How an International Klezmer Festival Came to Sao Paulo
by Richard SimasPhotographs by Edy Borger“I am an idealist,”Kleztival director Nicole Borger admits. “That’s why I do this.” Promoting Jewish music in all its facets connects her long-standing youthful idealism and musical love to a powerful commitment to Hazbara, promoting the cause of Israel. She is also a lawyer and a talented singer with international touring and four commercial recordings to her credit. She invites a broad spectrum of world-class talent to this gem of an international music festival, which is now in its fourth edition.
Borger’s dedication, love, and vision are essential ingredients to the ten-day event, produced by São Paulo’s Instituto da Música Judáica (IMJ). Partners in the Kleztival adventure are co-director and husband Edy Borger and Frank London, the New York musician, composer, and world-renowned klezmer artist who consults on programming. The trio shares idealism accompanied by rigorous pragmatism, organizing savvy, and a growing wealth of experience. It was after attending a Klezmer Festival in Buenos Aires in 2008 that the Borgers speculated, “Maybe we could do this in Brazil.”
This year, Kleztival ran from September 28th to October 6th in venues throughout the city, with an ambitious schedule of workshops, concerts, a musical theater show direct from New York, free rush-hour subway performances, and a jam-session dance event.
At a workshop introduction for a group of school kids, Borger recounts her own version of the kabbalistic ‘big bang’ creation story, in which God created the universe through an enormous explosion and then gave musicians the task to gather the scattered fragments with their music. Making the world whole once again, she explains, is what all this singing, playing of instruments, improvising, and dancing is all about. The tale captures the young audience’s attention as they wait expectantly to see how Israeli musician Amir Gwirtzman (above and left) and his impressive array of wind instruments will make the world whole again. He proceeds to dazzle his audience by layering melodic lines using live sound loops until his one-man klezmer big band has created a richly woven, fully orchestrated groove before our eyes. Gwirtzman dedicates his art to global peace and promotes an inclusive notion of world music where influences are openly borrowed and shared. He blends a Dakota Indian peace song and Ose Shalom into a combined anthem. The workshop ends in a musical parade with students playing and marching in circles through the echoing auditorium behind the pied piper Gwirtzman. It is light-hearted and raucous proof that music surprisingly does join the world’s chaotic fragments again, even if sometimes only briefly.
The Borgers and London see Kleztival as a slow building process involving trial and error. “Our community and audience have come to expect and love the festival performances and workshops,” says Nicole. The outreach projects pay off because students in the music schools anticipate the visiting artists’ workshops. According to Edy Borger, each year is a “work in progress. . . . We are still building, trying out different formats and combinations. It will take a long time, but we are on the right path.” For example, consolidating funding is an ongoing challenge, and the 2013 edition was scaled back in size from the ambitious 2012 festival. Ironically, this year’s condensed programming facilitated the collaboration and musical exchanges that Kleztival cultivates so consciously among performers.
Peter Weiss is a music lover and the current president of the board of directors of Clube Hebraica, São Paulo’s Jewish cultural and social centre. Weiss is proud to point out that the Clube Hebraica is the largest Jewish community association of its kind in the world, and its support to Kleztival is essential to its success.
When the Melech Mechaya quintet from Portugal tunes up at the Estação Santa Cecîlia metro, they have arrived straight from the airport. It is their first tour in Brazil. Laughing off jetlag and delayed luggage that includes some of their percussion instruments, they count into the opening song for the rush-hour subway pedestrians who have stopped to listen. Their Lisbon accents draw smiles and nods from the Paulistano locals. It takes only one upbeat traditional freylakh to turn the afternoon transit subway station into a party space. A crowd forms as people stop to clap, dance in a circle, and chant refrains. Touted as the current hot Gypsy/klezmer combo from the Iberian Peninsula, Melech Mechaya attracted international attention with their 2012 disc, “Aqui Em Baixo Tudo É Simples.” They tour extensively and opened for Kursturica’s No Smoking Orchestra at Lisbon’s Coliseum.
Integrating the audience into their performance is central to their presentation. Later during the festival week, as one of three groups at the SESC Santana concert, they requested a volunteer audience member to join them on stage. A spry 95 year-old woman named Sabrina bounded from her seat and climbed the stairs to steal the show in an improvised solo dance to the quintet’s version of the well-known Billy Jean pop riff. Smiling delightedly, Sabrina looked like an ancient angel as she kicked and twirled in her white running shoes, winning a standing ovation from the audience for her charm and agility. Melech Mechaya closed the set with an upbeat rendition of Odessa Bulgar, inspiring the audience to end the evening dancing in the aisles.
Earlier in the same SESC concert, Berlin clarinettist Christian Dawid (at left) performed an exquisite set of traditional and original pieces, backed for the occasion by a trio of Brazilian musicians. In addition to teaching, Dawid plays extensively with numerous prestigious groups and in a variety of projects on international stages, particularly in Yiddish and East European styles. With influences from classical, jazz, and ethnic music traditions, his multi-hued and carefully attended woodwind tone was on display throughout the set, which included a soulful Druze melody and an a capella song. Dawid recently completed a significant research and recording project based on the work of Bessarabian-born singer and composer Arkady Gendler. His Brazilian accompanists interpreted an exquisite Dawid arrangement from the Gendler pieces.
