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From: "Chris King" firstname.lastname@example.org
Date: Wed, 11 Sep 1996
Klezmatics to appear at Washington U.
by Chris King
The Klezmatics, who will kick off the Jewish New Year at Washington University
this Thursday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. with a concert in the Quad (rain location:
Graham Chapel), bill themselves "the planet's radical Jewish roots band." It is
a careful and accurate choice of words.
"Jewish roots music" is klezmer, that vagabond Eastern European uncle of jazz,
defined with an emphasis on the music's ethinic identity. "I love the first
bands of the klezmer revival like the Klezmorim," says Klezmatic
multi-instrumentalist, arranger and writer Frank London. "We all owe those
guys. I have played with them and learned from them. But they never once
mentioned Jews or being Jewish. It was just klezmer, klezmer, klezmer." The
Klezmatics address this silence in their two latest album titles, Rhythm and
Jews (Flying Fish, now Rounder) and Jews with Horns (Xenophile). "Those are not just puns,"
London insists. "We want the word 'Jews' on the covers of our albums. We
believe in being out, honest, clear, who we are. Being quiet never worked for
Jews. Politically, it never worked for anyone."
The band directs this open and honest approach at issues other than ethnic
identity. Jews With Horns -- a most fantastic album -- includes "In Kamf" ("In
Struggle"), a popular Yiddish labor song they recorded with a chorus of elders.
"We're afflicted and persecuted," the translated lyrics declare, "only because
we love the impoverished and languishing people." The Klezmatics have become a
voice in the struggle to create honest public discourse about drugs in this
country. "Several of us in the band have smoked pot forever," London says.
"It's no big bones. We want to contribute to a culture of credibility about
drugs. To say pot is evil is stupid, because when kids try it and find out it's
not so bad, why should they believe that heroin is dangerous?" The Klezmatics
have also recorded music for a film about gay activists (Fast Trip, Long Drop),
and their first album title, Shvaygn = Toyt, translates the ACT UP slogan
"Silence = Death" into Yiddish, embracing Jewishness, openness and AIDS
activism all at once. "We have openly gay people in the band," London says, "so
that is part of who we are."
One might wonder about departures from tradition, what with the dope smoking
and same-sex love. No problem whatsoever. The labor song is undeniably
traditional, and for cannabis songs the band has borrowed from traditional
Greek paens to hashish. For gay material, the Klezmatics have been able to
drink from the Jewish tradition's deepest source, the Bible. "Out first
outwardly gay song comes straight from Song of Songs," London says. "All that
beautiful lyric poetry, some people want it to be all about God. That's fine.
But it also makes great love poetry." In fact the more daring and radical the
band becomes, they find themselves falling ever more comfortably upon
tradition. ("Radical" means, after all, "from the root.") "Whenever we think we
are being very now, very new," London says, "we find out what we have done is
actually very traditional. A radical Jewish tradition goes back hundreds of
years. We fit right in with old Yiddish socialist music."
Their repertoire certainly grounds them in the past. Like most contemporary
klezmer bands, they depart from klezmer narrowly-construed by adding vocal
arrangements, even writing their own lyrics; "klezmer" traditionally referred
to the instrumental Jewish dance music. But the tunes themselves are mostly old
as the old-country hills. Startling moments have emerged in their collaboration
with old-time klezmer players like Ray Musiker. "We would be showing Ray tunes,
and he would sometimes say, 'That is too old for me'! See, we actually move
very slowly, very tied to tradition."
Confidently rooted, the Klezmatics are free to wander the world like the
klezmorim of old, who created so spectacularly dynamic a tradition precisely
because they went everywhere and learned everyone else's tricks. This band's
openess is two-fold: They openly declare who they are and what they do and
remain open to other identities, other ways of playing and being. Thus they
justify the planetary aspect of their self-definition as "the [ital:] planet's
radical Jewish roots band." They have shared stage and studio with clasical
master Itzhak Perlman, avante garde dude John Zorn, alternative rock fave Ben
Folds Five, transsexual cabaret singers and the ancient Moracaan Master
Musicians of Jajouka. Not to mention multimedia collaborative credits with
poets, playwrights, acrobats, ballet companies, you name it. "It is typically
klezmatic," London says, "to perform in Central Park with wild Moracaan
musicians, perform serious klezmer music for some theater gig and then do Radio
City with Itzhak Perlman. All within three days. Yet maintain our identity
while fitting in with all these other people."
The Klezmatic's musical identity within the klezmer revival reflects these many
collaborations, if only in their dazzling energy. You know the jolt your
personality gets when it has been sparking off other people? That charges out
of Jews With Horns (Xenophile), the band's current release. The ensemble
playing on the dance numbers is both tight and open, hot and cool. David
Licht's drumming, agile enough to accompany a circus, and Alicia Svigals'
many-mooded fiddle work strike me as the ensemble's strengths, particularly
that fiddle, which finds a dream canvas in the alternately breakneck and
broken-hearted range of klezmer. This band sings more than their peers, and
much more effectively. "Man in a Hat," a silly pun song for their home city
Manhattan, is their only foray into schmaltz. They manage moving and sober
(yes, you can be moving and sober and sing Yiddish) treatments of introspective
poetry, fisherman laments, wordless songs of ecstasy and labor anthems -- a
credit to the range of lead vocalist Lorin Sklamberg, though everyone sings.
Sounds like a New Year's Party to me! Kudos to St. Louis Hillel Center for
having these open souls open their 50th Anniversary Jubilee Celebration. "It's
a big party," London promises, "and everyone is invited. Just leave your biases
at the door."