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Members include Lorin Sklamberg, lead vocals, accordion; Frank London, trumpet; Alicia Svigals, violin; David Licht, percussion; David Krakauer, clarinet (replaced by Matt Darriau, clarinet, saxophone, 1996); Paul Morrissett, bass. Addresses: Record company--Xenophile Records, 43 Beaver Brook Road, Danbury, CT 06810. Management--151 First Ave., Suite 59, New York, NY 10003.
What do you get when you throw together a collection of gifted musicians from such diverse musical worlds as rock, experimental jazz, Balkan folk, and classical, and get them to play a hip, updated version of traditional Eastern European Jewish party music? If you're lucky, you might get the Klezmatics, one of the bands most responsible for the surging popularity of klezmer music during the last several years. Klezmer is music for celebration, historically played at weddings and other events at which Jews-- both Old World and New--felt like dancing.
Rather than merely reviving a branch of music from the past, the Klezmatics have taken old-time klezmer and made it their own, drawing from the various forms and influences that have been relevant to their own lives. By doing so, the band has helped bring klezmer to the attention of a wide audience that includes Jews and non-Jews. This infectious brand of Jewish roots music frequently has senior citizens and teenage punkers dancing in a shared aisle. Many people had pronounced klezmer dead as early as the 1950s, as second generation Jewish-Americans assimilated into the American mainstream. The Klezmatics and other newer bands, however, have proven that far from being extinct, klezmer remains a living, evolving musical form with broad and current appeal.
The Klezmatics formed in 1986, when several of its original members answered a classified ad seeking musicians to play klezmer. Of those individuals, only trumpet player Frank London had an extensive background in klezmer, having performed with the Klezmer Conservatory Band, based in Boston. Violinist Alicia Svigals, for example, specialized in Greek traditional music and composition for theater, while percussionist David Licht was a veteran of such cutting edge rock acts as Bongwater and Shockabilly. In addition to his klezmer work, London's resume has covered just about every inch of musical turf, from Mel Torme to LL Cool J.
At first, the band was essntially a jazz outfit that drew from its members' eclectic musical pasts. Within a couple of years, however, the Klezmatics became firmly entrenched in the klezmer idiom. Apparently, the new music scene of Manhattan's Lower East Side was more than ready for its own klezmer group, as the Klezmatics quickly built a healthy following in their home territory.
Through painstaking research, the Klezmatics became experts in traditional klezmer, exploring the nuances of each instrument and song type. Some members even learned the Yiddish language to facilitate their education. At the same time, they infused the material with a politically and artistically charged attitude that reflected their own ideas about music and the world. The result was something that was both familiar and new, and it was effectively captured on the Klezmatics' first recording Shvaygn = Toyt--Yiddish for Silence = Death, a motto of the militant AIDS awareness group Act Up--released on the German label Piranha Records in 1988.
Appearing often at Bar Mitzvahs and fashionable downtown nightclubs, the Klezmatics played to increasingly larger audiences as the 1990s began. The group's commitment to dogged research never flagged, as members spent hours scrutinizing scratchy 78s for stylistic clues and new material. In 1992 the second Klezmatics recording, Rhythm + Jews, was released on Flying Fish. Among other things, the CD gave voice to the Klezmatics' gay activism, a philosophical stance that has appeared in the band's work repeatedly. Rhythm + Jews made it into the top ten on Billboard magazine's World Music chart.
The Klezmatics continued to both master klezmer the way the old- timers played it, and to incorporate more outside elements, including rock and hip-hop, into their approach. The idea was that klezmers--meaning musicians--have always absorbed the popular music of their neighbors, whether it be gypsy melodies from Rumania or big band swing in America. As violinist Svigals noted in the Village Voice, "Yiddish music is our music, but so is Led Zeppelin. What we're playing reflects exactly who we are: Jews in New York in 1991."
