Born in 1932, Elaine Watts is a third-generation klezmer musician, and a critically important, feisty, and enduring link to a particular Philadelphia-style Jewish klezmer sound, rooted in Ukranian and Romanian traditions, the southern regions of the Eastern European Jewish diaspora, different from (and long-obscured by) the better-known northern (Lithuanian, Polish) Eastern European Jewish ritual and celebratory musial styles. Working actively in Philadelphia in the early years of this century, the Hoffman family and other Philadelphia Jewish musicians shaped a Jewish American music reflecting the influences of their homeland as well as the musical culture of Philadelphia. Elaine's drumming anchors this sound.
Her grandfather, Joseph Hoffman, a cornet player, came to Philadelphia about 1904. Hoffman taught other family members the klezmer music he learned as a child in Eastern Europe: horas, Russian shers, polkas, mazurkas, Russian kamaratskies and kazatskies, a czardas, waltzes, freilachs, bulgars, and tunes named after towns: Kishinev, Bogopolier (the town the family came from, near Odessa). Played by the Hoffman family and other musicians at certain times in Jewish weddings, and in the parties that followed, this music became part of a distinctly Philadelphia klezmer repertoire.
Ms. Watts' father was Jacob Hoffman, a great klezmer drummer and xylophonist, and a versatile musician who knew many styles of music; he also played xylophone with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Born around 1898, he came to Philadelphia with his father and followed in the family tradition, making influential recordings in the first half of the century with the Kandel Orchestra, a well-known Philadelphia klezmer group.
The first woman percussionist to be accepted at Curtis Institute, from which she graduated in 1954, Watts has performed and taught for more than forty years, working in symphonies, theaters, and schools. Despite her skills and family heritage, when she was young Ms. Watts was seldom given opportunities to perform by klezmer bands, from the 1940s on: they didn't want to employ a girl, even Jacob Hoffman's daughter.
Ms. Watts began performing klezmer actively again about six years ago, with the group KlezMs, an all-female ensemble which included her daughter Susan Watts on trumpet. Now performing with an ensemble called the Fabulous Shpielkehs, Mrs. Watts is featured on a new CD, "I Remember Klezmer," which draws on and documents her amazing family musical tradition. As well, she is on the klezmer CD, "Fidl," with Alicia Svigals of the Klezmatics, has performed at KlezCamps and has been accepting invitations to play regionally. In June 2000, she was awarded a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. In 2007, she was awarded the nation's most prestigious award in the folk arts, a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.
In spring 2008, Watts will be featured in a PFP concert with a wonderful ensemble of nationally-known klezmer artists, joining in an effort to perform her family's repertoire. PFP is also working on a documentary videotape about Ms. Watts. (Play a sample here!)