Tucson: the land of cactus, cowboys and… Klezmer?

Some may be surprised to learn that Jews have been active in Tucson’s political, commercial, and cultural life for nearly 200 years. Today, that heritage continues, and includes a contemporary group of local musicians that has been gathering weekly for more than a decade to play the unique Jewish folk music called “Klezmer.”

Klezmerkaba, as the group calls itself, is dedicated to this genre of music, loosely defined as Eastern European music in the Jewish tradition. Its history closely parallels that of Eastern European Jews, and its evolution reflects the migration of Jews in the nineteenth century throughout Eastern Europe irrespective of political boundary. Klezmer music has melodies from Greece, Eastern Europe, Spain, and more recently, American Jazz, swing and popular music. From “Hava Nagila” to the swing tunes of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, to Broadway tunes such as “Fiddler on the Roof,” all have roots in Klezmer music.

According to Mark S. Slobin, Professor of Music at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, “Klezmer bands originally were made up of a violin or two, a flute, a hammered dulcimer, and a bass instrument, often a cello. The age of sound recording enabled a bolder sound, and clarinet, percussion, brass and other instrumentation were added”, according to Slobin.

The word Klezmer itself is derived from two Hebrew roots: klei, meaning instrument, and zemer, meaning song. Traditionally performed mostly at weddings and other celebrations, Klezmer music is lively, danceable, and joyous. It can also be plaintive and reflective, expressing the pathos of the Jewish experience. The most skilled Klezmer players can move an audience to dance and to tears in the span of a single performance.

Tucson’s Klezmerkaba comprises about a dozen musicians, playing violin, clarinet, flute, saxophone, accordion, piano, trombone, bass guitar, guitar, drums and vocals. As the word “Klezmer” is an amalgam, so too is the band’s name, derived from “Klezmer”, and “Merkaba,” which means chariot of God, and connotes spirit, light, and soul.

Klezmerkaba brings the fresh and fun sounds of Klezmer to Tucson at a variety of venues. The group has performed at Tucson Meet Yourself, Tucson Botanical Gardens, Reid Park, The Hut, and at a variety of synagogue and private functions. “One of the things I like best about Klezmer is how interactive with the audience it is,” says Lisa Siegel, the group’s flutist. “It is a joy to see audience members get into the music, first by clapping along to the beat, and then, little by little, feeling moved and uninhibited enough to get up and join the circle dancing that almost always seems to spontaneously form when we play one of our happy freilachs (joyous dance tune).”

For more information about Klezmerkaba, contact Mark Ross at