La'Om / Riffkele
Raumer Records, RR13299, 1998
Now, this album is a pleasure. I've had it for over a year, and each time I think I'll have time to write about it, I get distracted, and then save it for that perfect, great, scholarly, noting every good thing with pleasure review. No time. So, over a year after it arrives, I'd like to at least acknowledge something special so that people other than myself will find this.
What makes this album special isn't just that it is a successful live recording, capturing the essence of a band playing to an appreciative audience. That does help, and does help explain some of the occasional "airiness" in recording. It also helps explain the wonderful stretches the band takes as they take tunes and stretch them together into long, traditional wedding strings, such as on "Galata Sandwich," but also the jazz- and rock-influenced improv that stretches out single songs as different instruments take the lead, soloing, exploring. This is something that does not appear in the traditional klezmer world as we generally experience it on old '78s, or as played by those musicians who taught the klezmer revivalists, or within the klezmer revival, itself. In traditional music, and in klezmer as it is now played, there are specific pieces where a soloist might be expected to show up (the "doina" being a common form). But to keep the audience dancing, one doesn't stretch out so much as repeat and move on to different tunes—changeups to keep the dancers happy.
But, once the music moves out of the simkha-hall and onto the concert stage, then there are transforms that become relevant. Here, the audience mostly sits and listens (although, happily, it is increasingly common for the aisles to fill with those who show their pleasure the traditional way—feeding their own dance energy back to the musicians). If the audience is mostly sitting and listening, the music need not focus on dancing only. In Boston, where I live, the Klezmer Conservatory Band mixes dance tunes with Yiddish folk and theatre songs, perfectly, in one of the best amalgams of old and new anywhere on the planet. But they don't improvise the way my favorite rock and blues bands do. In fact, until the last couple of years, the only wonderful improv klezmer album was Shirim's transitional "Naftule's Dream," the review of which was one of the reasons this KlezmerShack was started.
But, now we have "Riffkele," in which generally traditional klezmer (and related dance musics from the regions) is played with passion and skill by a very tight improvisational band. Listen to Carsten's clarinet on "Nikolaev Bulgar," for instance, or the preceding, stretched out "Terkishe Yale V'Yavo Tants". For that matter, the title song, "Riffkele," is exactly that: a riff on familiar hongas and other tunes as heard by the band from Brave Old World and Di Naye Kapelye. (I don't want to make a big deal of it, but it is also very neat to hear a band this good riffing on newer arrangements and tunes. Until bands started to become at home both with older repertoire and new, klezmer could not claim to be fully revived. But, few are this good. Makes me wonder what they'd do with Andy Statman's "Flatbush Waltz," a song that is, to my mind, vastly underperformed. Carsten? If you're listening, might I humbly suggest a number for the next recording....)
Beyond improvisation, however, it probably matters to note (since the musicians themselves note the issue on their liner notes, nicely done in German and English), that this is not a Jewish klezmer band. That immediately creates some ambiguity and raises questions. It is difficult for some people to hear white folks play jazz or the blues given slavery and subsequent racist patterns. But, this is nothing to the messiness of listening to the current klezmer fad in Germany. As noted in this album's liner notes, "there can't be any natural relationship to Jewish culture here in Germany, for the culture from which klezmer music emerged was destroyed by German-initiated genocide." And, while there is apparently (I have no first-hand knowledge) much angst about kids rebelling at their parents and grandparents participation in, or silence about the Holocaust, and a god-awful amount of emotionally-loaded, for that matter, more emotional than informed or skilful German klezmer, this is not it.
"When we, as non-Jewish Germans, borrow from the musical language of the Yiddish culture, we are often treated with skepticism: Isn't any attempt to restore this destroyed culture a cheap effort at reconciliation? Do the grandchildren of the perpetuators think they can close this chapter of history when they slip into the role of their grandparents' victims?"
There is no good answer to these charges. For the members of La'om, this is the music that speaks to them. This is the music that they feel compelled to play, and in which they find happy expression. I would contend that, had I not made the point of mentioning the issue, most listeners to this album would be enchanted by the music, by the improvisation, and by the tightness of the traditional melodies, rather than wondering as to the music's "authenticity" or the right of the musicians playing to touch this particular repertoire. In that, La'Om have succeeded twice. First, they offer further confirmation that you don't have to be Jewish to play heartfelt and informed klezmer. Second, they have produced the sort of album that many lesser, if Jewish-staffed, klezmer bands would love to be able to play. This is simply wonderful music. It fills the ears most nicely, and it sounds "klezmer" (Well, the one anachronism is the very German not Yiddish sounding pronunciation on the one song accompanied by words, "Lekhayim!" or the German "sch" that creeps into words such as "Yiddische", and, in a different way, the decidedly, "anyone's dance tunes that fit the frenzy" pieces stitched together in the closing Kolomeykes—but, conceptually, isn't that what should be there?). I have some confidence that if there is real controversy, it is over the substitution of mandolin for tsimbl in songs such as the Moscowitz-Terkish. Most listeners will be far too entranced by Carsten's playing to be conscious of the substitution. You will be, too. This is worth sending away for. Make yourself happy and do it.
Reviewed by Ari Davidow 5/28/00
Personnel, this recording
Matthias Groh: violin
Thomas Hunger: contrabass
Franka Lampe: accordion
Stefan Litsche: clarinet
Carsten Schelp: mandola
- Nu Ma Calca Pe Picior —Don't step on my foot (trad., La'om) 4:34
- Rumänische Fantasie (trad., Lampe, Schelp) 2:21
- Geampara (Boris Rhabal, La'om) 4:27
- Galata Sandwich 7:13
Kalamatianos (trad., Schelp) 0:34
Doina (Groh) 1:29
Constantina (trad., Schelp) 1:32
Tants Istanbul (D. Tarras, Schelp) 2:21
Constantina (trad., Schelp) 1:02
- Der Yiddischer Soldat in di Trenches (trad., Groh, Hunger) 5:38
- Terkishe Yale V'Yove Tants (trad., Schelp) 6:40
- Nikolaev Bulgar (D. Tarras, La'om) 2:31
- Riffkele (trad., Groh) 5:58
- Dem Trisker rebn's Chussid (trad., Lampe) 5:18
- Ternovka Bridge (D. Tarras, K. Björling, La'om) 4:33
- Moskowitz-Terkish (trad., La'om) 3:24
- Fun Tashlikh (trad., La'om) 5:49
- Lekhayim! (M. Gebirtig, Schelp) 4:50
- Kolomeykes (trad., Groh) 6:33