Combining Cultures: Mariachi and Klezmer
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JEFFREY KAYE: Plaza de la Raza in East Los Angeles is a common gathering place for mariachi musicians. But this summer performers of the Mexican music came here to rehearse for an uncommon collaboration: To plan two concerts with players of klezmer, the music of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews.
Both klezmer and mariachi are the folk music of celebration, played at weddings, holidays, and other occasions. Violinists from each of the bands – Mariachi Sol De America and Ellis Island — said the partnership would have meaning beyond the one-day event.
MIAMON MILLER, Ellis Island Band: More important than perhaps the music working together, because I think we’re forcing it to work together, is just getting groups of people who wouldn’t normally play together involved with each other’s music and to a certain extent, to the culture. That’s probably a more meaningful result of all of this of whether it works musically or not. Musically we’ll make it work out.
ADAM RAMIREZ, Mariachi Sol de America: A lot of people say it, we’re all brothers and sisters under God. It makes me feel good inside.
JEFFREY KAYE: The two band leaders, Barry Fisher and Juan Jose plan to have their groups perform separately and together at the concerts.
BARRY FISHER, Ellis Island Band: So the whole audience will have the Spanish words and Yiddish words and we’re going to try to get everyone to sing. So you’ll lead the Spanish, okay.
MAN: Sounds good.
BARRY FISHER: All right.
JEFFREY KAYE: This was the second collaboration between the groups. After they played together last year, concert promoters asked them to perform again. The band leaders hoped a concert highlight would be a klezmer song about brotherhood and sisterhood translated into Spanish.
SPOKESMAN: We’re all brothers. Basically we’re all brothers, all working together, all in it together. Essentially that’s it. It’s a worker’s song.
SPOKESMAN: One, two, one –
JEFFREY KAYE: When he is not playing his accordion, Fisher works as a lawyer, specializing in human rights cases.
BARRY FISHER: I have through 30 years of being a lawyer, have worked have many cultures and many peoples and at times there’s music involved. It might be my playing their music or my interest in their music, and — as well as the other aspects of their culture that may be involved in cases.
JEFFREY KAYE: Fisher has played Jewish music for most of his life, just as Almaguer has been immersed in mariachi. Almaguer is a third generation mariachi musician; he’s also a partner in a recording business in Orange County, California. But he began his musical career playing for ten cents a song in the bars of Tijuana on the Mexican border.
JUAN JOSE ALMAGUER, Mariachi Sol De America: I started to play in cantinas in the bars, the people — they drink and then they ask for songs. But now it is different; we play theaters, we play fiestas –
JEFFREY KAYE: And fancy hotels.
JUAN JOSE ALMAGUER: Oh, yes.
JEFFREY KAYE: Right?
JUAN JOSE ALMAGUER: Yes.
JEFFREY KAYE: Mariachi is the national sound of Mexico, the classic mariachi tune, “March of Zacatecas,” celebrates a victory of fighters in the Mexican revolution. Scholars disagree on the meaning of the word “mariachi.” The music has native roots and draws from Spanish, French, German and African influences. Mariachi groups feature stringed instruments distinct to the music. They include the high pitch viguella, which Eric Jimenez plays.
ERIC JIMENEZ: As you can see, the back is kind of like an armadillo.
JEFFREY KAYE: The distinctive strum of the viguella helps define mariachi.
ERIC JIMENEZ: You can’t copy the sound.
JEFFREY KAYE: What do you mean?
ERIC JIMENEZ: You can get drums and beat the drums but it’s not going to be the same because the pitch of this instrument is really high, really happy.
JEFFREY KAYE: Another characteristic of mariachi music is how the performers play in disciplined unison.
SPOKESMAN: You have to be in time, everybody. That’s what defines a group, how together they are, togetherness. We rehearse a lot, ending and starting together, everything — very important.
BARRY FISHER: A big difference between the mariachi especially like in the string sections of the klezmer, in the klezmer everybody is doing kind of a version of the melody where you guys are really tight together. Your bowings are together for the mariachi – and everything is — all the adornments are there –all the ornamentations – everything is together. With us, we’re not like that. It’s even hard for to us practice that way. (singing)
JEFFREY KAYE: The word klezmer means musician in Yiddish. The language of Central and Eastern European Jews. Klezmer music is centuries old and blends influences of cultures where Jews lived either by choice or by force.
BARRY FISHER: You’re talking about central and East Europe, Former Soviet Union, and you’re talking about the music that Jewish musicians would play for not only Jews but there was always a symbiotic relationship in more rural places between Jewish and gypsy musicians. Depending on where you were and what country, what geographical area, you would hear different flavors.
JEFFREY KAYE: Much of the music originated in what is now Moldova and Romania and spread.
BARRY FISHER: You would hear it differently in Lithuania or Poland or in Russia. And sometimes it’s music that was common to the area played a little bit differently but maybe the same songs. The Yiddish culture was decimated by the Holocaust and although immigrants to the U.S. brought klezmer with them, their children were more interested in American than Yiddish entertainment, as musician Aaron Shiffrin remembers.
AARON SHIFFRIN: They went to Broadway, Times Square. We had our own Broadway on Second Avenue.
JEFFREY KAYE: Yiddish theater.
AARON SHIFFRIN: Yeah. The old people loved the Yiddish Theater.
JEFFREY KAYE: But not the young people.
AARON SHIFFRIN: No.
JEFFREY KAYE: But since the 70′s, there has been a revival of klezmer music.
SPOKESMAN: One, two, three, four.
JEFFREY KAYE: The klezmer and mariachi players found commonality in the immigrant experience. One Yiddish song describes a young woman from the old country working for meager wages in a garment factory. In Yiddish the song is Greena Cousina or Greenhorn Cousin.
MAN: Not knowing anything, oh –
BARRY FISHER: From the countryside. From the old — you know — has never been to a big city. Or even a small city.
MAN: This is great, man. This is great.
JEFFREY KAYE: On the morning of the concerts, many of the mariachi musicians arrived in costume. The fancy mariachi clothing comes from the style of Mexican ranches. The klezmer players wore Eastern European workers caps.
SPOKESMAN: Two minutes. Two minutes.
JEFFREY KAYE: The first concert at the outdoor ford amphitheater was for families and children. It got off to a rousing start with the March of Zacatecas
MAN: Now in Spanish.
MAN: Now English.
BARRY FISHER: So — hola, shalom. I’m Barry Fisher welcoming you to a concert of fusion that may be confusing.
JEFFREY KAYE: If there was confusion, it was not apparent and the ethnically mixed audience was treated to a joyous musical variety. The outlook for the evening performance seemed less promising. 30 minutes before the event, a torrential rainstorm threatened to wash away months of work.
GIRL: I’m singing in the rain
JEFFREY KAYE: The musicians took the weather in stride and an eager audience was rewarded for its wait. A mariachi standard paid homage to the Mexican City of Guadalajara in Jalisco, the state where the music was born. A klezmer classic pined for Romania. In the end, the musical styles meshed but concert co-producer Rodri Rodriguez said the bands also worked hard to present separate identities.
RODRI RODRIGUEZ, Mariachi USA Foundation: In trying to mesh too much, you lose the integrity of each group and it’s important to show the audience this is klezmer, this is mariachi. They work independently, but we can come together to do numbers that work together. Not every single number works together. But one number that did work together was one they had practiced so hard — “We Are All Brothers” in English. And as the organizers hoped from the beginning, it left them dancing in the aisles.