“Beyond the pale” is a lyrical way of labeling something beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior. The evocative prepositional phrase has been adopted as the name of a Florida microbrew, a German death-metal album, a Netflix stand-up comedy special, an Irish/folk band from Texas and — here is what interests us — a genre-bending klezmer fusion band from Toronto that plays Paradiso on Saturday, Feb. 22.
“We are rooted in Klezmer music, in Jewish music, and we throw a whole lot else in Beyond the Pale,” says Eric Stein, who founded the instrumental band and plays mandolin and mandocello. And, it should be noted, he created the band’s name in the late 1990s — long before the microbrew or the death-metal album even existed.
The band’s name is notoriously hard to look up via Google, and Stein says that one confused venue actually ran the Texas folk band’s bio on its website to promote a concert by the Canadian klezmer group.
“The expression 'beyond the pale’ has a common derivation — the idea that it is something beyond the bounds and breaking rules,” Stein says. “The expression is relevant to both Irish and Jewish people. In Russia, there was a large geographic settlement called the Pale of Settlement, beyond which Jews were not allowed to travel or settle. The Irish Catholics use the same expression to describe medieval Ireland under British control.”
Beyond the Pale is an apt name for his band’s music, a sonic syrup made from klezmer (the traditional secular celebration music of Ashkenazi Jews) blended with the folk rhythms of Romanian, Balkan, and Gypsy celebration music. For more than 20 years, the Toronto band has toured the world, having played New York’s Carnegie Hall as well as a spate of global Jewish folk music festivals (Miami’s Yiddishfest, São Paulo’s Kleztival, Vancouver’s Chutzpah Festival, and New Mexico’s own KlezmerQuerque). The band’s most recent album, Ruckus, released in 2017, received two nominations from the Canadian Folk Music Awards.
“The laboratory for the invention of klezmer music were Jewish weddings,” Stein says. “Back then, in the 19th century, weddings would last a week with rituals and gatherings that required different types of klezmer music as accompaniment. There was music for the bride being veiled, music for the in-laws being escorted from their homes to the wedding, procession music, party music, even different music for when the sun would rise at the end of a night of partying.”
For the record, Stein says he is the only Jewish member of the band. The other members, who are of Serbian and Scots/Welsh ancestry, grew up in Toronto’s highly diverse, immigrant-rich population: Aleksandar Gajic (violin), Bret Higgins (bass), Milos Popovic (accordion), and Martin van de Ven (clarinets).
“The real secret sauce of the band is the mix of where we are all from. It’s a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts,” Stein says.
Stein didn’t grow up on klezmer music, though. As a teenager, his tastes leaned to '60s psychedelic rock, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, and The Band. But The Band’s dalliance with bluegrass led him to folk, which led him to klezmer — as a sort of foggy mirror in which he began to grasp sight of his own cultural history.
“I had not really been connected to my history, my people, my religion till I got into klezmer music,” Stein says. “It helped me connect to these people who had a different niche in the Jewish community that gave them a sense of self and a means of self-expression.”
Beyond the Pale draws from both European and American versions of klezmer. Stein says early 20th-century Jewish immigration to the United States began to change the music.
“Klezmer music evolved even further as Jews moved from Europe to Boston, Philly, and New York. Klezmer began to take on elements of big band jazz. In the 1920s and '30s, the real heyday of Jewish theater music in America, there was a lot of great music that was colored by klezmer stylings,” Stein says. “But then there is the historical cataclysm which obliterated Eastern European Jewish communities where all this music came from. Cut off from a supply of audiences for this music, in the post-World War II era, klezmer music kind of gradually went the way of the dodo.”
Stein says it’s still possible to detect the traces of klezmer on Jewish musicians of the mid 20th-century era.
“In a counterfactual scenario, a Benny Goodman or Gershwin could have been klezmer musicians. Some people claim to find influences of klezmer in Gerswhin’s music,” Stein adds. “But by the 1960s, klezmer music was nearly extinct. Eventually, in the 1970s, there began a cultural revival of the music. That world of revival was what I encountered in the 1990s.”
It’s clear that Stein, a former history major, relishes his role as cultural interpreter-cum-musician. He says he enjoys playing the music for newcomers to the genre as much as he does for Jewish and Yiddish audiences.
“People really enjoy what we do. We balance more progressive and traditional interpretations of the music. We play for traditional Jewish audiences, and we perform for audiences who have never heard klezmer music before. That’s a gratifying experience for me, to show what klezmer music is, where it comes from, and where it’s going,” Stein says. “It’s music to mourn, music to celebrate, music to think to, music that reflects the whole of one’s life cycle.”