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When Kawhi studied klezmer

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Kawhi Leonard shooting a free throw at Game 2 of the 2019 NBA Finals (Wikimedia Commons photo - Chensiyuan - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

Yes, that headline is correct. Kawhi Leonard’s interest in music extends well beyond the hits created by ultra Raptor fan Drake. At the beginning of the decade, when Kawhi Leonard was a sophomore at San Diego State University, he signed up for Anthropology 422: Music and Culture, which is still taught by klezmer violinist and composer Yale Strom.

“It’s an ethnomusicology class” explains Prof. Strom via telephone from his home in San Diego.  “The course focuses on the music of marginalized minorities,” including klezmer, African-American styles, Roma and Sufi music.

If there was an all-star team in the Yiddish music world, Strom would undoubtedly be a starter for the Western squad.  He has recorded 15 albums, written 13 books, directed nine films, and is working on a 10th documentary entitled American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs. Strom also recently released a critically acclaimed album of Hannukah music from around the world, Shimmering Lights. So, students who enrol in Strom’s courses know they’re going to get a unique education from one of leading experts in Jewish music.

 “Teaching Kawhi was special”, Strom remembers. “He was quiet, a very good student who spoke in class, but didn’t seek attention.”

How does he teach such a course?  “In class, we do lots of listening.” So, I asked Strom what types of klezmer music he played for Kawhi and the other students in class. “We listened to recordings of Dave Tarras, Naftule Brandwein, Zev Feldman, Andy Statman, the Klezmorim, David Krakauer, violinist Alicia Svigals, and my band Hot Pstromi.”

After class however,Strom liked to talk to Leonard and other student-athletes about another passion: basketball. “I was a student athlete myself. I was in cross country and track & field.” So, that’s why so many student-athletes have been drawn to his courses, he explains;  he completely understood the regimen. Strom remembers back when he was an undergrad, at San Diego State no less: “I practised early in the morning, running five miles to 10K, then went to classes, followed by practices in the afternoon and classes in the evening.  Being a student-athlete is a lot of work, but we all enjoy it.  I like the feeling of accomplishment both in class on the cross-country course.”

So, it does seem like a perfect match.  One of the world’s greatest basketball players with an interest in ethnomusicology took a course from one of the leading performers and scholars of klezmer music – who happened to be serious runner!

What is next for Kawhi Leonard?  Despite Toronto’s status as a music capital, the most diverse city on earth wasn’t enough to convince Kawhi to remain in Canada, as news just broke that he will sign with the Clippers in his hometown of Los Angeles.  We will always be able to relish the Raptors magical title run, bringing the nation its first basketball championship. Since Drake couldn’t convince Kawhi to stay in Toronto, our vibrant klezmer scene probably wasn’t a factor either.  Nothing can compete with home and family.

While Strom reminded me that in class, Kawhi Leonard’s favourite styles were contemporary hip-hop and R&B, we can all hope the basketball legend continues to follow the latest trends in klezmer music. Southern California can boast Gustavo’s Bulgach’s Klezmer Juice and Yale Strom’s band Hot Pstromi.  Meanwhile Toronto’s scene includes The Flying Bulgars, Lenka Lichtenberg, Beyond the Pale and Yiddish Glory. Full disclaimer:  I’m a producer for Yiddish Glory, and on behalf of these bands, plus others across Canada, to help further Kawhi’s interest in Yiddish folk music, we are prepared to offer front-row seats to any klezmer concert in the city whenever he visits Toronto.

Thank you for the beautiful memories.

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