Yes, That’s Jewish Folk Music You’re Hearing—in Mexico
The street performer ‘El Maestro’ grew up in a small town and is not Jewish, but spends his days entertaining tourists with traditional klezmer songs he learned on the Internet; ‘a small summary of all of life’
By ROBBIE WHELAN
On most days, weather permitting, Juan “El Maestro” Pérez packs up his clarinet and his accordion and descends to the city’s main plaza to play music for tips from tourists.
But El Maestro doesn’t look or sound like other street musicians here in Puebla—a Spanish colonial city known for its ornate pottery and dozens of churches—who mostly play mariachi guitars and sing romantic Mexican songs.
Instead, Mr. Pérez wears a long beard and dresses in the costume of a Hasidic Jew, complete with a wide-brimmed black hat, high-collared white dress shirt and a black cardigan. He quotes folksy Yiddish expressions and punctuates Romanian dance melodies by shouting “hey!” at key moments.
His band, El Colectivo Klezmorino, a rotating cast of friends and conservatory dropouts toting violins, a bass, percussion, brass and other instruments, all of whom he recruited and trained, is devoted exclusively to playing klezmer, the raucous, up-tempo Jewish folk music common to weddings and bar mitzvahs in the Yiddish-speaking shtetls of Eastern Europe in the early 20th century.
Mr. Pérez, 28 years old, isn’t Jewish, and neither is anyone else in the band. He grew up in Xicohtzinco, a tiny village in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala, he doesn’t speak Yiddish, he has never set foot in a synagogue and he has never traveled outside of Mexico. He spends his days playing Jewish folk music, and dressing the part, mainly because he loves it, he says, and because it was easy to learn.
“I feel like with klezmer, for me it’s not just the music, it’s a small summary of all of life,” he says. “Here in Mexico—not just Mexico, but in many countries—we believe that life isn’t just joy or sorrow. There are difficulties, but the happy and the sad exist at the same time in life.”
Mr. Pérez is coming to klezmer in a new-fashioned, 21st-century way: through the internet. He taught himself to play more than 60 klezmer pieces, such as “Goldenshteyn’s Bulgar” and “Lebedik un Freylach,” mainly by watching videos on YouTube.
Musically, Mr. Pérez is a strict traditionalist, and disdains modern klezmer bands that fuse Old World melodies with jazz, rock and Latin music.
He prefers old recordings of famous klezmer clarinetists from the 1920s, including Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras, Ukrainian Jews who emigrated to the U.S. Mr. Pérez describes learning each new klezmer melody as a process of purification, wherein he scours the internet for every recording of a piece he can find, and picks out elements that seem corrupted.
He listens to lectures on the history of the music and tries to find liner notes for old recordings. “You have to do your research, any way you can,” he says. For one piece, “Dance, Dance Yiddelekh,” he estimates he has listened to more than 200 versions, including fusions with Colombian folk music. The piece is now a regular in the band’s repertoire, and a crowd favorite.
At a recent performance near the central square in Puebla, Oswaldo Quiróz, an electrician from the state of Hidalgo, bobbed his head and clapped along with “Dance, Dance Yiddelekh” and other tunes. “This music, like mariachi, is full of happiness, but in our culture, mariachi is mainly for drinking,” he said. His best guess for what type of music he was listening to? Greek.
“I come from a village where customs are very strong. For me, ‘traditional,’ means artisanal—you don’t add anything to the original. You can’t improvise, you can’t embellish,” Mr. Pérez says. “If you find a good recording of the old guys playing, then you know you’re getting close to the traditional.”
José Gordon, a Jewish Mexican journalist who has written extensively on Jewish culture in Mexico, says it is “fascinating” that klezmer music could gain a following in Mexico outside of the Jewish community, especially given that it isn’t even very popular within it. He said Colectivo Klezmorino’s devotion to klezmer “speaks to the universality of the music.”
Ethnomusicologists say Mr. Pérez’s musical preferences are the result of paradigm shift in folk music brought about by the internet: now that so many people have access to folk culture, the definitions of words such as “traditional” and “authentic” have become hopelessly blurred.
“It used to be, if you wanted to hear traditional klezmer, you had to fly somewhere and listen to archival recordings on headphones,” says Mark Slobin, a Wesleyan University ethnomusicologist and author of “Fiddler on the Move,” a book about klezmer’s development in different countries. “Those archives have been digitized, and it’s all there for the taking.”
Klezmer refers broadly to a style of Jewish folk music played by traveling musicians at weddings and bar mitzvahs throughout Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Although there are records of itinerant Jewish minstrels going back to the 16th century, klezmer as we know it had its heyday from the late 19th century through World War II.
The music migrated to America in the first half of the 20th century, where it merged with jazz and influenced popular big-band leaders like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Since then, klezmer bands have popped up all over the world, from the U.K. to Argentina to Japan.
“To someone who is not familiar with it, klezmer has a very human feel to it,” says Joshua Horowitz, a klezmer scholar who has performed the music for over 30 years in various groups. “It represents this idea of the traveling-musician aesthetic.”
Henry Sapoznik, a banjo-player, radio producer and director of the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture at the University of Wisconsin, says he played at what he believes to be the first-ever bar mitzvah featuring live klezmer music in Mexico City in 1988.
“There was no such thing as a Mexican klezmer band back in those days,” Mr. Sapoznik says. The band was so popular that Mexico City’s Jewish community flew them back three more times over the next five years.
One of those gigs was the 1991 bar mitzvah celebration of Ricardo Fainsilber, 39, the grandson of Holocaust survivors and immigrants from Ukraine and Poland, who now works as a clinical psychologist in Mexico City.
“My parents wanted me to have a very traditional bar mitzvah,” Mr. Fainsilber says. “There were 300 or 400 people there, and everyone was jumping up and down and dancing. It was the main thing at this party, this great band from New York.”
But non-Jews playing klezmer in Mexico? “I’ve never seen anything like that,” Mr. Fainsilber says.
In recent years, a number of klezmer bands have played before audiences of thousands at large venues in Mexico, and at least one band—Klezmerson—has emerged combining klezmer with jazz, funk, rock and Mexican influences.
El Maestro, the street musician from Puebla, also sticks out from the other musicians because of his dress: black and white clothes, and a wide-brimmed hat that together distinctly recall the traditional dress of Hasidic Jews.
Mr. Pérez says his dress is a homage to klezmer musicians of old.
“I can see how it might bother or offend someone, but I don’t have any malicious intent,” he says. “I used to have clothes in lots of different colors, but as they got worn out, I just got rid of them.”