November 16, 2018

Oh, Klezmer! Oh, Klezmer!

There are assorted good reasons to program a klezmer night around Chanukah, and brisk ticket sales is only one of them.

“Klezmer is a hugely important part of the Jewish language and culture,” said Dale Franzen, director of the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, in assessing the Eastern European music genre that touches on political and cultural themes. 

“The fact that Yiddish is dying worries me a lot,” she continued. “That’s a huge loss, and any little way that we can keep it going will be special. It’s depressing when languages die.”

She’ll get no argument from Lorin Sklamberg, a sound archivist for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York and the lead vocalist for the internationally known group the Klezmatics, who will take the stage at the Broad on Dec. 7. 

“People sort of refer to this mythical place where Jewish Ashkenazi culture exists like ‘Yiddishland,’ ” Sklamberg said. “There isn’t a place where people speak Yiddish day-to-day except little pockets of Chasidic communities.”

Of course, whenever Sklamberg and his fellow Klezmatics assemble, Yiddish and klezmer music escape the threat of extinction in a big way. Franzen expects the Klezmatics show to inspire much clapping, stomping and singing from an enthusiastic crowd. She also expects a sold-out house.  

“It will be a fantastic concert,” she said.  

That’s a safe prediction. Now in their 27th year, the New York-based Klezmatics have produced 10 CDs and performed in more than 20 countries. They won a Grammy Award for the 2006 album “Wonder Wheel” and hit the Top 10 on Billboard’s World Music chart. They have collaborated with artists as seemingly unrelated as violinist Itzhak Perlman, playwright Tony Kushner, folk singer Arlo Guthrie, beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Pilobolus Dance Theater. 

The band is currently at work on a joint project with Hungarian artist Péter Forgács on the installation of the video project “Letters to Afar” at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. “Letters” is based on home movies made by Jewish immigrants from the United States while visiting their hometowns in Poland during the 1920s and ’30s. Music from the project — as well as old favorites — will be part of the Broad performance, according to Sklamberg.  

“We haven’t written for anything exactly like this [before],” Sklamberg said of the “Letters” project. “The closest thing I can think of was the work we did with Pilobolus Dance Theater. A lot of the time, you have the music and they construct the dance piece around it. This way, you’re sort of accompanying them rather than the other way around.”

The Broad gig will be a homecoming of sorts for Sklamberg, who grew up in Monterey Park, attended shul in Alhambra and studied briefly both at UCLA and USC. He is the only Klezmatic with West Coast origins and still has family in Los Angeles. 

But the roots of this roots band are decidedly East Coast. When asked about the band’s formation, Sklamberg started to tell a story that sounded like it was heading toward a punch line: “In 1986, a guy from San Francisco came to the Village in New York to play Yiddish music …

“I never met that guy,” Sklamberg said, “but his band somehow morphed into this sextet. We rehearsed in this apartment — and if you know New York, you know that apartments are long and narrow. We rehearsed standing in a line, and we just never really thought this would be something that could be a career. 

“We were playing the music with our whole beings,” he continued. “We were putting ourselves into the music in a way that came naturally to musicians who play other types of world music. There are places where music is an indigenous part of a given culture that has a homeland and place where people speak the language.” 

As the ’80s slipped away, the Klezmatics were able to ride the wave of interest in world music and the proliferation of CDs. What was originally envisioned as a novelty band to be hired for parties and weddings ended up taking them around the world. 

“That Yiddish music was included in the world music book, which was something that hadn’t ever happened before,” Sklamberg said. “Because, by and large, Yiddish music was insular; it was part of [the] Jewish community at large, but it wasn’t really being exposed to a wider audience. So now it’s considered like another genre of world music, which is all the more healthy for the longevity of the music we play.” 

The band’s current incarnation includes original members Sklamberg (accordion, guitar, piano), Frank London (trumpet, keyboards) and Paul Morrissett (bass, tsimbl), along with Matt Darriau (kaval, saxophone), Lisa Gutkin (violin) and Richie Barshay (percussion) 

Every Klezmatic has one or more side projects, and the band’s most recent album and accompanying documentary celebrating its 25th anniversary — 2011’s “Live at Town Hall” — was funded through a Kickstarter campaign. 

“I have this day job, which is part time and flexible enough for me to do what I need to do, but sometimes it becomes more difficult to sustain, to keep creating new repertoire,” Sklamberg said. “People are wedded to the idea that you put out a new collection of songs. I’m assuming we’ll make more CDs, but I don’t know.”

The Klezmatics have a handful of December dates in California and Arizona and pick up their touring again in March 2014. 

When Franzen was looking to program an assortment of different cultural holiday offerings for the Broad, she locked in the baroque group Interpreti Veneziani, “A Cajun Christmas” with BeauSoleil and the always zany Impro Theatre for “Jane Austen UnScripted.” To complete the set, she wanted a blowout klezmer night to coincide with Chanukah. 

“I talked to Aaron Paley at Yiddishkayt, [the L.A.-based group that promotes Yiddish culture], and he said ‘There’s only one band. You have to bring in the Klezmatics,’ ” Franzen said. “I did a lot of research, and indeed, they were the group to bring.” 

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