Henry Shapiro plays modern klezmer music with a nod to the past
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Henry Shapiro plays modern klezmer music with a nod to the past

Guitarist's second album makes a great Chanukah gift

Tradition has a vote, not a veto.

Rabbi Mordeciai Kaplan’s paraphrased axiom might have been hanging on the studio walls as Cantor Henry Shapiro of Parkway Jewish Center recorded his latest CD, “Klezmerati.”

The album features traditional klezmer songs and original pieces written by Shapiro in the familiar style of the beloved Ashkenazi Jewish folk music, with slight nods to modernity and the musician’s individual styling and influences.

The original American klezmer bands, popular in the early 20th century, consisted largely of violin, wind and brass instruments. They played dance halls and weddings for Jewish immigrant communities. As these immigrants had children that identified more with American culture than the Eastern European shtetls of their parents, the music waned in popularity. The next generation of Jewish musicians began to branch out into big band and jazz music.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that klezmer music had a revival across Europe and the United States.

The new klezmer bands were leaner than those of previous generations. In many cases the large brass sections were replaced by a bass player, clarinet and flute. In some cases, the guitar was now featured as a lead instrument to the music.

It is against this backdrop that Shapiro, a guitarist, began playing the music.

As he recounts it, the path to performing klezmer wasn’t a straight one. After attending college, he started playing jazz and swing music. It was only after he began performing with a group of musicians playing various types of folk music, including Eastern European and Appalachian/bluegrass, that he slowly morphed into playing klezmer.

Asked why he decided to embrace the genre, Shapiro noted “it’s part of the Jewish American experience. I’m a Jewish musician and want to play traditional Jewish music.”

Like the second and third generation of America folk musicians that were able to hear and play early Appalachian and Southern blues thanks to the work of musicologists that made field recordings of forgotten artists, Shapiro heard original klezmer songs traded from musician to musician.

“They would pass these recordings, cassette tape to cassette tape, that had gone through 50 copies. Everybody knew the songs.”

In fact, Shapiro explains, the tapes were so popular that you can often tell what recording a musician learned a particular song from based on the way he or she played the piece.

“It’s like the Bible — the trope and the vowel markings are what you get from those records.”

Shapiro, too, transcribed songs by hand from those tapes, It was important to the guitars that his originals felt like they could have been played by those bands whose music may have only been available commercially on 78s or wax cylinders.
“Like any good musician I tried to get the essence of the ornamentation and what is it that makes the music characteristically klezmer.”

That ornamentation often required Shapiro to find new techniques on the guitar for traditional elements of the music.
In klezmer, there is often a sound Shapiro calls a “crack.” This sound can be performed on both the clarinet and violin but there is no similar technique on guitar or other instruments. As a result, Shapiro had to invent a method to create a similar sound.

“If you pre-bend the string, that’s a guitar thing, and go down and come back up again, you’ll get the essence of that. The accordion though, can’t bend a note, so how do they get the sound? You can imitate it by playing a double stop (two notes together).”

Shapiro was so happy with the results that he used the technique on several songs he wrote. Other modern techniques featured on the CD but not heard in the original music include bent notes more familiar in blues and jazz compositions and guitar trills.

“Klezmerati” was recorded last year before the shooting at the Tree of Life building. Shapiro made a conscious decision to not promote the album at that time. Instead, he worked with the film maker Ken Love, composing music for his new documentary “Jewish Memories of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.”

In fact, one of the original pieces on the CD, “Road to Zin” is used in the film.

The song features a bass line by Shapiro and piano bordering on jazz by Marilyn Lerner. According to the composer, the song is evocative of a journey. Its title makes reference to the smallest desert in Israel and can be heard a few different ways.

“Zin is a sonic, it’s only one letter from both sin and Zen.”

Despite the original songs and modern playing and recording techniques, Shapiro had a simple goal.

“I wanted to be absolutely true to the music. I was calling it third wave klezmer at one point. I want it to be an authentic record, like you took a time machine back from 2017 or ’18.”

“Klezmerati” is available to purchase on Amazon and CD Baby as well as several local shops. pjc

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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