Yale Strom, a professor and artist-in-residence in the Jewish studies programme at San Diego State University, is something of a modern-day renaissance man. Steeped in Old World traditions, the violinist-composer delights in bringing all-but-forgotten klezmer music and Yiddish songs from the former Soviet Union, central Europe and Balkans to the stage.
While perhaps best known as a leading figure in the klezmer music revival which began in the United States in the eighties, and as the frontman for his ensemble Hot Pstromi, Strom is also a dedicated ethnographer. As such, he has also been literally instrumental in preserving both in print and on the silver screen the stories behind the klezmer music of the Jewish, but also Romani communities, which spawned it.
I caught up with the scholar-artist ahead of a packed performance at the Maisel Synagogue in Prague, where he placed a special focus on songs from pre-war Carpathian Ruthenia, the hinterlands of First Republic-era Czechoslovakia and Ukraine. I began by asking him the role music played in his home growing up in Detroit.
“My mother played some piano, and my father used to say he ‘played the radio’ very well. But there were a lot of records. They loved music. My father loved American folk labour songs – Pete Seger, Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, blues, some jazz, and a lot of classical music. My parents loved the Russians, particularly my mother – Rimsy-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky. And we had Jewish music! Singing songs, though, not just music. We called them table songs – we sang them around the table around the Friday night services, on Saturday afternoon after Sabbath, going to shul, to Synagogue. Some were in Yiddish, some were in Hebrew, some were just ‘bim, bam, bim, bam’.”
“I grew up in a traditional middle-class American home but filled with a couple different traditions. One, a Jewish tradition from Eastern Europe. On my father’s side, it was Poland – today it’s Belarus, Ukraine – and on my mother’s side, it was Lithuania and Germany, central Europe. So with a strong Jewish tradition, but we were not Orthodox. We kept Kosher in the home. I stayed home for Jewish holidays, so some people would say, ‘Sounds like he’s Orthodox.’ But, we didn’t keep the Sabbath, in that we’d drive to the beach. But we had that strong tradition of Jewish culture – particularly also Hassidic, the Kabbalistic side, because my grandparents, great- grandparents came from Hassidim from Belarus. But I was also imbued with a strong sense of social consciousness. Which is very Jewish, I would say. To care about the other person who does not have as much as you have, or because they are not free. It’s not enough to care only about your immediate family – of course, that’s important – but also for the stranger.”
“My mother played some piano, and my father used to say he ‘played the radio’ very well.”
I’ve read that you started playing the violin in the third grade, and part of that was to get out of class, but you quickly grew to love it.
“Right – Mrs. Baker! I would not be talking to you today if it weren’t for Mrs. Baker. Some people can have such an influence on you, and you don’t realise it at a young age. In middle school and high school – we’d moved to San Diego by then, and my father had become a university professor; he’d been an elementary school teacher – but by around age thirteen, I wasn’t liking it anymore – I shouldn’t say that; I didn’t like how much I had to practice it. My parents weren’t pushy – you know, ‘My son has to be a violinist!’ No, they said we’ll stop the lessons, and you take it out when you want...”
“But my violin teacher saw that there was a youth community orchestra that was auditioning, and she asked if I’d like to try out for it. And I’m kind of a competitive person, so I said sure… I came the first day of orchestra practice and you are assigned a seat number. So, Yale Strom… One, two, three, four, five … 30, 31, 32! There were 16 first violinists – I was certainly not in the first section – and there were 16 seconds. And I was number 32, sitting closer to the trombones and the French horns than I was to the first violinist. But the real crux of the story is that I was making music with other people, with friends. I wasn’t just playing in my room. And for me, music is a social activity. It’s to be shared. It’s to make people laugh, cry, wonder… That opened my ears. So I couldn’t wait to practice because I was playing with others.”
“To jump ahead many years, I finished college, had a couple of degrees – in American Studies, and in Art, and I wasn’t doing well in that so I thought, law – I’ll go to law school! To be a civil rights lawyer or a defence attorney... So when I was getting ready to enter law school, I went to a klezmer dance – klezmer music – for those listening to the interview who don’t know – being Jewish music, functional dance music, wedding music, from eastern Europe. Yes, there are Yiddish songs now to it. Singing was a part of it, but it was really for dancing. And I went up to the leader of the band during intermission, asked if I could jam with them, if they needed another fiddler, and he basically said, you know, ‘Don’t call us. We’ll call you.’”
