Oaklands klezmer queen goes Balkan

As founder of the dearly departed band Klezmer Mania, Kaila Flexer had been the Bay Area’s reigning queen of klezmer for more than a decade.

But these days there’s a lot less yidl in her fiddle.

The Oakland violinist is now a walkin’, talkin’ Balkan, focusing nearly exclusively on music from places like Bulgaria, Albania, Greece and Macedonia.

Her new passion has led her to team up with the Crowden School (a Berkeley private school that emphasizes musical training) to teach Balkan music to the students. The culmination of that partnership is the Xylem Folkestra Project, an ensemble consisting of 13 Crowden students, adult master musicians and Flexer herself.

The Xylem Folkestra Project will make its debut with a pair of Bay Area concerts Sunday, Feb. 12, and Friday, Feb. 17, in San Francisco and Oakland respectively.

Flexer has taught beginner violin for years but this is the first time she has formed a band comprised primarily of kids. “Children are so well suited to capture other styles,” she says, “because they’re still really flexible. They’re so good at imitating.”

After receiving a grant from the Creative Work Fund last summer, Flexer launched her program in September with 76 kids. Though Crowden students are more accustomed to reading Mozart scores, Flexer found they enjoyed playing by ear and learning to improvise.

“Some adults, even professional musicians, have a hard time playing this music,” she says of the tricky 11/8 and 13/8 Balkan meters. “The kids take to it like it’s no problem.”

Having delved so deeply into Jewish folk music before, Flexer sees similarities between the klezmer and Balkan styles. “The roots are similar,” she says. “Some of the scales are the same. There aren’t the odd meters in klezmer, but certain Greek songs sound like they could be klezmer.”

The Massachusetts-born performer studied classical violin growing up in a Reform Jewish household. But it wasn’t until her undergrad days as a music major at U.C. Santa Cruz that she discovered klezmer at a concert by the pioneering band Klezmorim.

“The music hit me over the head,” she recalls. “It had such drive and excitement, the next day I formed a klezmer band.”

After relocating to the Bay Area in the mid-80s, she went on to form Klezmer Mania, and enjoyed a very successful career with the band, as well as a soloist, accompanist, concert producer and teacher.

Though she rarely plays klezmer anymore, she still has an abiding love for the music. But her Balkanization has a powerful, perhaps permanent grip on her.

“It’s a deep well,” says Flexer. “I feel like I’ll be a student of music from this region for the rest of my life.”

The Xylem Folkestra Project performs 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market St., S.F., and 8 p.m., Friday, Feb. 17, at the First Unitarian Church, 685 14th St., Oakland. Tickets: $12-$16. Information: (510) 594-4044 or www.kailaflexer.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.