the Klezmatics / Brother Moses Smote the Water

typical piranha cover, but that's fine

the Klezmatics with Joshua Nelson and Kathryn Farmer
Brother Moses Smote the Water

Piranha CD-PIR 1896, 2005

It seems somewhat fitting that the first Klezmatics live CD (discounting their wonderful tracks on the original live "Fiddlers" album) should focus not on their previous work, but instead move, again, into new territory. It is also tremendously satisfying that the band whose first album title made explicit reference to the connection between the AIDS epidemic and the Holocaust (shvaygn=toyt: silence=death) should use the Passover themes of exodus and freedom to find common ground where these intersect with Black themes of liberation and then rock the world with amazing music. This new album is recorded at the same festival in Germany at which the first Klezmatics album was recorded. The band completes a circle and continues making wonderful, new music.

In a sense, this album continues the discussion of "what is Jewish music?" or even better, renews the dialogue once nearly ended by Hitler: "What does it mean to be Jewish, and especially, what does it mean to be a Jewish artist, in this time and place?" As a reviewer, I ask these questions not just because they are on my mind, but because I am trying to create a context to describe a band that, for years, symbolized the klezmer revival and a fusion of klezmer with music of the last couple of decades. At the same time, the band has consistently moved in more directions than can be explained by "klezmer". From a ditty collaboration with Michael Wex about forbidden substances, to work with Tony Kushner on a reworking of the play, "The Dybbuk," to the Yiddish-English collaboration with Holly Near in their last major label CD release, to last year's Woody Guthrie project the band continues to explore new territory. As Frank London wrote last year about Woody Guthrie (and added, in response to questions about this alum:

Yiddish-Klezmer music is our raison d'etre and it's what we have defined and what defines us. the Klezmatics are and will always be a band rooted in Ashkenazic Jewish music. When the Klezmatics do Woody Guthrie, we explore every aspect of what that could mean that is within our means and abilities. Where are we going? Think about all the aspects of jewish music that we have dealt with—political songs, nigunim, hasidic material, yiddish poets, theater and dance music, concert and party repertoires, etc.

Our goal was never to push klezmer as a genre, just to make good recordings and be as good a band as we can be. We don't really have a plan or a direction, we just try to react to what happens around us, to what we encounter, and try to make the best music—the best complete artistic statement—that we can.

The album opens with a haunting trumpet rendition of "Eliyahu HaNavi". The song is present at the seder, when the door is opened to allow in the prophet, and also to welcome any persons standing outside who need food or shelter. After London's solo, Lorin begins to sing, and as he ends, the band seques into "Elijah Rock". Joshua Nelson introduces himself and his voice. Lorin responds with "Ki loy nue" from the wonderful alphabet/counting songs sung after the formal seder is done.

One of my favorite pieces, is the heart-wrenching version of "Shnirele Perele". The band must have performed this piece thousands of times over the last 20 years. It has lost none of its soul. Sklamberg's voice is, if anything, richer and more expressive than ever. In the middle, Josh Nelson enters in full cantorial nusakh singing "Ani Maamin". The juxtaposition of both songs expressing faith in the coming of the Messiah fits. The unifying of the sense of "Exodus" with memory of the Holocaust ("Ani Maamin" was sung in the concentration camps in part as a protest against dehumanization and death, as a stubborn claim of continued belief even under the most appalling conditions) and the theme of the coming of the Messiah is beautiful, powerful. The CD is worth it for this track alone (and for the bonus video of this song being performed live, playable on most home computers, Mac or PC). The fact that this project was initiated by New York's new Holocaust Museum (not coincidentally, one of the best venues for new Jewish music in the city) seems especially appropriate.

The rest of the album, except for a roaring "Ale Brider" is spirituals and gospel, with singing alternating between Sklamberg, Nelson, and Farmer. A splendid rendition of Sam Cooke's "Oh, Mary don't you weep" brings everyone singing together. Like many of us, Sklamberg grew up singing black gospel and spiritual songs:

We have a reputation as 'the klezmer band that sings,' With Brother Moses we were able to join with additional voices which really gave us an opportunity to do a lot of wonderful singing together. Another exciting thing for me was getting to sing songs I have loved for many years, but never had the chance to sing.... A lot of people sing 'Let my people go' during Passover ... This project came out of that. We were looking for the Old Testament intersection of these two musical traditions: Jewish music and Black spirituals. Gospel and spirituals are two different things, but musically this just evolved to have more gospel."

This is a powerful, wonderful album. Instrumentally it sounds much simpler than many Klezmatics albums. But the weaving together of the amazing voices and the energy generated by voice and band performing in front of a resonant audience make up for that. It's a bonus, too, in a year when many of us are especially looking at our traditions for political strength and inspiration. In one sense, this album is a celebration of spirituality and common faith. In another, it is also a call to action.

To the question of what this all means in terms of Frank London's sense of new American Jewish music, he responded: "Links in the chain, Ari." Which takes me back to where I began: the dialogue about what it means to be Jewish is alive and well. Judaism and Jewish culture are no longer frozen in time as they seemed to be during my growing up in the shadow of WWII. The Holocaust didn't succeed. Bands like the Klezmatics—especially the Klezmatics, are playing amazing music linked directly to the chain of Jewish tradition, and more. It's perfectly okay to purchase this album because it contains great live music. What makes this album great is that there is so much more here than mere great live music. Enjoy.

Reviewed by Ari Davidow, 23 Mar 2005

Personnel this recording:
Lorin Sklamberg: lead vocals, accordion
Frank London: trumpet, keyboard, organ, vocals
Matt Darriau: alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, vocals
Lisa Gutkin: violin, vocals
Paul Morrissett: bass, tsimbl, vocals
David Licht: drums, vocals

Joshua Nelson: lead vocals, piano, organ
Kathryn Farmer: lead vocals, piano, organ


  1. Eyliyohu hanovi (trad., arr. London) 2:39
  2. Elijah rock (trad., arr. Klezmatics and Joshua Nelson) 9:17
  3. Ki loy nue (trad., arr. Klezmatics) 6:41
  4. Shnirele, perele (trad., arr. Klezmatics) 8:30
  5. Walk in Jerusalem (trad., arr. Klezmatics and Joshua Nelson) 5:17
  6. Go down Moses (trad., arr. Klezmatics and Kathryn Farmer) 7:21
  7. Moses smote the water (trad., arr. Klezmatics) 3:08
  8. Oh Mary don't you weep (Sam Cooke / Leroy Crume) 3:49
  9. Didn't it rain (trad., arr. Klezmatics, Joshua Nelson) 5:01
  10. Ale brider (trad., arr. Klezmatics) 5:49

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