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Klezmatics / Rise Up
Rounder Records, 11661-3197-2, 2002
It opens with a mournful, Middle-Eastern sounding wail. Then Lorin begins to sing, "Klezmorimlekh mayne libinke....". Then Frank London sounds out with his trumpet and the band and a few friends let loose with a loud tuneful, jazzy, klezmer-styled jam and all is well. A few songs later, the band opens up with a Purim-song sung as a round, complete with Paul Morrissett's delightful bass voice. The Klezmatics are out with a new album and all is well with the world.
Originally written partially in response to 9/11, then delayed another year as the band reconfigured itself, there is an intensity to this album that was lacking, perhaps, a bit on "Possessed". This one takes me right back to the urgency and necessity and life-changing "listen to me now" demands of "Jews with Horns." This is the Klezmatics at their best--not klezmer, but an attempt to sing, to play, to write songs about being Jewish and about being people, Yiddish-speaking people, in a vital urban scene of Jewish renewal.
As I listen to Lorin sing "Loshn-Koydesh", already a pun, translated as "Holy Tongues," I am reminded of how incredibly empowering it was to see the band for the first time in San Francisco. Lorin was dressed in leather. The astounding Sara Felder, the juggler and comedienne, opened. Lorin came onstage and announced that it was something like "Safe Sex Week," and the band was giving out condoms at the literature and CD table in the back. Then the band let loose with the most amazing music I had ever heard. It's almost ten years later and the music is deeper now, especially this song, intricate and of obvious double-meaning, playing with Yiddish and English and Jewish music. And the band still lets loose with the most amazing music I have ever heard.
Matt Darriau's contribution, "Di Gayster" (Ghosts), is an exquisite instrumental, as is London's "Davenen" (Prayer). The way the band creates an entirely new and experimental piece around Shmerke Kaczerginsky's voice singing memories of workers in Vilna before the Holocaust is intensely near perfect. It's a good song to remember, today, when our own government seems no less hostile to workers (and to those not rich and simplistic):
Supper? Who you tryn' a kid
The cannons spit like mad
And the children have gone out
To help their mom and dad
Fathers, mothers, children too,
Are building barricades
Detachments march along the streets
Workers on parade
The middle eastern dirge to which the traditional "Yah Ribon" is set is perfect for the band, and, along with "Hevl iz havolim" (Vanity of vanity) the album's best audible equivalent of "Mizmor Shir Ha-Nef" from Possessed. But, then it's followed by a delightfully straight (well, rhythmically, if not otherwise) set of Bulgars. Klezmer played gaily forward. That's where it all started, right? I had forgotten how much I missed the interactions between this particular set of musicians. While newcoming Lisa Gutkin is not Alicia Svigals, she fits in well. The result comes wonderfully together.
For all that I love this album, I'll note that even a faux boy's chorus doesn't do it for me. Granted, the voices are there just for little bits of the otherwise brilliant instrumental, "Tepel", but I'm just giving notice that in its extreme breadth, the album sometimes misses--at least, in my opinion. The real problem is in the song that directly responds to 9/11 (and to the response to 9/11 by the holy rollers among us), "I Ain't Afraid." I am among those who for whom Holly Near's "Live Album" was the soundtrack to my political life in the '70s. Then ("Ah, America, at last I can say your name, without feeling sorrow, without feeling shame"), as now, sometimes Near manages to sound self-congratulatory and condescending, rather than empowering. It sets my teeth on edge. "I Ain't Afraid" is one of those songs. "I ain't afraid of your Yahweh / I ain't afraid your Allah / I ain't afraid of your Jesus ... I'm afraid of what you do in the name of your God." The song is electric in Yiddish, but no less sanctimonious, as though belief in God is part of the problem (which, it =can= be, as the song states, when people act in God's name--or, as the song doesn't say, in the name of "the people" or in the power of the markets to solve all of life's problems). Hell, the arrangement of the song, the voices, the harmonies, the English, the Yiddish, weaving in Adrienne Cooper and the gang--it sounds incredible. I love it until I listen to the words.
