A weekend with the Klezmatics

by Rachel Lasserson

Geraldine Auerbach, the tireless promoter of Jewish music in all its forms in the UK sent the following article to the Jewish-Music mailing list, writing:

I would like to share with listees a dream weekend in London when the Klezmatics came to stay. Writer, Rachel Lasserson, one of our energetic fiddlers and advanced Yiddish students has written the following piece which will shortly go on the JMI website and Newsletter. (don't forget KlezFest London will be 8-12 August following on from Ot Azoy! the Yiddish crash course 1-6 August. We are also doing a cantorial summer school for 5 days 20- 24 June. details an registration forms are on the Website www.jmi.org.uk).

It seemed too lovely a piece not to put online, which was done with the author's permission.

There used to be a TV show called Fantasy Football League, in which two couch potatoes fantasised about playing football with an ideal team of favourites.

This weekend has been little short of a Fantasy Klezmer league for Kleznerds. Who would you most love to jam with? Who is your dream backing band for your version of "Vu bistu geven"? To whose process would you most love to be privy? And, lastly, with whom would you most love to chat Klezmer - style, material and interpretation - over sandwiches and coffee? For today's Klezmorim the answer would be every time The Klezmatics, New York's best loved Klezmer band.

By sheer fluke The Klezmatics found themselves in London with 24 hours to spare. "Aha!" thought Geraldine Auerbach of the Jewish Music Institute, and, wasting no time, advertised a party and jam followed by a full day's workshop with the band, to which anyone with an instrument was invited. Hoardes of bedraggled kleznerds arrived at The Spiro Ark Yiddish Hoyz in Gray's Inn Road on Sunday night clutching instruments and hopping with excitement. Within ten minutes of the band setting up, a large circle had gathered around them with people pushing songs, melodies, chords, rhythms, which the crowd took up and transformed into a seamless three hour medley of fully-fledged numbers. When it got too much, people grabbed each other and danced around the musicians, returning to their instruments when their next favourite tune came around.

Something about the energy of a good Klezmer jam stays with you and keeps you pulsing for hours afterwards. This evening was no exception and I wonder if many of us managed more than a few restless hours' sleep before returning to the Hoyz the next day for some intensive study with the band. Exhaustion didn't much matter as Klezmer does what Klezmer needs and we were soon singing and playing our hearts out to a new tune which Lorin Sklamberg taught us. A wordless Yiddish song in traditional three-part form, we learnt it in a few minutes and went straight into a detailed look at the rhythms and counterrhythms which the bass parts could play with. From there we explored the tissue of harmonic and melodic layers, constantly going around the same tune and enjoying its evolution each time into something greater and more complex. Matt Darriau, the band's clarinettist, took a radical stand: you only need to know one Klezmer tune really well, as the rhythmic permutations, harmonic modulations and possible stylistic interpretations are so infinite that it's like having a whole repertoire of different pieces. Maybe, but there's no doubt that part of the pleasure of Klezmer is the accessibility of the melodies; through regular listening you can furnish yourself with an extensive repertoire of songs and tunes from the Klezmer canon, which trumpeter and composer Frank London defines as everything recorded between 1905 and 1975, when the new wave began.

After lunch Frank took us deeper into theory and process, sharing some of the Klezmatics' current work-in-progress with us. An Aramaic song with a Klezmer chorus, here the "Matics" were working within an Arabic style genre, using the flattened second note of the Arabic scale to "arabise" the Klezmer chorus. Two Woody Guthrie poems, one about Hanukah and one about the war, were set to music by individual band members. While Lorin had set the Hanukah poem to a universal folk song, Matt had set the military poem to an overtly Jewish song.

The discourse of tradition in the Klezmatics' repertoire has evolved over their twenty year history. When they started, back in the eighties, they set out to be a traditional Klezmer band and faithfully adapted Yiddish songs and melodies. A few years on they realized that "there was room for us" in their interpretations, and they began to explore what has become their trademark - highly individualistic, musically adventurous creations using traditional material as the starting point. World rhythms, from jazz and celtic, to Jamaica ska and Brazilian frevo, transform the old Ashkenazic melodies into contemporary dance music with a mass appeal. The band draws on a broad collective knowledge when it comes to musical traditions and disciplines, not to mention philosophy (while preparing his forthcoming Carnival project, Frank London has not only toured Brazil but is studying Mikahil Bakhtin's Theory of Carnival). Their starting point of traditional Klezmer music has now become the prism through which they interpret and compose, both inside and out of the stylistic genre. Through their strict observance of the Klezmer form they have found the freedom to experiment and cross-reference, achieving a provocative and highly charged new aesthetic.

As well as their stylistic interpretation, the Klezmatics are known for their thematic interpretations. Old bundist songs such as "un mir zaynen ale brider" are given a trademark homoerotic twist, as is the Yiddish version of the ancient Song of Songs. They also like songs about love, drinking, politics and social change. Their love of the weed prompted them to commission Canadian Yiddishist, Michael Wex, to write them a song about the joys of smoking marijuana. The complex and poetic word play, in Yiddish, may have escaped some, but those who get it will have connected the sweet smell of dope with that of burnt offerings in the temple, as well as the reference to Louis Armstrong's dealer, Mezz Mezzrow, as the Magid of Mezz Mezritch.

Our workshop finished by the late afternoon, although the Klezmatics experience was only really enjoying a short pause before the next and final phase: the gig. The moment of truth, where the finished product of all that involved thinking and experimentation is at last realized and presented to a live audience.

Old hits and tracks from the new album "Shteyt Oyf" transformed the packed Spitz venue in Spitalfields market into an all singing all dancing slice of Jewish New York. Inspirational teachers they all are, but as a band they are consummate performers: open, generous, virtuosic and joyous. The word "klezmer" means vessel of joy, and this they truly were. It is rare to find a band of this excellence and experience that communicates such joy in its own material and musicianship. Lorin has been singing Shnirele Perele for twenty years now, and still emanates a deep spiritual pleasure in performance, confirming the old Chassidic premise that song is the surest way to reach G-d.

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