From the time Susan Watts was born, her mother, the great klezmer drummer Elaine Hoffman Watts, taught her to love and appreciate music.
Her family had a closet full of instruments. One day, when she was 7, she opened the closet door and pulled out a trumpet, setting herself on a path to follow in her family’s footsteps and become a musician.
“I was like, ‘This [trumpet] is for me,’” Watts said. “‘This is my voice. I want this.’”
Today, Watts plays at weddings and other simchas and at concerts around the community and the world. On Oct. 28, a dream of hers will come to life at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. For one night only, she will join a group of women, whom she called the best in klezmer, to put on Soul Songs: Inspiring Women of Klezmer.
The event combines skits, audience interaction and spectacle elements, but the focus is its klezmer music. The music, which was composed by the women in Soul Songs, combines the new with the traditional.
“I don’t think there’s one word that describes it,” Watts said. “It’s an entertaining show. It’s interactive. It has elements of theater and has elements of spectacle.”
Watts comes from a line of klezmer musicians stretching back to her great-grandfather, Joseph Hoffman, a Ukrainian Jew who played clarinet in the Russian army. Her family brought the klezmer tradition with them to Philadelphia, where they have played at weddings and other simchas for generations.
The Philadelphia Folklore Project has worked with the Watts family for decades, including for the creation of Eatala: A Life in Klezmer, a documentary about Elaine Hoffman Watts.
“The mission of the Philadelphia Folklore Project is to support community-based tradition,” organization Director Selina Morales said. “We believe that people’s ability to advance their community traditions, their folk arts, their community culture contributes to wellness and vitality of communities. Klezmer is a perfect example of that kind of art because it requires many people. It’s something that a lot of different people can enter at different skill levels. Susan is a masterful artist, but she can also teach people who are new to klezmer how to become part of that community.”
About two years ago, the organization began collaborating with Susan Watts on her Community Klezmer Initiative, where they worked to bring klezmer music to a greater range of people. They also organized big Yiddish dance parties with her, which hundreds of people attended.
“It was very clear that it wasn’t just that she was doing something by herself, but that she was bringing lots of people along with her, which for us was evidence that what she was doing mattered and could stand to make an impact,” Morales said.
Morales said Watts’ work had a lot of momentum and overlapped with their mission. This prompted her to sit down with Watts and ask her what project she wanted to work on next.
Her response, Morales said, was women.
“My dream was to have all these women klezmer players playing brand-new klezmer music and having our voices be heard with just our own music and our own voices,” Watts said.
Watts has always enjoyed working with women. She said she just likes the vibe, and likes supporting people who are underrepresented.
About a year ago, Watts began putting Soul Songs together.
Early in the process, Watts interviewed the other composers. She asked them what women they admire, what they associate klezmer with and what advice they have to offer, among other questions. She has included that information in creative ways throughout Soul Songs, such as in the skits.
Each of the composers, almost all of whom are Jewish, created several songs for the show.
“Klezmer is Eastern European soul music, Jewish soul music,” Watts said. “It’s the music of people from Eastern Europe and Ashkenazi descent. It’s the music that was happening at important moments in our lives. It’s the experience of the culture that we come from and the feelings of the culture that we come from.”
The focus of the performance is the music, but visual and spectacle elements of the show supports the music and brings out context. They worked with Jenny Romaine, the New York-based performer, stilt dancer and puppeteer, to put these aspects together.
For the performance, the women will be wearing coats with 1930s vintage patterns, Romaine said.
“They’re sort of uniforms for an army of women composers, but they’re not military,” she said. “They’re chic.”
Romaine also put the sets together. The show is comprised of different chapters, for which she created different looks. Some of them have more traditional settings. One looks like a synagogue, made partially out of the coats. One looks like a living room and another like a portrait gallery. Projections in the show are styled after album cover art.
The answers the composers gave in their interviews provided inspiration for the visual elements as well.
“The relationship to the past is as creative as the artist is because the person who’s forging the relationship is creating that relationship,” Romaine said. “That’s what these women composers do. Each one is a really unique artist with their own fascinating amazing skill but also their own personalities.”
Morales said she hopes the show inspires the audience to bring klezmer into their lives.
“The hope is that this ignites peoples’ interest, that the audience will enjoy what they see on stage and think differently about women and their expectations for women in klezmer music,” Morales said, “but also, that they will take a step closer to this community, that they will participate in it in some way.”
As for Watts, she hopes the audience enjoys Soul Songs.
“I want them to hear masterful, amazing klezmer music,” she said, “and I want them to have a community experience.”
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