In the late 19th century, Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe entered the United States, bringing with them rich cultural customs including a traditional form of music that came to be called klezmer. According to Joel E. Rubin’s New York Klezmer in the Early Twentieth Century, by 1915, New York City “hosted the largest single concentration of Jews in history,” which made it “the major center of Yiddish culture, including klezmer music.” And while you could hear klezmorim—klezmer musicians—playing at weddings and religious occasions all over the city, nary an acoustic guitar would be found, as the instrument would stand no chance of rising above the tremendous volume of clarinets, brass instruments, strings, and percussion.
In the 1970s, klezmer was set for the revival that found most groups using the instrumentation of their musical ancestors. As time went on, though, more musicians began experimenting with the form and bringing in outside influences that created some space for guitarists to work their way into the klezmer scene. By the ’90s and 2000s, Marc Ribot, Tim Sparks, and Bill Frisell established new ways to approach Jewish music on the guitar with the release of Masada Guitars, an album that featured each player performing solo arrangements of works from composer John Zorn’s Masada songbook. (See Sparks’ arrangement of Zorn’s “Sippur” in the January 2017 issue.)
While the guitar still hasn’t risen to any particular prominence in klezmer, players such as Jeff Warschauer and Yoshie Fruchter have made a strong case for the role of the instrument in more traditional settings while also experimenting with its place in klezmer ensembles.
A Hora in Name Only
“Yiddishe Hora” is a piece written in the early 20th century by composer, violinist, and bandleader Alexander Olshanetsky. Despite what the title suggests, this tune is not in fact a hora. A hora is a style of klezmer song that features a slow 3/8 tempo, commonly leading into a freylekh or bulgar, which is a much faster piece you might know from seeing people do a circle dance (also called a hora, which confused me for the longest time) if you’ve ever been to a Jewish wedding or seen one on TV. “Yiddishe Hora” is actually a terkisher, a type of midtempo 4/4 tune that comes from Greek music and features a 3+3+2 rhythm.
My close friend and longtime musical collaborator Dan Blacksberg is a klezmer trombonist, composer, teacher, and the host of the Radiant Others podcast. When recording Dan’s album of the same name, I learned his arrangement of “Yiddishe Hora,” in which I was given a solo electric guitar intro. Inspired by what I learned, I consulted Olshanetsky’s original, as well as a recording by the Bay Area trio Veretski Pass, to create the solo acoustic version here.
For this arrangement, I tune the fifth string down a whole step, from A to G, in order to easily sound a root note on the A section’s G chord, while I play the melody in seventh position. As an introduction, I play the material from the A section one time through with a rubato feel (as seen in the accompanying video but not shown in notation), using bass notes mostly on the downbeat of each measure, while I play the melody with improvised embellishments using trills, slides, and harmonics.
Meant for Dancing
In the first measure, bass notes on beat one, the and of two, and four establish the rhythmic backbone of “Yiddishe Hora.” The music is meant for dancing, so the rhythmic feel is important to the performance of any klezmer piece. I alternate between slightly swung and straight eighth notes in order to convey each phrase. While playing this, I think it’s worth experimenting with rhythmic ideas that are both subtle and, like the best dance music, a little un-transcribable.
The B section works its way well above the 12th fret. It gets a little trickier to play this as written on a 12-fret guitar, but it’s possible and worth the effort. If it does feel forbidding, though, just move the double-stops from strings 2–3 to 1–2 and everything will still sound good. Note, too, that for a change of texture, I strum the 16th-note triplets in bars 17–18 and 21–22 with my middle finger.
My favorite part of this whole piece is when the tonality changes in measures 25–31 to E freygish, which is the name commonly used in klezmer for the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale, a.k.a. Phrygian dominant or hijaz. You can also think of this note collection as the Phrygian mode, but with a raised third—if the root note is E, it’s spelled E F G# A B C D.
As you work your way through this arrangement, you may find it easier in the beginning to avoid some of the embellishments. This is a good approach, and I’d encourage you to not only add in what I’ve arranged here when you’re ready but, once you feel comfortable, consider adding some of your own embellishments to make it feel more personal.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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