Category Archives: Jewish

The Klezmatics – ‘Rhythm + Jews’


Klezmer is the music of Ashkenazi (eastern European) Jews, that was reinvigorated and reshaped by Jewish immigrants’ encounters with early jazz in 1920s New York (as I’ve discussed here). The Klezmatics are undoubtedly the most successful klezmer band ever, and they can also make a good claim to be among the most influential and most interesting. They formed in New York just over 25 years ago, and so although they didn’t begin the ‘klezmer revival’ – The Klezmorim predate them by a decade – they certainly gave it a good kick up the backside. They haven’t really made a bad album, but this is usually cited as their best, and with good reason. If it wasn’t such a cliché, you might say that if you only buy one klezmer album…

The first thing to note is that The Klezmatics are all individually brilliant musicians. Their line-up has changed over the years, but on this album they feature trumpeter Frank London, clarinet player David Krakauer, violinist Alicia Svigals and singer Lorin Sklamberg, all of whom have gone on to be involved in various other excellent projects. The line-up is completed by bassist Paul Morrisett and drummer David Licht. The instrumental solos are never less than thrilling, and each member who plays a lead instrument gets their own showcase track – the titles ‘Clarinet Yontev’ and ‘Violin Doina’ are fairly self-explanatory. However, like the Captain Planet kids, the band are at their best when their powers combine:

As that track shows, The Klezmatics are not really exponents of klezmer in its purest form. Klezmer bands since the revival begun can broadly be divided into two groups: those who seek to recreate the sound of late nineteenth-century European klezmer as accurately as they can, and those who expand on the sounds of the genre by pushing the music closer to rock, hip-hop, jazz or even avant-garde sounds. In my opinion, the injection of rock’n’roll punch into their sound only makes The Klematics sound better, rather than diluting their music. The rock influence is not so overt as to make the music sound like a fusion mishmash; it adds an extra drive and power into their sound, upping the ante. It’s this that makes David Licht the band’s secret weapon – although he never really gets to show off his chops in the way that the soloists do, his drumming adds just the right amount of extra rock’n’roll power into the band’s sound. Given that he’s playing klezmer though, a lot of the rhythms and time signatures he’s playing would leave most rock drummers scratching their heads.

Although there is a definite rock influence – Svigals is apparently a die-hard Led Zeppelin fan – don’t think that this band don’t know their stuff when it comes to klezmer tradition, too. Many of the tunes here come from the repertoire of 1920s clarinet demigod Naftule Brandwein, who in his day was as inventive as The Klezmatics, given his raw playing style and jazz influence. On top of this, the album features tunes from the Hassidic tradition –‘Honikzaft’ even sees a section of the Biblical Song of Solomon set to an infernally catchy melody. Rather than being disparate, the various strands of influence permeate the whole album, as exemplified on this opening track, which even pays homage to the crossover between klezmer and Arabic music by featuring Egyptian percussion whizz Mahmoud Fadl:

(You can find a more ‘traditional’ interpretation of this tune on Joel Rubin and Joshua Horowitz’s excellent album ‘Besserabian Symphony’.)

The album begins to become more reflective towards the end, as Lorin Sklamberg – who no less an authority than Simon Broughton has called “the best Yiddish singer around” – sings ‘Shnirele Perele’, a Hassidic song about the imminent arrival of the Messiah. But even this is transformed into something like Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’; you can imagine a whole arena chanting it back at the band. The final part of the album is the ‘Klezmatic Fantasy’ suite, blending together several tunes, beginning with the mournful ‘Der Yiddisher Soldat in di Trenches’ before ending with the more upbeat ‘Turkisher-Bulgarish’.

With razor-sharp but still ‘rootsy’ instrumental prowess, a respect for tradition but an equal desire to innovate, and a good dollop of humour too (come on – look at that title), ‘Rhythm + Jews’ should probably be the first Klezmatics album you buy, but it equally shouldn’t be the last…

Various Artists – ‘The Soul of Klezmer’

As strange as it may sound, klezmer music probably has one of the biggest media presences of any form of ‘world music’ – or ‘ethnic minority music’ if you live in the US. In other words, even if you don’t know it, you will have probably heard klezmer. Think about it: TV shows as disparate as Frasier and Futurama have at least one Jewish character, and the episode that sees their bar mitzvah or wedding will feature a klezmer soundtrack. It’s this raucous music that this marvellous compilation celebrates. But it also shows another side to Ashkenazi Jewish music (as opposed to the other Jewish diaspora musics, for example the Sephardic, Ladino-language music of the likes of Yasmin Levy, or the Yemeni Jewish repertoire made famous by Ofra Haza) – the stately, almost mantra-like songs of Hassidic mysticism, pleading for contact with God.

