Elaine Hoffman Watts' family came to the United States from a town near Odessa in the former Soviet Union. Her father, Jacob Hoffman, was a prominent member of a klezmer band that was recorded in the 1920s. Elaine received training from her father and uncles in the family's repertoire of polkas, freilachs, mazurkas, shers, and other tunes of Eastern European Jewish musical tradition. She became the first woman graduate in percussion from the Curtis Institute of Music. With many opportunities before her, Watts chose to maintain the three-generation family tradition of playing klezmer music at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other social events. She points out that being a woman and a drummer often was a barrier in her career but as one klezmer scholar observes, "Elaine is an important role-model to young players who otherwise would have no clue that women were indeed a part of traditional Yiddish music. Because those of us who study traditional Yiddish culture have no homeland in Europe to which we can return, we rely heavily on the 78-rpm recordings that were made during the early years of the 20th century. The vast majority of musicians on those recordings were men, and Elaine's presence is critical in redressing this imbalance."
NEA: Congratulations on your award. Could tell me how you felt when you heard the news?
MS. WATTS: I didn't know that I had been nominated. I had no clue. So when Barry Bergey called me I was, like, "Wow! Where did this come from?"
NEA: Tell me a little bit about your earliest memories playing klezmer music and drumming? Who were your mentors?
MS. WATTS: The music my daughter and I play is the klezmer I learned from my daddy. It was the music we played in our house. I started playing drums when I was a little girl-- five, six, seven, I don't remember exactly. My father was my mentor, my teacher. He would take me to the cellar and sit me down at the drums and he would play the klezmer on the xylophone. He was a genius xylophone player. Klezmer-shmezmer. I didn't know what he was talking about! He would show me what to play, the beat. It was a certain beat, and that's what I learned. I didn't take formal lessons until I was 12. I didn't know how to read music, I just knew the rudiments. I knew how to play because Daddy taught me, but I had no idea whose footsteps I was following in.
NEA: A woman playing klezmer at that time was quite unusual. Can you talk a little bit about the barriers or opportunities that this created for you?
MS. WATTS: Cross out the word "opportunity." Cross it out. The barriers were tremendous. Tremendous! The only time I played klezmer at a wedding or bar mitzvah was when my daddy was the bandleader. He played xylophone and I was the drummer. Other than that, no, no, no, no, no.
NEA: You perform with your daughter now, and you've also taught some of the traditions and the music to your grandchildren. Tell me what it means to you to be passing this along to future generations.
MS. WATTS: You know, many years ago it went from father to son, father to son. But in my family, in my case, it went from father to daughter, then mother to daughter. Susan comes by the klezmer naturally. When we do concerts we also do lectures and Susan will say, "What resurgence? It was always there in our house. Pop-pop was always playing klezmer on the piano. It never left our family."
We play a klezmer that goes really far back. We have two books that my grandfather wrote in 1927, pen and ink, you know, with the klezmer songs that he remembered from Russia that were popular at that time. Our repertoire consists of a lot of tunes from that book. And there are also songs in there that my grandfather wrote that we play.
NEA: Could you speak to the unique role that you see klezmer music plays in the Jewish community?
MS. WATTS: Roots, roots, roots, roots, roots. We played a gig a long, long time ago at a college Hillel, and a young girl brought her grandmother. The grandmother came up to us after the concert and cried, and she said, "They played that song at my wedding. The Romanian Bolgar. They played it at my wedding." It's like 100 years old, and young people today don't realize where that song goes back to, but we try to explain a little bit of it. I want the young people to appreciate it. If you go to your friend's kid's bar mitzvah you're not going to hear the particular klezmer Susan and I play. You just won't hear it.
NEA: Have you seen a lot of changes to klezmer music over your lifetime?
MS. WATTS: Have I seen a change? Yeah, there's the hip-hop stuff. I don't know. Susan works with the premier hip-hop klezmer guy -- as a matter of fact, I did all the percussion samples for his hip-hop, so I'm out of a job, right? But I don't want them to forget that where the music comes from.
NEA: What advice do you have for young klezmer musicians, particularly for young female musicians?
MS. WATTS: What advice do I have? Get a day job. You do this because you love to do it. You're not going to make a fortune playing klezmer. What can I tell you? It's a hard way to make a living.
You've got to know how to play your instrument. Many of today's klezmer musicians -- I'm talking about the older ones in their 30s, 40s, 50s -- are classically trained musicians. Great musicians who decided, "I'm going to play klezmer." Or else they were brought up with it in their families. It was handed down to them. I know one particular, very, very good clarinetist, a woman, she's a great classical clarinetist and she decided she wanted to play klezmer. She's from New York, studied with Sid Beckerman. She's a great klezmer clarinetist. As a matter of fact, she did a concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra not too long ago and they did a klezmer piece. My cousin, who plays violin in the orchestra, told me he was very impressed with her playing. I said, "Well she's a great classical clarinetist. " He asked her if she knew me and of course she did. We all know each other.
I teach and play at these klezmer camps in the summer, and last year I did a course at KlezKanada, outside of Montreal. I said the course was for women whose mothers told them girls don't play drums. Well, they kept coming out of the woodwork. I ran out of drumsticks. I ran out of practice pads. We were hysterical. These women came up to me and said, "All my life I wanted to play drums." My grandson helped me and he said, "Grandma, where are all these women coming from?" I wanted to see hidden desires. We had fun.
NEA: What has compelled you to keep playing through the years?
MS. WATTS: I must've been very naïve. I just went on my merry way. I was not aggressive. You have to really push at it. I didn't. I got married, I had three children. I was a very, very good timpanist -- I could have made it in a symphony orchestra as a timpanist, but I wasn't inclined that way or pushed that way. I would've had to go out in the boondocks somewhere to start.
NEA: What has been your greatest source of pride as a musician?
MS. WATTS: Working with my daughter. She is incredible. She is a talent. You have no idea. Let me explain something. I might be quote/unquote a great klezmer player. I was a great klezmer player 60 years ago and nobody paid a damn bit of attention to me. Without Susan schlepping me on the jobs here in Philly, nobody would pay any attention to me. It's only since working with my daughter and going to these klezmer seminars and camps that they say, "Oh, look at this old lady. Look how she plays." Well, my oldest daughter, Eileen, says "It took the world time to catch up to you, Mommy."