A little this, a little that, a lot of klezmer: Berkeley festival highlights depth of Jewish sounds

“You’re a great drummer, but you’re a girl.”

Those words, spoken to Elaine Hoffman Watts by her cousin, stung. But at the time, some 50-odd years ago, the sentiment wasn’t all that unusual.

“When I was a teenager, someone would come to my father and say ‘We need a drummer for Saturday night.’ He’d say ‘My daughter’s not busy,’ but they never took me,” she said. “Very few women played drums.”

Watts plays the drums now, quite a lot. And she will be playing them at two performances during the upcoming Berkeley Jewish Music Festival, joining her daughter, trumpet player Susan Watts Hoffman.

In past years, the festival has shown a variety of Jewish music, proving that it’s a lot more wide-ranging than just klezmer. But this year, klezmer is definitely the centerpiece.

“This year is a wonderful primer for anyone wanting to know what klezmer has been traditionally and historically, and where it’s going,” said Ellie Shapiro, director of the festival, now celebrating its 19th year. Basically, “it goes from the shtetl 100 years ago, to the ‘hood.'”

Klezmer, the music that began in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and has been enjoying a revival since the 1970s, continues to evolve.

For the traditionalists, there will be the mother-daughter duo from Philadelphia. For those who prefer klezmer in its latest permutations, there is David Krakauer and Josh Dolgin.

And for those interested in its origins and history, there is a lecture and demonstration by noted Jewish folk music scholar Izaly Zemtsovsky, along with Michael Alpert, a founding member of the ensemble Brave Old World.

In the case of the mother-daughter duo, one could say playing klezmer music is all in the family.

Elaine Hoffman Watts, 71, who teaches percussion, easily rattles off all the relatives who played various instruments. Her grandfather, Joseph Hoffman, played cornet in the Russian army. Her father, percussionist and xylophone player Jacob Hoffman, played in the Philadelphia Orchestra, traveling with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.

“But I remember when I was a little girl, at the beginning of the Second World War, he said ‘No more klezmer,’ because it had a connotation of drunken musicians.”

While he stopped playing klezmer publicly for a time, he still taught it to his daughter, in the family basement.

Watts was the first woman to be accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music, graduating in 1954. But even so, “the only time that I played klezmer was when I worked a job with my father, because it was a men’s club. No women allowed.”

She performed a bit professionally over the years, but her career was curtailed by the regular demands of raising children. Only in the last few years has she toured as a klezmer musician — made possible by the renewed interest in klezmer.

And many of those playing it are women.

“My daughter Susan is an incredible trumpet player. She plays authentic klezmer because she grew up with it, too,” she said.

“The brains in the band is Susan,” she added. “She’s really incredible. She’s just schlepping me along.”

Watts is teaching her grandson, Bradley, to play the drums, making him the fifth generation in the family to play klezmer. When he has his bar mitzvah in May, all the family musicians will play.

“He is going to be a great klezmer drummer,” she said.

For those who prefer klezmer in its more modern forms, Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness! is the show to see.

Krakauer, who is considered a virtuoso on the clarinet, is trained as a classical musician, though he also considered pursuing a career in jazz. A leading figure in the klezmer revival, he has combined the form with everything from jazz to music from Africa and Latin America. And now by including Dolgin of “Hip-Hop Seder” fame in his line-up, he adds hip-hop to the list.

“In a sense, this feels like the next direction that klezmer’s going into,” Krakauer said. “I’ve long been influenced by people like Tupac and Public Enemy, and earlier, Parliament and Funkadelic. I’ve always seen a continuum of African American music as being tremendously inspirational in everything I’ve done, so this feels like the next logical step.”

Krakauer arrives in California shortly after making his Carnegie Hall debut, and shortly after the release of his CD, “Live in Krakow,” where he has played about a half-dozen times, at Poland’s Jewish Cultural Festival.

“There’s all this life in this place where there was so much terror and death,” he said. “To see the possibility of love and beauty existing in a place where there was so much evil and terror and horror, it’s an incredible thing. I think it’s hope for humanity in some way.”

Beyond klezmer, festivalgoers have a chance to experience a rare event: Ronnie Gilbert, a local artist who was a member of the ’50s folk group The Weavers, will perform her one-woman show: “A Radical Life with Songs.” As a member of the Weavers, Gilbert was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Shapiro recommended that people take advantage of this opportunity to see “this wonderful local treasure.”

Berkeley Jewish Music Festival schedule

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."