“So, I went home that night and a light bulb went off in my head. And I decided to form my own band. But it’s got to be different than his. I’m going to have a different repertoire. I saw the repertoire, and thought, yeah, from the libraries and so on, good. But I thought I bet there might be melodies still in the minds of certain people, and in archives that we don’t know about. So I called the law schools that I had gotten accepted into the next day – without telling my parents – bought a one-way ticket to Vienna, then the portal to the Eastern Bloc, and I went to a good friend of mine in high school, a bassist, a virtuoso who was already playing in a symphony at age seventeen, who is actually of Czechoslovak roots – Jeff Pekararek – and he said, Yeah, go man! I’ll be waiting for you. And I said I’ll be back in a couple of months…”
“The word ‘klezmer’ – let’s just say ‘Jewish music’ – is older than the three Abrahamic religions.”
“Cut to 13 months later, I came back after meeting Jews, meeting Roma, meeting survivors of the Holocaust, having them sing me a melody, or maybe they had some old notes, or they had a memory of a wedding when they were young and just telling me – ethnographically – what happened at weddings. Did the town come? Who was invited? What role did the musicians play? And I came home with these interviews on my tape recorder and photographs – and music! And I formed my band, Hot Pstromi, with Jeff, and our fellow mate, Fred Benedetti – a great classical guitarist, who studied with Andrés Segovia – and people who know classical guitar know that not just anybody studies with Segovia. No. Segovia says, ‘You can study with me.’
“But I fell in love with Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, and I thought maybe I could use my love of music, my interest in stories, of ethnography, oral history… and I went back for another major trip and eventually had a major photo exhibit in Chicago… So I sort of created this profession, which brings me all these years later to Prague, to play a klezmer concert... My first book was called The Last Jews of Eastern Europe. I’m very proud of that book because that is the biography of that year of wandering.”
In 1981, right?
“Very good. 1981, right.”
And since then you’ve been back 75, 80 times…
“Multiple times. Exactly. Trying to always learn some new kernel, piece of history. Music, as well. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to create this profession – I’m a professor now; I teach at San Diego State University, in the anthropology department, the Jewish Studies department, the history department, depending on the course – but the violin is my third appendage. The violin is this language. You know, I would never have been accepted – I know it for a fact – by the Roma as easily, but as soon as I played some of their tunes, and played Jewish… And, of course, when I said I was Jewish, they made a hook with their fingers – because they had an affinity. ‘You’ve suffered like we’ve suffered’. So we have empathy for each other.”
Listening to some of your earlier interviews, talking about the origins and intertwining influences, I was reminded of Argentine jazz player Oscar Alemán who used to argue with the Roma guitarist Django Reinhardt about who invented jazz.
“Not many people know that! And what did Reinhardt say?”
That jazz was Gypsy music, Roma music. And I wonder to what extent there is a similar argument as to klezmer music, where it came from…
“Well, I think, to put the question to rest, I simply say the word ‘klezmer’ – let’s just say ‘Jewish music’ – is older than the word ‘Judaism’, older than the word ‘Christianity’, older than the word ‘Islam’. It’s older than the three Abrahamic religions. The DNA of Jewish music are the scales of these wandering tribes of the Middle East, Central Asia – yes, they have a Middle Eastern flavour; some might use the word ‘Arabic’. I say, yes, I’m Jewish, but even before this religion called Judaism, this monotheistic religion, I’m a Semite – I’m of the Semitic tribe! There were Hittites, and Moabites – I’m one of the ‘ites’. And the DNA of Jewish music is Middle Eastern and as I say Central Asian scales.”
“On a piano, you have your black keys and you have your white keys… We don’t have frets on our vocal chords. ‘Jewish music’ is the grey notes.”
“Now, as the Jews travelled – willingly and sometimes they were forced to – well, any minority that’s been pushed to the margins gravitates to what the majority is allowing them to do. You can entertain me because we don’t take that seriously. So some Jews gravitated to music. And another way to inculcate yourself into the majority society is to listen to the local society is to listen to the local music and adapt it. So, do we really know? We can hear these ancient scales; we don’t know for sure about the songs. But when we hear something that sounds very polka-mazurka – sure itinerate Jewish musicians played it. Why not? They were smart. They’re gonna say, Hey, if I only play this kind of Jewish music, who’s going to hire me? Maybe only these Jews. I’ve got to be hired by the Poles, by the Ruthenians, by the Slovaks. As we say, ‘Yiddishe Kop’ – you’ve got to have a Jewish head. So they had a wide repertoire. And they had good ears.”
“It’s older than the Roma, because the Jews have been in Europe, in the Diaspora, much longer – since Roman times where the Roma came only in the 11th or 12th century. So, the scales – of course, the Roma are coming from India and they brought some of that melisma, that crying lament, that interesting bending of notes – I say grey notes. You know, it’s hard to play Roma music and Jewish music, in terms of the roots, on a piano. On a piano, you have your black keys and you have your white keys. So I tell my students, when they ask, Professor, what keys do you play? I say on the grey keys. And they look at me like, Uh, there are none. That’s right. And you can’t play it on the piano. We don’t have frets on our vocal chords. So ‘Jewish music’ is the grey notes.”