Klezmer is one of the great forms of ‘fusion’ music. The genre name comes from the Yiddish word ‘klezmorim’, meaning a band of amateur musicians for hiring at weddings. That amateur nature is perhaps key to the energy and rough edges of the music. The beginnings of the genre lie in the shtetls of eastern Europe, and the crossover points between klezmer, gypsy music, Turkish military music and other genres have led to some very interesting collaborations and experiments. For example, the Hungarian band Muzsikás (perhaps most famous for their ‘Bartok Album’) appear here, proving a common ground between gypsy and Jewish music. Klezmer evolved into the style we know today once it, and its players, reached the US, when jazz and swing influences crept in. It is here that this compilation comes in, featuring examples of a couple of the greats of the early klezmer scene: Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras, both born in the old country, yet both firmly establishing klezmer as an American genre of music, Brandwein’s rugged and rough style contrasting with Tarras’ military band precision.

No surprise that they were both clarinet players. While the violin is a very important instrument in klezmer, and instruments including accordion, dulcimer, mandolin and the human voice also appear on this compilation, it’s those piercing clarinets that reign supreme. Whether plaintive, wailing, screaming or almost seeming to laugh, the one thing klezmer clarinet never is is relaxed.

Another key moment is the ‘klezmer revival’, which began in east-coast USA in the 1970s. The band often claimed to be the movement’s frontrunners were simply called The Klezmorim, and boy could they play – dig this flute!

The ‘90s saw another burst of klezmer creativity, with bands experimenting with subversions of the strict style. As represented on this compilation, they range from the track by the Andy Statman Quartet which features American banjo/mandolin whizzkid Béla Fleck, to Budowitz’s attempt to recreate as nearly as possible the sound of authentic, nineteenth-century European klezmer. The most successful of the lot has to have been The Klezmatics, a sort of supergroup who’ve featured such important figures as trumpeter Frank London, violinst Alicia Svigals and singer Lorin Sklamberg. Additions such as a drumkit have made the band’s sound a little more friendly to the rock fan’s ear, but don’t think they don’t know their stuff, as this track off their hilariously-titled album ‘Rhythm + Jews’ shows:

This compilation manages to showcase all these various sub-genres and chronological developments of the music over two CDs, mostly featuring American bands, but also including old masters such as Brandwein, and Europeans such as Muzsikás from Hungary and Kroke from Poland. As is the case with all of these ‘longbox’ compilations issued by the German record label Network (other gems in the series include ‘Road of the Gypsies’ and ‘Sufi Soul’), there’s also some fantastically informative notes in English, French and German, and many great archival photos of Jewish ceremonies. Quite frankly, you couldn’t ask for a better introduction to the genre, given that it includes most key figures as well as a few oddities – and not sequenced in any real order, so there’s no chance of getting bored with too much of the same. Whether or not you know the difference between a freylekh, a doina and a bulgar (different song types), it’s all great fun, lively, energetic and complex. The only dud track is the rather overwrought ‘A Yiddisha Momma’ sung by Ava Gold, about how much she loves her old mama. Well, schmaltz is a Yiddish word (although it originally meant ‘chicken fat’!)

If all that clarinet and exciting dance music has worn you out a bit, let’s finish with an example of the more sedate, though no less emotionally intense side of klezmer. Based on the liturgical chants of the Hassidim, there’s a few examples of this repetitive, spiritual music on this compilation too, mostly sung by the marvellous Lorin Sklamberg. Here he is with The Klezmatics, singing ‘Shnirele Perele’. How fitting that this song finishes the compilation: the most successful klezmer band in the world performing a song about the imminent arrival of the Messiah. What a note to end on, eh?