Nicholas Papador playing marimbaMusic professor Nicholas Papador has published a collection of klezmer songs for percussion instruments like the marimba.

Percussionist professor introducing audiences to traditional folk genre

A music professor is adding his melodies to a traditional genre of music, while reminding people just how fragile culture can be.

Nicholas Papador, a professor in the School of Creative Arts and director of the University of Windsor Percussion Ensemble, penned the book Vessels of Song: A Collection of Klezmer Suites for Mallet Ensemble, which introduces readers to the historic sounds of the genre and offers musical stylings for percussionists.

Klezmer music is a traditional Jewish folk music dating back to at least the 16th century in central and Eastern Europe, a region known as the Pale of Settlement at the time, Dr. Papador’s book explains.

“The melodies themselves are original to Eastern Europe. But there are melodic fragments that share content with Balkan music and Greek music and other types of Ukrainian, Eastern European, Polish music,” he said, explaining the genre’s unique sound. “But there’s a lot of pitch bending, which makes this an interesting challenge on an instrument that doesn’t bend pitches. And some unusual scales.”

In the late 1800s to 1920s, political unrest in the Pale of Settlement spurred immigration to North America, primarily the east coast of the United States, but also Toronto and Montreal, among other areas. During that time, many of the traditional aspects of Ashkenazi Jewish music, including klezmer, had been lost before eventually seeing evolution as it met early jazz and popular music of the time.

“All culture is fragile,” Papador said. “We’re used to seeing things on the internet, assuming it will always be there. But this music wasn’t in anybody’s ears for a full 20 years before the klezmer revivals of the 1970s and ’80s — there’s a strong scene and fan base for it now.

“But I think with aspects of our culture, there are things we take for granted that can disappear under harsh political circumstances or harsh budgetary circumstances. Keep things that you value culturally close and keep them alive.”

Papador first found himself interested in the genre during his time as a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University when he was asked to fill in with a colleague’s klezmer band. He was then exposed to the music of xylophonist Jacob Hoffman, who recorded 78rpm discs during the immigration era of klezmer in the 1920s.

From there, Papador dove in, sparking the inspiration for his book which offers arrangements and historical background of the genre highlighting its importance to the percussion field.

“I didn't realize it was klezmer musicians who had a fairly large impact on the development of the marimba and xylophone in the symphony orchestra. So, there is some value here for symphonic percussion,” he said.

“Ragtime transcriptions from the same time period as immigration-era klezmer were popularized by my colleagues in the Nexus percussion group. With this in mind, I thought, why not have mallet ensembles that play klezmer music to engage with its cultural and political significance? But also, it’s just really fun to play. This kind of music would be good encore material if you played a solo recital and want to do something light and flashy at the end of your show.”

Vessels of Song: A Collection of Klezmer Suites for Mallet Ensemble was released last month through Heartland Marimba Publications, which specializes in this type of historical repertoire. Papador’s book is currently available for digital download online, with hard copies to be printed later this year.

Separate from his book and the musical stylings of klezmer, Papador will be performing in a chamber percussion recital with the Detroit-based RELA Percussion ensemble at the Capitol Theatre on Sunday, March 3, at 4 p.m.

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