The king of Klezmer

by Giora Feidman

Nonstop (Issue III/2019)


Sometimes I wonder why some families who cannot get away from music. My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather: they all made music. Maybe it's in our genes. Maybe it's a case of divine intervention. The fact is that most Feidmans got musicality along with their mother's milk. That was the case with me, too. In the beginning my father did everything to prevent me from following in his footsteps. Instead of sending me to music school, he enrolled me at a business school. Instead of giving me clarinet lessons, he paid the best teachers in town to teach me maths and geography. At first I thought it was my illness.

When I was born in Buenos Aires in 1936 – my family had previously emigrated from Moldova to Argentina – doctors had diagnosed an eye defect. From day one I could only see the world in a blur. Maybe my father thought a blind man couldn't stand on a stage. Later, however, I realised that something else was at stake: he didn't want a musical life for me. He wanted me to learn more than he had learnt in Chisinau. But it was hopeless. I was only interested in music.

I still remember the day when my father must have realised that too. He had a gig and hurried out of the apartment. And when the door fell into the lock, his clarinet was still on the table. He had forgotten it – or at least pretended to. Today I think he left it on purpose. I took it and pressed a note out. And everything else came all by itself.

As a teenager I landed at the Teatro Colón, one of Argentina's most famous theatres, and played in the shows. I also accompanied my father when he performed at Jewish weddings. We were on stage from ten o'clock in the evening until four o'clock in the morning. Our greatest success was when people looked up at us from the buffet for ten seconds before stuffing the next chicken leg inside themselves. That made me happy.

When I was in my early twenties, the second heart became noticeable in my chest. Because I have always been two different things: a musician – and a Jew. I was part of the first generation to go to Israel. Simply staying in place seemed like a missed opportunity to me. So I applied to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra – and to my surprise was taken immediately after the first performance. When I arrived in Tel Aviv, I didn't speak Hebrew, everything was foreign to me. But I felt an indescribable energy that can only be felt when you have been part of the diaspora. How can you explain to an outsider what it feels like to return to a place you've never been to before?

And so everything took its course. The symphony orchestra thought I was a real talent. People suddenly knew my name, I started playing my own concerts. I stumbled into what others call “a career”. But I never saw it that way myself. For me, careers have always been something for Formula 1 drivers and bankers. I also didn't know what to make of the floods of applause which greeted me. It all seemed to me to be too meaningful.

The only time I really thought I was more important than I was was in the early 1990s. At that time I got a call from Hollywood. Steven Spielberg wanted me to work on the soundtrack for his film “Schindler's List”. That was a huge honour, of course. I remember flying to California in my best suit. I looked like a real penguin. And when I met the big Spielberg, he stood in front of me in shorts and sandals. Then I looked at him and said: “Do you know why I dressed up like that?” He shook his head. “Because you shouldn't show up for a meeting with Spielberg like you do!”.

Transcribed by Kai Schnier



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