When it comes to klezmer, a type of Yiddish folk music originating from Eastern Europe, Eric Stein is a late bloomer.
It wasn’t until the 35-year-old attended Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival in 1997 that he got hooked on the music with its great melodies and rhythms, sending anybody within earshot into dance mode.
“When I went to that festival it was a real eye-opening revelation to hear this amazing music that just inspired me and made me feel like I had found a great new musical language I could use to express myself,” the former North York, now Forest Hill resident says.
“From there I went on a few years of just deep immersion into the music. Learning about it historically and musically and it’s really been the focus of my life for the last decade.”
Previously, Stein played bass guitar in rock and funk bands, but started playing the mandolin in the mid-90s. While violins, clarinets and trombones are popular klezmer instruments; Stein had no problem adapting the mandolin to the genre.
Diving head first into the klezmer scene, Stein joined a popular band, Beyond the Pale. The group has played at music festivals and theatres all over the world including the biennial citywide festival.
Beyond the Pale injects a wide range of cultural influences including bluegrass, jazz, reggae and funk to traditional klezmer sounds. They are known for their energetic performances and varied song list featuring original material and creative versions of traditional klezmer arrangements.
Stein has come a long way since his first encounter with klezmer. When the previous artistic director of the Ashkenaz stepped down, Stein put his name forward and got the job for this year’s festival, which will be held at the Harbourfront Centre from Aug. 26 to Sep. 1.
Now in its seventh run, the festival emerged in 1995 as part of a worldwide movement to revive klezmer music and Yiddish culture.
The event is the largest of its kind in Canada and ranks as one of the top international Jewish cultural events with 200 performers coming from all over the world.
“Klezmer music has really morphed into so many different things. It can be anything from the most traditional manifestations of the music to all sorts of fusions that bring in jazz, classical music, rock, funk, reggae,” he explains. “There are so many little subgenres of klezmer today that it’s hard to say what klezmer is.
“On a really basic level its amazing, fun music.”
Some of the featured performers at this year’s festival include Abraham Inc, who are making their Canadian debut. Described as a Jewish funk super group, the nine-member band features well-known figures in the klezmer scene and fuses traditional sounds with funk, hip hop and rap.
Other acts include Argentinean Zoë Goldfarb, a performer who combines the klezmer sound with tango, while New Yorker Andy Statman brings his jazzy, bluegrass klezmer mix to the festival.
Another group attending is the Russian band Nayekhovichi, who bring an electric grunge, garage band sound to the music festivities.
Both a performer and the artistic director at this year’s festival, Stein can barely contain his excitement. Although organizing the event is no easy task, he said he would gladly do it again as he looks forward to exposing klezmer music and culture to a constantly growing audience.
“It’s a cornucopia of cultural experiences,” he says. “Expect a lot of joyousness in the celebrations and enjoyment of the music and the culture. People that had no prior acquaintance with this will probably experience a great awakening and say wow.”
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