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Klezmer Calling

Joel Rubin keeps the tradition alive

Some people have rhythm. Joel Rubin has klezmer.

“I have Yiddish music in my background,” says the bearded, soft-spoken Los Angeles native, “with my maternal grandfather playing Yiddish melodies on his guitar along with tunes from Segovia, and my paternal grandfather, a barber and musician, coming from a Ukrainian klezmer family. I was passionate about Balkan music in my teens, and then, around 1980, when there were only about a hundred klezmer musicians in the country, I began playing klezmer.”

Rubin, a clarinetist and professor of music at UVA, is at the vanguard of a klezmer revival that started in the late ’70s. Keening, soaring, sighing, cajoling, Rubin’s clarinet is showcased on Midnight Prayer, the latest album from the Joel Rubin Ensemble. Here, the sacred and profane become dance partners: Hassidic spirituality intermingling with the exultant humanity of klezmer, Jewish folk dance music.

Classically trained, Rubin wrote his doctoral thesis on klezmer and began gigging in Germany and the U.S. “I found it intriguing as an archaic form, one whose code I hoped to crack,” he says. “As I’ve continued, I’ve become more interested in its cultural and religious aspects, and am trying to be honest to its traditions.”

Alternating krekhts (sobs), dreydlekh (trills) and even a kind of mimicry of laughter, echoes of klezmer have penetrated the mainstream, from Fiddler on the Roof to the soundtrack of Sex and the City. Rubin parlays a purer strain, and the technique of his ensemble’s players—on violin, bass, trumpet and Eastern European hammered dulcimers known as cimbalons and tsimbls—is virtuosic. Recorded in Budapest, Midnight Prayer is accessible and profound klezmer, its melodic richness true to a form that has counted both classical titan Dmitri Shostakovich and contemporary New York experimentalist John Zorn as aficionados.

Academically, Rubin is now preparing a course in American Jewish popular music, tracing its history from Eastern European origins through the Jazz Age and postwar “Yinglish” comedy fare, 1960s Jewish nostalgia and the later klezmer renaissance, to contemporary secular and religious genres. All of those strains, along with the experience of playing classical, jazz and new music, make Rubin a complete musician. In this, he recalls his klezmer ancestors of the 1920s and ’30s, who played Broadway and symphonic and studio dates, but always, he says, “reserved a special fondness for klezmer.”