As their popularity grew, the Klezmatics began to collaborate on projects with an assortment of nationally- and internationally- known musicians from a wide variety of musical genres. Their 1995 recording Jews With Horns (Xenophile) included guest appearances by pop star Elvis Costello and guitarist Marc Ribot, a fixture on the Manhattan new music scene. On Jews With Horns the Klezmatics reaffirmed their pro-gay stance, particularly with the first track, "Man in a Hat," a homosexual pick-up story with a rollicking beat and rapid-fire wordplay. Jews With Horns reached the top ten on College Music Journal's World Music chart and also appeared on the Village Voice's 1995 Best of the Year list.
By this time, the list of well-known artists--both musicians and nonmusicians--with whom the Klezmatics had collaborated included poet Allen Ginsberg, composer/saxophonist John Zorn, choreographer Twyla Tharp, and award-winning playwright Tony Kushner. The band had also appeared on several television shows by this time, including Late Night with David Letterman, CBS Nightwatch, MTV News, and the BBC's Rhythms of the World.
As the 1990s continued, new projects came in bunches for the Klezmatics. Among the band's 1995 projects were the presentation of its performance piece The Third Seder at New York's Jewish Museum; and a collaborative effort with the Los Angeles Modern Dance and Ballet Company called Klezmania. The band's most visible project, however, was its appearance, along with three other prominent klezmer ensembles, with classical violinist Itzhak Perlman in the Emmy Award-winning PBS television special "In the Fiddler's House." Perlman's involvement in klezmer helped to dramatically increase the American public's awareness of klezmer, and as a result the "In the Fiddler's House" tour played to capacity audiences everywhere it went, through much of 1996.
The success of the Perlman collaboration led to plans for a second recording to be released in 1996, as well as a European tour. That year, the Klezmatics participated in another, perhaps more intriguing collaborative project, teaming with the 4,000-year old Moroccan ensemble The Master Musicians of Jajouka for a performance at New York's Central Park. In the fall of 1996, the Klezmatics went into the studio to begin work on their own next recording project, which promised to include a suite from their score for Tony Kushner's adaptation of the classic Yiddish play The Dybbuk, as well as the usual assortment of klezmer originals, standards, nonstandards, neostandards, and hybrids. With bands like the Klezmatics leading the way, it seems likely that klezmer, in spite of the premature reports of its demise 40 years ago, is here to stay.
by Robert R. Jacobson
Klezmatics, The's Career
Sklamberg is vice president of Living Traditions, Inc., sponsors of the Yiddish Folk Arts Program and has performed with clarinetist Don Byron and on various Yiddish song recordings; London is a member of Les Miserables Brass Band, has performed with John Zorn, Lester Bowie, L.L. Cool J, and Mel Torme, has composed music for film, theater, and dance projects; Svigals has composed and performed traditional Greek music and has performed with classical and rock artists, including Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and Jimmy Page; Licht has been a member of Shockabilly and Bongwater and has played with various klezmer ensembles; Darriau leads the Balkan rhythm quartet Paradox Trio, composes for a variety of media, and has performed with, among others, David Byrne and Charlie Haden; Morrissett has performed and recorded traditional Balkan and Scandinavian folk music with many groups in many venues.
Klezmatics, The's Awards
Deutsche Schallplatten Kritikspreis for Rhythm + Jews, 1992; nominated for best group at First Annual Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards (GLAMA), 1995.
- Selective Works
- Shvaygn = Toyt, Piranha, 1988.
- Rhythm + Jews, Flying Fish, 1992.
- Jews With Horns, Xenophile, 1995.
- (With Itzhak Perlman and others) In the Fiddler's House, Angel, 1995.
- Economist, April 6, 1996.
- New York Times, July 4, 1996.
- Sound Views, December 1995.
- Village Voice, February 12, 1991.
- Washington Post, June 9, 1996.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Xenophile Records press material, 1996, and a conversation with Klezmatics member Frank London.
Klezmatics, The Lyrics
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