1:22pm

Thu May 5, 2011
Music Interviews

From Generation To Generation, Klezmer Lives On

No one knows exactly how klezmer music began. Like many aspects of Jewish culture, it's the subject of some debate. Early klezmer musicians were often itinerant, and when they left Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they brought their instruments and songbooks with them. Bandleader Jacob Hoffman left the Ukraine and settled in West Philadelphia. That's where his daughter Elaine was born, and where she first learned how to play the drums.

"It was a family thing," Elaine Hoffman Watts says. "I bonded with my father that way. As a little kid, he used to take me in the cellar — not the basement, not the recreation center — in West Philly. And he would play xylophone. And he would put the sticks in my hand and he would say, 'Play this.'

"And if I didn't play it right, you know, 'Dummy, I'm showing you,' " she says. "But that's how I learned to play the drums. I didn't have lessons 'til I was 12, to read music, to play the paradiddles, whatever. Really, that man, my father, taught me how to play."

Women were not as well-known, or even necessarily permitted to be percussionists in some cases. Why did her dad crusade for that?

"Now, knowing pop-pop, it wasn't a crusade," Hoffman Watts says. "I was there. I was his daughter. He didn't have sons. If you had known Daddy, you would say, 'This man hasn't got any ulterior motive.' You were there. 'Elaine, sit down, play. You'll play.' "

Elaine Hoffman Watts played her way right into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she became its first female percussionist. She eventually worked as a professional timpanist for orchestras nationwide and raised a family of her own, and it wasn't until later in life — after the klezmer revival of recent decades — that Hoffman Watts began playing her father's music in public. These days, she works in a band that features her daughter, Susan Watts, on trumpet.

Mother And Daughter At Work

When asked the hardest thing about working with her mother, Susan Watts says, "She's my mother." But, when asked the greatest thing about working with her mother, the answer is the same.

"It's a double-edged sword," Susan Watts says. "I mean, it's my mom. Well, first of all, I have to say, when we travel and we have to stay in a hotel room, it's your mother, so how bad could it be? You're not like sharing a room with a stranger; you're with your mother. But then, by the same token, I'm traveling with my mother. And who wants to do that?

By the same token, Elaine Hoffman Watts says she's elated to perform with her daughter: "Because it's, you know, there's this kid I gave birth to, and here we are."

Survival And Legacy

Susan Watts says that determination has kept her mother going all these years. She's survived a quadruple bypass and breast cancer.

"Everybody, life throws you crap," Susan Watts says. "She's been thrown her share of crap. And she just wakes up the next day and she pushes through. And it's that way with everything."

The mother and daughter can play with the best of them, being schooled players worthy of the orchestra — which can't always be said of the original klezmer musicians. That's the kind of legacy Susan Watts sees in her mother.

"I know what I want people to think of her," she says. "I want people to first and foremost think of her as an amazing musician and a fabulous drummer. An awful cook. Not so bad mother. But she's so talented and she's so good, and that's what I want people to remember about her, is that she kicks tuchus."

Nick Spitzer is host of public radio's American Routes and a professor of anthropology at Tulane University. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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