Klezmer violinist Daniel Hoffman moved to Israel with ambitious plans to reintroduce the Jewish state to its Eastern European roots, but instead he’s the one who’s been transformed with an infusion of Greek and Turkish soul.
Based in Berkeley before he moved to Tel Aviv in 2005 with his wife, actress Korine Koret, Hoffman was a creative force on the Bay Area Jewish music scene for many years, leading the innovative quartet Davka, which reunites for a performance tonight at 8pm at the Freight & Salvage, and Klez-X (formerly the San Francisco Klezmer Experience), which performs Saturday at St. Cyprian’s Church in San Francisco as part of the Noe Valley Music series.
In struggling to make a living in Israel, a country with a surfeit of accomplished violinists, Hoffman has found himself engaged for a steady flow of Turkish music and Greek rembétika, a raucous style anchored by the percussive strains of the bouzouki. He’s still committed to klezmer, but playing the music in Israel means he’s swimming determinately against the cultural current.
“I’m less ideological about that mission,” Hoffman says. “There’s a slow small growing community into the klezmer, but you can’t even really call it that because in Israel klezmer means Ashkenazi religious music. There are some pretty amazing artists who operate in that field, but the bulk is functional, Chasidic melodies played at weddings and simchas by a saxophonist and a rhythm section whose sound is right from a 1975 Las Vegas lounge. Instead of klezmer I say Eastern European and Balkan music.”
After flourishing in the early decades of the 20th century klezmer had faded in North America until Berkeley’s Klezmorim sparked a revival in the mid 1970s. By the time Hoffman came along in the early 1990s, klezmer had become a key ingredient for various musical experiments. He created the SF Klezmer Experience in 1996 as the pit band for the American Conservatory Theater’s popular klezmer musical Shlemiel The First, and the group became known for its numerous theatrical collaborations.
Saturday’s Klez-X performance reflects Hoffman’s recent musical endeavors, with a “Turkish extravaganza. I’m putting it together classical Turkish tunes and some Yiddish songs that talk about Turkish queens, or things relating to Istanbul. We’ve got some other new music that Jeanette Lewicki is bringing in.”
Featuring Berkeley-raised bassoon virtuoso Paul Hanson and cellist Moses Sedler, Davka plays a singular blend of klezmer with North African rhythms, jazz, and Sephardic cadences. Syrian-born percussionist master Faisal Zedan rounds out the quartet.
“He’s a great classical Arabic player, one of the best in the country,” Hoffman says. “He won’t be on every number. We’re going to play a few tunes from when Davka was a trio, and Moses and Paul are working up a duet.”
Though steeped in classical Arabic music through his experience with Davka, Hoffman resisted taking the plunge into Turkish music after moving to Israel. But the popularity of Gypsy and Turkish music meant he was cutting himself off from numerous work opportunities if he continued to avoid it.
“There’s a big community of musicians who are into Turkish music and spend a lot of time in Istanbul,” Hoffman says. “I’ve played a lot of Arabic music, and the Arabic and Turkish maqam,” a classical system of scales and phrases, “is similar but with different quarter tones, and I didn’t want to get all mixed up. But after a while I took the plunge and I’ve been learning a lot of repertoire, playing every Monday night for three hours straight the last eight months.”
Davka would seem to be a natural fit for the Israeli music scene, which is rife with cross pollination. With about half the Jewish population hailing from North Africa, Arabic influences have become widespread, as have reggae, rock, Brazilian, and Indian grooves (the subcontinent is a very popular destination for Israeli travelers). But any music that smacks of Yiddishkeit is immediately suspect.
Hoffman notes that in Israel klezmer is associated with the ultra-orthodox, which means that its seen as representing one side in the bitter culture war that’s raging between devoutly observent and secular Jews, who make up the vast majority of the Jewish population. And since klezmer hails from the lost world of Eastern European Jewry, it’s also associated with the worst of the Diaspora. “And there’s a big problem in Israel with anything to do with the Holocaust, which means Yiddish culture is uncomfortable for people and they avoid it,” Hoffman says.
It’s an odd twist of history that in Poland and Germany, countries in which thriving Jewish communities were eradicated, klezmer is now widely popular. But as a country that recently celebrated its 65th birthday, Israel is still very much a nation coming to terms with itself, and Hoffman believes that the return of the repressed sounds klezmer is inevitable.
“There’s a generation of kids growing up now whose parents are telling them that Yiddishkeit is something to avoid, so of course they’re going to be interested in it,” he says.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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