Dynamic klezmer duo headlines Yiddish Culture Festivalby dan pine, j. staff
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Early in their careers, musicians Jeff Warschauer and Deborah Strauss wanted nothing more than to play the klezmer tunes of their ancestors. But in time, the duo did want more. So they learned the dances and the language of their forbears.
Today the Strauss/Warschauer Duo is one of the most revered — and most Yiddish-proficient — bands in the Yiddish revival movement, traveling the world to perform concerts and conduct workshops.
They will soon stop in the Bay Area to headline KlezCalifornia’s annual Yiddish Culture Festival, set for the weekend of Oct. 26-27 at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley.
The Brooklyn-based Warschauer and Strauss will play the opening-night concert, sharing the stage with Veretski Pass. The next day they’ll give a Yiddish song performance, followed by workshops.
Warschauer and Strauss, who are married, love to mix it up with their audiences.
“Doing workshops is our central love,” says Strauss by phone from Berlin, where she was working with German musicologists. “It’s absolutely my favorite thing to do. Every time we do a workshop [attendees] wrap their mouths around Yiddish so they can feel the cadences, the rhythm of the language, which gives you rhythm of the music.”
Both musicians were founding members of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, one of the pioneering ensembles of the movement. He plays guitar and mandolin; she plays fiddle and accordion, and both sing. The duo has collaborated on stage and in the studio with virtually every key figure in the klezmer world, and a few from outside of it, including Theodore Bikel and Itzhak Perlman.
It’s all about staying true to klezmer tradition, at least up to a point.
“What we’re doing is making art that is a very personal statement,” Warschauer says, “using Jewish musical traditions that in some cases are old, in some cases new, and mixing them with other influences within us and outside.”
The two have been together for 18 years, but got their start in music long before that. Strauss studied violin and ethnomusicology, while Warschauer got his first professional gigs playing in bluegrass bands. As the pair helped spearhead the klezmer revival, they played such touchstone events as the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival and KlezKamp.
They also took on other projects. Warschauer is a founding artistic director of the KlezKanada institute, teaches at Columbia University, and is a graduate student of cantorial music at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
For their new CD, “Once I Had a Fiddle,” the Warschauer/Strauss Duo teamed up with several guest artists, including Frank London and Michael Alpert. Songs include originals as well as classic klezmer tunes.
Though they adhere to traditional styles, they feel their work keeps the music viable, and contemporary. “As soon as you play it or sing it, it’s already your own,” says Strauss, who grew up steeped in cantorial music. “I’m not a museum piece. I’m alive, thank God.”
Still, between lost transcriptions and recordings, Warschauer believes there are untapped klezmer treasures waiting to be discovered. “There’s still so much to do,” he says. “I don’t think the well is dry by any means.”
As for their Yiddish language skills, neither is fluent, but they are conversant enough to kibbitz at home. One can even ask the other to wash the dishes … in the mamaloshen.
“There’s a joke about the younger generation of people who are really immersed in Yiddish,” Warschauer says. “They speak it to each other so their parents won’t understand.”
Yiddish Culture Festival, Oct. 26-27, Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. http://www.klezcalifornia.org
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