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Couple clicks with ethnic klezmer music repertoire

She grew up in a household surrounded by Broadway show tunes, big band, classical, Latin and swing music.

He played classical music as a French hornist in orchestras from grade school through college.

She plays two different drums. He's a clarinetist. Recently, she's been playing the tsimbl -- hammered dulcimer, a traditional klezmer instrument. Both were influenced by music from an early age.

And together they make beautiful music as a tuneful husband-and-wife team, the duo West of Odessa.

Being married "makes it a lot easier to schedule rehearsals," quips biologist Alan Sisselman, whose music, he says, is his avocation.

Sisselman and spouse Roberta Levine, of Buffalo, were among musicians at the second Jewish Cultural Arts Festival Sunday afternoon in the Jewish Community Center in Getzville.

They're called klezmer musicians.

"Klezmer is derived from two Hebrew words, 'kley,' meaning 'vessel,' and 'zemer,' meaning 'song,' " Sisselman explains.

"Klezmer can refer to a musician or an instrument, but generally it's used to describe Jewish folk music originating from Central and Eastern Europe since the Middle Ages."

Levine and Sisselman started listening to klezmer recordings in the early 1990s but didn't play it for a few years. Levine had been playing percussion, mainly Balkan and Middle Eastern music as well as African and Latin. In 1997, the couple formed a trio with a friend, and afterwards had a harmonious experience attending KlezKamp and KlezKanada -- weeklong camps devoted to Yiddish culture, including music, dance, theater, Yiddish language and crafts.

At these klezmer camps, they became acquainted with German Goldenshteyn, "a clarinetist from Moldova who came to the U.S. in the early '90s, bringing with him an extensive repertoire of melodies that had been locked behind the Iron Curtain for so many years," Sisselman notes.

This music "began as an expression of sounds and melodies heard during services in the synagogue and was eventually adapted as music to mark major religious life cycle events," says Roberta Levine, who needs a few trips to bring in all her instruments to the festival.

Klezmer's resurging popularity is due to the fact that "it's ethnic, it goes right to the gut -- direct emotion," says Amrom Chodos, another local klezmer clarinetist at the festival, where young kids were admitted for free. "It's very danceable, you can't NOT move."

Sisselman and Levine have called themselves West of Odessa since 2004, "because our repertoire consists primarily of music from the region once known as Bessarabia, now Moldova, eastern Romania and southern Ukraine," Levine notes. "The Black Sea port of Odessa was a hub of Jewish cultural life and was heavily influenced by other cultures, including Greek, Russian and Ukrainian."

Featured at the festival: award-winning Simple Gifts from Pennsylvania, who can mix klezmer with Irish jigs, Gypsy melodies, American reels and other ethnic folk styles.
The Jewish Cultural Arts Festival continues through early December. Next Sunday at 2 p.m.: Synergy, formed to introduce young audiences to the world's chamber music, along with poetry.


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