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Members include Matt Darriau (replaced Krakauer), clarinet, saxophone; Lisa Gutkin (replaced Svigals), violin; David Krakauer, clarinet, accordion; David Licht, percussion; Frank London, trumpet; Paul Morrissett, bass; Lorin Sklamberg, lead vocals, accordion; Alicia Svigals, violin. Addresses: Record company--Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140. Management--Dan Efram, Tractor Beam, P.O. Box 1591, New York, NY 10276. Website--The Klezmatics Official Website: http://www.klezmatics.com.
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, have 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 alike. 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 that was 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 covered just about every inch of musical turf, from the silky pop of vocalist Mel Torme to the hip-hop of LL Cool J.
At first the band was essentially 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, and 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, which is Yiddish for "Silence = Death," a motto of the militant AIDS awareness group Act Up. The album was 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 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 master klezmer the way the old-timers played it, and to incorporate more external 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 was gypsy melodies from Romania 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 gay activist stance, particularly with the first track, "Man in a Hat," a homosexual pickup 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 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 also appeared on several television shows, including Late Night with David Letterman, CBS's Nightwatch, MTV News, and the BBC's Rhythms of the World.
As the 1990s continued, new projects presented themselves. 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 with klezmer helped to dramatically increase the American public's awareness of the music, and 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 in New York's Central Park. In the fall of 1996 the Klezmatics went into the studio to begin work on their own 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.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Klezmatics broadened their horizons still more. Their 1998 album The Well was a collaboration with top Israeli vocalist Chava Alberstein, who had set a group of contemporary Yiddish-language poems to music. The Klezmatics also continued to collaborate with other musicians, including the rock trio the Ben Folds Five (on "Steven's Last Night in Town" on the Forever and Ever Amen CD).
After releasing the album Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf! in 2002, the Klezmatics helped bring to light a surprising musical discovery: a group of Jewish-themed songs written by American folk troubador Woody Guthrie. The Klezmatics composed music to about 20 texts that Guthrie had written, mostly under the inspiration of his wife, Marjorie Mazia Guthrie. Often joining Guthrie's son Arlo in concert, the Klezmatics performed Guthrie songs ranging from "Ilse Koch," a grim tale of World War II-era concentration camps, to the holiday tune "Hanuka Tree."
The Klezmatics toured Germany in 2004 and the United States in 2005. That year they released the live CD Brother Moses Smote the Water, which featured new collaborations with African-American Jewish gospel singer Joshua Nelson and jazz vocalist and organist Kathryn Farmer. With adventurous bands like the Klezmatics leading the way, it seemed likely that klezmer music, in spite of premature reports of its demise, was here to stay.
by Robert R. Jacobson and James M. Manheim
The Klezmatics's Career
Group made recording debut with Shvaygn = Toyt (Silence = Death), Piranha, 1988; signed to Xenophile label, released Jews with Horns, 1995; signed to Rounder label, and (with Chava Alberstein) released The Well, 1998; and Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf!, 2002; released Brother Moses Smote the Water, Piranha, 2005.
The Klezmatics's Awards
Deutsche Schallplatten Kritikspreis for Rhythm + Jews, 1992; Gay & Lesbian American Music Award (GLAMA), for The Well, 1998.
- Selected discography
- 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.
- Possessed Xenophile, 1997.
- (With Chava Alberstein) The Well Rounder, 1998.
- Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf! Rounder, 2002.
- Brother Moses Smote the Water Piranha, 2005.
- Economist, April 6, 1996.
- Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2004, p. E8.
- Montreal Gazette, March 4, 2005, p. D9.
- New York Times, July 4, 1996; December 23, 2003, p. E1.
- Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), October 23, 2002, p. E7.
- San Diego Union-Tribune, June 29, 2000, Night & Day section, p. 17.
- Sound Views, December 1995.
- Village Voice, February 12, 1991.
- Washington Post, June 9, 1996; December 18, 1998, p. N10.
- "The Klezmatics," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 24, 2005).
- The Klezmatics Official Website, http://www.klezmatics.com (May 24, 2005).
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Xenophile Records press material, 1996, and a conversation with Klezmatics member Frank London.
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