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From: "Chris King" brodog@cyberjunction.net
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."

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Copyright (c) 1996 by Chris King. Send me E-mail with any comments or suggestions. All rights reserved. This page last revised 9/26/97.