It’s an art form rarely heard any more—but 2018 has welcomed its sounds to Wilmington twice now. encore reported on traditional klezmer music last spring when woodwind instrumentalist Seth Kibel arrived to perform at the Juggling Gypsy. The music most notably was heard at weddings and other celebrations in the Old Country a century ago. However, as Jewish immigrants and asylum-seekers came across the pond in the 19th and 20th centuries, Old World sounds began to mix with new. Klezmer even landed in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Americana music continues to thrive and evolve with bands like Asheville’s Zoe & Cloyd. Natalya Zoe Weinstein and husband John Cloyd Miller make up the duo and will head to Kenan Auditorium to perform UNCW’s Homegrown Holiday Concert this weekend.
“I actually just did a presentation to a class yesterday on klezmer as part of my family’s musical story,” explains Weinstein, whose Russian grandfather was a professional klezmer musician. “My grandfather passed away when I was fairly young . . . but he played klezmer music and my dad played jazz piano . . . and of course, [my grandfather] said to my dad, ‘Don’t ever try to make a living as a musician!’” [laughs]
Despite her family’s history, and father being an accomplished pianist and educator, Weinstein didn’t have a lot of exposure to klezmer. That changed when she moved to Asheville.
“There are a lot klezmer musicians here,” she observes. “I played with [Bandana Klezmer] when I first moved into town, so I did get a little bit connected with the community here.”
Miller also comes from a musical family and is deeply rooted in traditional bluegrass. His grandfather, Jim Shumate, was an award-winning fiddle player. Weinstein studied Shumate’s work in her graduate program at App State, where she also dove further into her own familial and musical background.
“Through the program I had to take a course on Appalachian literature,” she continues, “and we had to do a family project, where I came back to my family’s klezmer heritage. And we play a number of klezmer songs in Zoe & Cloyd shows now.”
Both also are part-time instructors at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, where Miller teaches songwriting and Weinstein violin. They also work with bass player and music department chair Kevin Kehrberg, who will join them onstage at the holiday concert.
“What I love about teaching is the opportunity to learn for me,” Weinstein muses. “I got to delve into research [on klezmer] for this presentation yesterday and got to share it in a fun way. . . . And these students are really good musicians. Oftentimes I’ll have to go learn a song and it challenges me to learn something on the fly and teach it to them.”
Weinstein and Miller now marry their collective traditional sounds and backgrounds with modern sensibilities into “new Appalachian” music. Western North Carolina has always been a melting pot of people, arts and music, but klezmer and traditional bluegrass seem to come together pretty seamlessly.
“There are a lot of parallels between Jewish folk music and (as you might say) Southern mountain folk music,” Weinstein offers. “There are a lot similarities. Bill Monroe actually carried Jewish musicians in his band over the years and wrote a song or two inspired by one of his Jewish fiddle players [and] klezmer music.”
As Zoe & Cloyd prepare to return to the studio in January, they plan to incorporate two klezmer songs into their next record: one is in part named for a town in Ukraine, “Berditchever Sher,” and the other is an original klezmer-inspired tune called “Zisa Meydele,” which means “sweet little girl” in yiddish for their 3-year-old daughter. In turn, “Running on Empty” is about parenting.
“It’s an interesting fusion of different styles,” she says of their latest collection. “Music is moving into this direction of not fitting into boxes of genres or people, and it’s nice to have it go in that direction—especially in our world of acoustic-American music.”
Most of these new songs are topical tunes, too, emerging from (and in response to) a culture of division we’ve seen over the last few years. Many are reflections on current local, national and world events. “I Am Your Neighbor” is about how we treat people, how to be kind to those in need and folks looking for sanctuary.
“Another one we’ll probably do is ‘Rising Waters,’” she continues. “That’s one John wrote in response to the flooding we’ve been getting here in North Carolina, while, at the same time, out West has been burning.”
Though Weinstein is the more prolific in music and medley—and Miller the creative force behind the lyrics—the couple work through all tracks together. Both are well-established standalone musicians, but each have complementary skill sets (to music and life in general) to the other.
“I would say my role is more ‘songwriting assistant,’” Weinstein quips. “I come from a more classical, structured musical background and John is so much more of a feel player—he has more of feel for music. He came from more of a singing background and that really got me singing. . . . I think that’s really been one of the strengths of our duet—the sum is greater than the parts.”
The duo will showcase the breadth of their talents and roots at UNCW, and play their latest originals and klezmer-inspired songs. Plus, they will play tunes from Miller’s famed grandfather and other old-time fiddle-banjo numbers. “We like to bring a variety to our shows,” Weinstein notes, “as well as share stories and history with it.”