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Accordions Are Cool . . . Really
Barry Friedland of Orange County Klezmers
As the founder of Orange County Klezmers, Barry Friedland has been instrumental in bringing Eastern European music to these sunny Western shores.
What is klezmer?
The most concise definition would be simply Jewish instrumental music of Eastern Europe—Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Moldavia. It was primarily played at Jewish weddings and came over to this country in the early 1900s. Klezmer was sort of like a band of gypsies. They went around over the years and gathered different styles. There are influences even from Greek music and gypsy music. There's quite a bit of music in addition to klezmer on my website because we often have to do other things besides that kind of music. We'll do secular music, dinner jazz. One minute, we may be doing a hora at a bar mitzvah, and the next minute we might be doing some Benny Goodman or Glen Miller. But most of the time, I'm hired to do Jewish music.
Are there instruments specific to klezmer?
Back in the 1800s and before that, violin was the primary instrument. Everyone had a violin in their closet, so that was the principal instrument for many years. Then it transferred over to the clarinet as the primary instrument. That's what you'll hear nowadays. Those are the solo instruments, but every instrument has been used in klezmer bands. You name it, they've used it. Klezmer bands were very ad hoc. They'd walk around from shtetl to shtetl—another word for village—and say, "Okay, we're going to do a gig. You pick up your guitar. You get your drum. You get your accordion, and let's go play some music." That's how it was done in those days. It was very spontaneous. It's not that way anymore. People have established groups. My group is four members. I play the accordion. The soloists are the clarinetist and violinist. And we have a percussionist.
It seems like the accordion is often the butt of jokes.
There are several jokes about the accordion. There's a Gary Larson Far Side comic: "Welcome to Hell" is the caption, and as people are entering Hell, they're handed the accordion. And there's the other joke: "What do you call an accordionist with a pager?" And the answer is "an optimist." Accordion has never been the cool instrument to play. But I stayed with it and remember playing at the school talent show in high school. I'd kind of kept it hidden. I blew everybody away. It was really exciting. And it was the classics. I don't play rock & roll on the accordion. People had never heard an instrument do what an accordion can do. It's a very versatile machine.
Are weddings and bar mitzvahs the kind of events you usually play?
Yes, those are the bread and butter. But we've done shows. We do various community events. For example, we did the candle-lighting ceremony down in Ladera Ranch this past December. We played as people were lighting this giant candelabra called a menorah. We've played at the annual Hanukkah show at the Orange County Performing Arts Center many times. We've done Israeli fairs many times. We've done just a whole variety of things over the years.
The band name seems to embrace being from Orange County.
It's partially tradition that bands were named after their geographical location. That was one of the main reasons, tradition. It's sort of a conflict in terms, too. Orange County and klezmer don't seem to fit in the same sentence. However, now, I don't think people would bat an eyelash. It's kind of fitting that it's evolved to the point where you have 20 or 30 synagogues, all different types—Orthodox, Hasidic, Reform. We have everything here, and we have a klezmer band here. So it's only fitting. If somebody in the '50s had predicted this, they would have been thought of as out of their mind. In New York City, you have a klezmer band on every corner, but not in California. It's neat to be one of the pioneers.
FOR MORE INFORMATION OR TO BUY ORANGE COUNTY KLEZMERS' ECHOES OF VILNA CD, VISIT OCKLEZMERS.COM.