Returning for the third time to São Paulo from London, Kleztival favourites Merlin and Polina Shepherd (at right, below) performed in the SESC Pompeia festival opening concert along with Toronto’s Jaffa Road and Nicole Borger. Singer Polina Shepherd was born in Siberia in a musical family and has a long affiliation with Eastern European Jewish and Russian music. She combines virtuoso vocal talent with raw emotional delivery. Her delivery of the traditional Avinu Malkénu was a stunning climb into the upper branches of intimate drama and redemption, a vocal sojourn of gentleness, spiraling pain, ferocious resistance, and profound affection. Polina Shepherd plumbs energy from the same archetypical sources that make blues and flamenco singing so powerful.
Merlin Shepherd is a world-class clarinettist performing in theater and for a variety of Jewish and Eastern European musical projects. He is also the coordinator of KlezFest London. His clarinet playing is suave and rife with mystery, as evidenced in the opening duet at the SESC concert with Polina Shepherd. Later in the festive dance pieces, he demonstrated lightening flashes of high note acrobatics. Both Shepherds are exciting and singular performers. As a duo they nourish their own particular musical fire, note by note, with refined complicity.
Jaffa Road is the world music quintet from Toronto led by singer Aviva Chernick. Exploring a variety of musical traditions that include Jewish sacred and secular music, the group recently won Canada’s folk music award for their album, Where The Light Gets In. Performing in Brazil for the first time, Jaffa Road is a portrait of multi-ethnic Canada with musicians from ethnic backgrounds as diverse as the music they play. Their repertory exhibits Chernick’s ethereal voice, packed with sensuality, which she uses to spirit the lyrics and melody lines to her listeners. The group explores contemporary approaches to traditional pieces as well as performing original compositions.
A traveler to São Paulo might never feel quite as intimate with locals as in the city metro at rush hour. No people pushers jam transit riders into trains as in Tokyo, but when the doors close, no space remains for another arm, hip, shoulder or butt. For a brief ride, you are squished into a composition of urban collectiveness, part of something bigger, perhaps like the music you hear if you exit with this crowd at the Santa Cecîlia metro at 6 pm during the Kleztival. Muller’s Band, the quintet of local klezmorim performing for the subway crowd, is dressed soberly in black caps, white shirts and suit vests. The subway acoustics are ideal for the characteristic klezmer clarinet cries that ornament the traditional bulgars and freylakhs that Muller’s Band performs for the delighted audience.
New to this year’s programming was a jam session dance event at the SESC Pompeia Choperia beer bar. An all-star klezmer band of festival musicians played an evening of dance sets. The free event offered an opportunity to learn traditional Jewish dances with an experienced leader and to practice them with a live band.
“A Night in The Old Market Place” is a musical theater work from New York directed by Frank London (left), with lyrics by Glen Berger, and conceived by Alexandra Aron. Combining elements of traditional Yiddish theater with the punch and brilliant vocals of a Broadway musical, it was performed twice during the 2013 Kleztival at the Clube Hebraica. Called a “shetl ghost love story” and based on the 1907 play of the same name by I.L. Peretz, “A Night . . .” is a mischievous and mystical tale with a hip musical score that mixes elements from jazz, world, and Jewish music. With a brilliant cast of singers and musicians, it was a powerful musical theater proposition for the festival.
Where will São Paulo’s Kleztival grow in the future? Programming might eventually include big-name musical stars to attract media and broad public attention. Another possibility under discussion is combining klezmer with traditional Brazilian musical forms that share common influences, highlighting the country’s rich musical history. Another possibility is networking in 2014 with a new klezmer festival in Buenos Aires.
Nicole Borger remembers her grandfather singing niggunim for hours on shabbat, a memory that still inspires her activism. She is determined to pass on traditions, and in the future would like to work exclusively on the life project of developing the Instituto de Música Judáica, which she also directs. High on her list is initiating a program of Jewish music pedagogy in order to train a future team of Jewish music teachers. The IMJ would also create a music label for recording and become a resource center for anyone wanting to connect to Jewish music.
Intimate connections are essential in the Kleztival world that Nicole Borger cultivates. Musicians become extended family as soon as they enter the Borgers’ circle. There are at least as many dinners and social gatherings as there are public events. Good food, discussion, and drink abound. Anecdotes, jokes, and practical information circulate. “Where can you listen to samba and choro in Sao Paulo? Where is the open market, the best record store?” Such occasions turn into songfests and improvisational jams, collaboration sketches for the future, and informal music lessons. In São Paulo’s Lua restaurant one night after a show, Nicole Borger stands at a corner of one of the tables and sings a medley of Portuguese fados while her Kleztival guest-family dines. A guitarist from Lisbon’s Melech Mechaya quintet accompanies her while the others listen attentively. A plate of the house specialty, mushroom-stuffed pasta under a cream sauce, is passed from table to table. Fado and klezmer, why not? There is room for many in this world clan.
“You know,” Nicole Borger adds, “the real heroes of the festival are Yara and Adriana. They are the ones that make it happen.” She refers to her two faithful production coordinators who oversee the logistics and day-to-day detail work during the festival. “They make sure people don’t get lost, that things happen on time, rehearsals, shows, transportation . . . everything. There are no rainy days with them. I tell them, you are the real Jewish mothers!”
Her laugh is a song, just a few of the sweet notes in her music that gathers the world’s fragments together in this Kleztival.
Copyright 2013 by Richard Simas
Richard Simas is a freelance writer with a background in literature and the performing arts, in particular contemporary music. He lives in Montreal and contributes regularly to contemporary arts and literary reviews. His work has been published in Europe and North America, including in the Journey Prize Anthology, and he is a winner of a Fiddlehead Fiction Prize. He is a frequent collaborator with Musicworks in Toronto.