Yiddish is the spoken language - a corruption of the German Judisch - but the music of Yiddish-speaking communities is called klezmer. And klezmer is one of the world's great diaspora traditions. The word comes from two Hebrew words, kley and zemer, meaning "instrument of song"; klezmorim became the generic term for all Jewish musicians in Eastern Europe.
Two superb compilations have recently appeared: The Rough Guide to Klezmer (RGNET 1047CD) and the double-disc Soul of Klezmer (Network 30.853). Both confirm that this music's present-day health derives from the fact that the klezmorim carried on in America after pogroms had forced them out of Europe. The Rough Guide album juxtaposes recordings made in the 1920s with contemporary reworkings of the same songs: soulful or exuberant, klezmer renews itself constantly, but always remains itself.
Jewish musicians have always followed their own precept: "Whichever wagon you get on, sing the same song." Riding along on Greek, Turkish, and Arabic wagons, they've coloured their songs accordingly. This is why, for example, the Hungarian Muzsikas Ensemble - who are not Jewish - are able to present with such confidence their album Maramaros - the Lost Jewish Music of Transylvania (HNCD 1373). This collection of laments, lullabies, and wedding dances is, as their leader puts it, "both 100 per cent Jewish, and 100 per cent Hungarian". Its preservation is largely thanks to the Gypsy musicians who were playing it when their Jewish patrons were wiped out 50 years ago.
For a different kind of history lesson, consider A Jewish Odyssey (PUT182-2), which reflects the music of the Sephardic Jews whose ancestors were forced out of Spain in 1492. One of its most seductive tracks is a collaboration between New York jazzer Uri Caine and the Moroccan singer Aaron Bensoussan, who learned to sing in the Sephardic synagogue style in the land of his birth. Other highlights are the Yemeni-Jewish soprano Ofra Haza - megastar at 20, dead of Aids at 40 - and the Chilean singer Consuelo Luz, who has devoted her life to reviving the forgotten Spanish-Jewish prayer-song repertoire. But that is in the other Jewish expatriate language - Ladino.