From Generation To Generation, Klezmer Lives On

Originally published on May 5, 2011 6:22 pm

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 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 father 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 tuchis."

Nick Spitzer is host of public radio's American Routes and a professor of anthropology at Tulane University.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Folklorist Nick Spitzer visited the family and has this musical portrait.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NICK SPITZER: Bandleader Jacob Hoffman left the Ukraine and settled in West Philadelphia. That's where his daughter Elaine Hoffman was born and where she first learned how to play the drums.

ELAINE HOFFMAN WATTS: It was a family thing. My father - 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOFFMAN WATTS: And if I didn't play it right, you know, dummy, I'm showing you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN WATTS: But that's how I learned to play the drums. I didn't have lessons till I was 12 to read music, to play the paradiddles, whatever. Really, that man, my father, taught me how to play.

SPITZER: Now, why do you think he wanted you to play? I mean, girls, women were not as well-known or even necessarily permitted to be percussionists in some cases. Why did your dad crusade for that?

HOFFMAN WATTS: Now, knowing Pop-Pop, it wasn't a crusade. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPITZER: Susan, how is - what's the hardest thing about working with your mom?

SUSAN LANKIN WATTS: She's my mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN WATTS: That's pretty hard. Can you imagine working with your mom?

SPITZER: So what's great about playing and working with your mother?

HOFFMAN WATTS: It's my mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN WATTS: It's a double-edged sword.

HOFFMAN WATTS: It's a double-edged sword. I mean, it's my mom. Like - 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 can it be? You know, you're not, like, sharing a room with a stranger. You're with your mother. But then, by the same token, like, I'm traveling with my mother. And who wants to do that?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPITZER: What's great about working with your daughter?

HOFFMAN WATTS: Oh, it's like unbelievable. You get up on that stage, oh, it gets me right in my heart.

SPITZER: And why is that?

HOFFMAN WATTS: Because it's - there's this kid I gave birth to, and here we are.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPITZER: Why have you been able to persist so strongly to carry this music forward, whether it's klezmer or pop or classical? What is it that drives you forward to make the music?

HOFFMAN WATTS: You know that? I never thought about it. I once said as a - I remember in junior high, I'm going to go to Curtis. Little did I know that they never had a woman drummer at Curtis. You know, I just put one foot in front of the other and did it.

HOFFMAN WATTS: She's also very determined...

HOFFMAN WATTS: Yes.

HOFFMAN WATTS: ...like just in terms of her personality, like she's had a lot of health problems. She had a quadruple bypass. She - like emergency. She had breast cancer.

HOFFMAN WATTS: Women, you survive. You do it. You go on. Here I am.

HOFFMAN WATTS: And that was kind of her - that's her M.O. from the beginning. You know, everybody, life throws you crap. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPITZER: How would you like the outside world to know the Hoffman mother-and-daughter team (unintelligible) musical tradition in your family, what would you want people to think about you guys as players and as performers?

HOFFMAN WATTS: As players, we're really schooled players. I mean, we can really play, sit down in an orchestra and play a part. The original klezmer players were not that.

HOFFMAN WATTS: I know what I want people to think of her. 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, that's what I want people to remember about her is that she kicks tuchus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPITZER: For NPR News, I'm Nick Spitzer.

BLOCK: Nick Spitzer is host of Public Radio's "American Routes" and an anthropology professor at Tulane University.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.