Have a Fantastic Klezmatic Hanukkah!

December 19, 2011

From left: Frank London, Matt Darriau, Lisa Gutkin, Lorin Sklamberg, Paul Morrissett. Photo by Joshua Kessler

On Dec. 19, as part of their 25th anniversary tour, the Klezmatics will perform at Walt Disney Concert Hall for a Chanukah concert featuring both their well-known and new repertoire. On the program are songs by the legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie — or, as he’s known in klezmer circles, American-Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt’s son-in-law.

The band has just released a double CD, “Live at Town Hall”; Erik Greenberg Anjou’s documentary, “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground,” featuring the band’s Town Hall concert, as well as performances in Poland and Hungary, is just out on DVD; and they are also working on a new album. There’s much to celebrate.

Klezmer — from which the band took its name — is the joyous, expressive music of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, a sound inspired by Bessarabian Romania, as well as the Roma (Gypsies), and is often played at weddings and other celebrations. Originally purely instrumental, Klezmer is a type of music long admired by people of all faiths and performed in Enlightenment-era European churches centuries before becoming the soundtrack to Yiddish life. Its appeal comes from its unique mix of the seemingly conflicting emotions — comic, plaintive, happy, sad, mournful — while also being transcendental and spiritual. It’s an infectious idiom that, like Yiddish itself, is forever being pronounced dead or dying, or dismissed as an artifact of a disappearing Jewish life that, nonetheless, persists in growing and reinventing itself.

The Klezmatics got their start in 1986, when Frank London, who had been playing jazz and rock ’n’ roll, placed an ad in the Village Voice looking to start a Klezmer band. Among the respondents was Lorin Sklamberg, a Los Angeles-born, classically trained musician who had a day job at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. As Sklamberg recounted recently, he worked on the same floor where the sound archives were located.

“The YIVO sound archives have touched virtually everybody who plays klezmer music,” he said, “because it was the first place that people knew of that housed historical recordings of Yiddish music, particularly instrumentals for klezmer music. It’s really one of the catalysts of the klezmer music revival. I don’t know if the klezmer revival would have been possible without it.” Sklamberg was allowed to pore through the recordings and make cassettes of whatever caught his fancy. That was, Sklamberg said, “the band’s music education and my own.”

Sklamberg still works at YIVO, but today he is “the caretaker of the collection.”

“That’s very lovely for me,” he continued, “because now I know enough to help other people who are looking for material the way we were looking in the early days of the band. So it’s a huge privilege and responsibility.”

Or as London put it regarding the Klezmatics: “We see ourselves as links in this glorious chain that never stops growing.”

“Live at Town Hall” is about as good an introduction/sampler/greatest hits collection as one can imagine. Tracks include Klezmatics original clarinetist Margot Leverett joining the band on Abraham Ellstein’s “Bobe Tanz” from their first record, high-energy romps from “Rhythm & Jews” featuring clarinetist David Krakauer, selections from their collaboration with Tony Kushner for “The Dybbuk,” “Di krenitse” from their collaboration with Chava Alberstein (who is often referred to as the Joan Baez of Israel) and songs from “Brother Moses Smote the Water,” including “Elijah Rock,” featuring Joshua Nelson — the Jewish-African-American exponent of Jewish gospel singing. All this, as well as songs from “Wonder Wheel,” the aforementioned Woody Guthrie collection, which won the 2006 Grammy for best contemporary world music — the only Grammy ever awarded to a klezmer or Jewish-music band, as well as its follow-up, “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah.”

“It was so much fun to celebrate being together this long as a band, and to do it by getting everyone who has ever played with the band to be up on stage with us,” London said. “There was a lot of nachas — pride — out of the whole concert and CD. So much of what happens to the Klezmatics is more just about being out in the world and being available and open,” he said.

Some of this openness has led to collaborations with the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Woody Guthrie. “Who would have known?” London said, adding that he could never have foreseen that “Joshua Nelson has turned out to be one of the most enduring and fun collaborations.”

Certainly, no one could have predicted the hugely popular music festivals like the Jewish Music Festival in Krakow, Poland, where klezmer is played day and night, performed primarily by non-Jews to mostly non-Jewish audiences in a country that has few Jews.

Sklamberg is philosophical about this turn of events: “It’s part of where this music lives now. … One of the things you are reminded of when you perform in places like Krakow, is that this is where this music came from.” Sometimes these foreign audiences have an immediate and gut reaction to the music that is missing among American Jews who weren’t raised with the music or have no connection to Yiddish, he said. “It’s funny that the music is heard with different ears and is felt in different ways by different people.”

The Klezmatics’ documentary is not so much a concert film as it is an “Anvil! The Story of Anvil”-like tale of the band’s interpersonal, professional and financial travails, which came as a surprise to London. “If you had polled the band on what they thought the movie would be about, I don’t think any one of us would have said that.”

In a recent article, The Wall Street Journal declaimed: “While the new album marks 25 years, those who watch the documentary may wonder if the Klezmatics will make it to 26.”

I prefer the see the documentary not so much as the story of a fraying band, but of how, despite the challenges of this digital age, it persists.

It’s a matter of endurance, as well. Twenty-five years on, as both London and Sklamberg remarked to me, they still find inspiration in klezmer as their birthright and their heritage, but they also are still discovering ways to make it new. Their show at Disney Hall offers a chance to celebrate all that, and Chanukah, too.

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