I don't care. This is a wonderful album. And I criticize where I do with some sense of worry that I will obscure how great this album is. I also worry that in focusing on the songs and what they sound like I will obscure what an amazing political and social document this is. Using primarily Yiddish, with some English, some Hebrew, the Klezmatics engage the political and social world around us--something that is not as explicitly true for any other explicitly Jewish band. That they do this while also affirming and emphasizing connections to Jewish tradition, including religious tradition. This is something that almost no one else seems to think or talk about. The Klezmatics are in the vanguard by doing so, and doing so in such a moving and powerful way.
Where today's average klezmer band includes a repertoire of Yiddish theatre songs, klezmer dance tunes, perhaps some Israeli folk songs and some religious songs--things that emphasize cultural continuity as nostalgia, referenced by somewhat static cultural signifiers, the Klezmatics have taken similar elements and make a statement that Jewish community also implies activism and engagement in the liberation struggles that surround us. In the Klezmatics' hands (or voices, or instruments) Yiddish isn't simply revitalized--it is revitalized as a language in which people say and sing things that must be heard. Thes things include the intent to live out sometimes politically progressive, sometimes gay, sometimes religious, always questioning the status quo lives while emphasizing the need to work within an explicitly Jewish framework, but one that is often explicitly not halakhic (according to traditional Jewish law). There is a need to make being "out" as Jews a center part of who we are. To couple this with ties to both religious and radical political traditions is also a central part of what being Jewish means to many of us, especially those of us thinking and rethinking "Jewish" as a cultural mosaic. This isn't necessarily the Judaism of large suburban (or urban) synagogues, annual High Holiday services, and pledge drives for Israel. But whatever Judaism it represents, it is a Judaism that sustains "Jewish" in a radical political and cultural context.
I've already said that this album is as electric as "Jewish Without Horns". I'll also say that it's as deep as "di krenitse" (the Well), the album they did with Chava Alberstein. The Klezmatics are out with a new album and all is well with the world. The world better watch out.
Reviewed by Ari Davidow 7/26/03
Personnel this recording:
Lorin Sklamberg: lead vocals, accordion, high-strung guitar, piano
Frank London: trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, alto horn, piano, organ, keyboards, percussion, vocals
Matt Darriau: alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, kaval, percussion, vocals
Lisa Gutkin: violin, baritone, violin, vocals
Paul Morrissett: electric and acoustic basses, tsimbl, piano, violin, hardanger fiddle, hurdy-gurdy, alto and baritone horns, vocals
David Licht: drums, percussion, vocals
- Klezmorimlekh mayne libinke--Beloved klezmorim, my dear ones (trad., Klezmatics) 2:03
- Kats un moyz--Cat and Mouse (Frank London) 5:15
- Loshn-koydesh--Holy Tongues (words: A. Almi; adapted Michael Wex; music: trad., Klezmatics) 5:41
- Tepel (trad., Klezmatics) 5:03
- I Ain't Afraid (words, music: Holly Near; Yiddish: Michael Wex, Adrienne Cooper) 5:09
- Di gayster--Ghosts (Matt Darriau) 5:23
- Yo riboyn olam--Creator, Master of this World (trad., Klezmatics) 6:02
- Bulgars #2--Tantsn un shpringen (Joseph Moskowitz/Lisa Gutkin/Abe Schwartz/Klezmatics) 4:51
- Barikadn--Barricades (Shmerke Kaczerginsky/Klezmatics) 4:22
- Davenen--Prayer (Frank London) 3:59
- St. John's Nign (Lorin Sklamberg) 3:43
- Hevl iz havolim--Vanity of Vanities (words: trad.; music: Frank London) 5:11
- Makht oyf--Open Up (trad./Klezmatics) 3:11
- Perets tants (Frank London) 3:31
- I Ain't Afraid--English edit (words and music: Holly Near) 4:20