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Arts and Music

Keeping Klezmer Music Out of the Closet

Jericho resident Ken Maltz is

devoted to playing and

teaching the genre

“Take it out of the closet and play it for everybody.”

This was Ken Maltz’ mindset when forming Kapelye, the six-member band that specialized in a type of music only two other bands worldwide performed at the time: klezmer.

The 31-year-old music teacher had no reason to believe his debut album would sell in 1980, but with a clarinet in his hands, Maltz set out to save the genre that played within his home for as long as he could remember.

The public received the group’s take on traditional tunes with open arms, once again inviting the music that eastern European immigrants — like Maltz’ Romanian-born father — carried with them into their American homes.

Kapelye even became immortalized on film in 1982, playing three songs during a wedding scene in the award-winning film The Chosen.

“[Klezmer music] became very hip in the Jewish community,” said the Jericho resident.

And this Jewish community was not limited to Long Island, although many local parents began hiring klezmer bands to play at their children’s bar and bat mitzvah parties. Maltz and his bandmates embarked on a five-week European tour in 1984, staking their hub in Brussels, but experiencing their most memorable moments in Berlin.

After much discussion about whether to visit the country notorious for the horrors of the Holocaust, the band decided to perform their traditional Jewish arrangements for an audience that pleasantly surprised them.

“We decided that since we were going to play music from a culture that was slated to go into oblivion, it would be a statement,” Maltz said, noting that the ticket holders turned out to be nearly all non-Jews. It seemed that a “tremendous appetite” existed for klezmer music — even in the place where Maltz least expected to find it.

Kapelye returned to Berlin approximately 20 times in the years since those pivotal performances, but they are not the only noteworthy international performances on the band’s resume, which spanned 32 years and ended with the death of tuba player Eric Berman.

During the early 1980s, the musicians packed their instruments — a clarinet, accordion, fiddle, tuba, bass and banjo — and brought the original folk music of eastern European Jews to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Their music was broadcast over the Voice of America’s shortwave radio system and into the homes of Soviet Jews.

The Soviet government had long desired to subdue religion within its borders, but around that time, officials began granting emigration rights to Jews. In turn, members of the religion began outwardly identifying themselves as such.

“[Our purpose] was to reinforce the feeling of Jewish peoplehood in the Soviet Union,” Maltz said, of the radio program scheduled during the Chanukah holiday.

In fact, klezmer music has always served a purpose. “This music is what we call functional music, as opposed to artistic music,” Maltz said, explaining that it was historically used to enable a “simcha,” or a celebration.

Klezmer music — both fast and slow placed — was often played at weddings and intended to inspire dance, but musicians also played slower tunes to lead worshippers on their walks to synagogue in 16th century Prague.

For Maltz, playing klezmer music serves the purpose of expressing his feelings in a “much more spiritually direct way — an authentic way,” and his purpose for the genre is to prevent it from “fading away into oblivion.”

Maltz prolongs the style by continuing to play in a band — right now, he performs with the group Kenahora — and by teaching the ins and outs of klezmer to both children and adults.

He is a longtime instructor at KlezKamp, a Yiddish folk arts program designed for kindergartners through senior citizens, and is awaiting the start of its 29th annual event scheduled for late December.

KlezKamp staff members typically welcome between 250 and 400 participants each year, and Maltz instructs students of varying levels on the basics — and advanced techniques — of klezmer music.

Maltz also devotes his pedagogical skills to the Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center in East Hills, where he recently led a 10-person band in four rehearsals and a culminating performance.

“There are not too many, if any, [programs] on Long Island for people who want to learn about klezmer music,” Maltz said, of the program’s significance. “Everybody loved it — including me — because I really enjoy teaching.”

The community center will welcome him back in October, thanks to a grant from the UJA-Federation. Maltz hopes for additional grants in the future, but if they are not secured, he is confident that students would pay out of pocket for the opportunity to learn klezmer music.

“We take from chaos — random sounds — and we put them into order,” he said, of the role every musician shares. “When we do this, whether we’re playing Mozart or a piece of klezmer music … from nothing, we’re creating beauty in the world.”