW: I’m of the philosophy that we take anyone who’s going to put their soul into it. This music is really about playing from your soul — it’s really emotional, and it gives you a lot of room to experiment. We have 12 members but we’re always looking for more.

WildKatz Klezmer is playing Saturday, Jan. 31, at 9 p.m. at Cafe Express, 500 Main St. Email [email protected] for more information.