New Batch of Klezmer Releases Makes an Impressive Collection

New Jersey Jewish News – Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf!, CD Review

By Theodore Defosse

It’s hard to outgrow “punk”. Injustice was built into life — you’re given what you can bear, not what others can bear, so you’ll always end up with more misfortune than your neighbor, or less — and no angry kid who seeks release in music will give up on that outlet as an adult. Music is simply too good a tool for helping us to vent. Songs are good. Songs are a great release for “hate”.

The Klezmatics are not a traditional punk band. They’ve built a career around music as politically and socially conscious as Fugazi’s, but they’re klezmer, for God’s sake. They play the hell out of their instruments, and they know their Wittgenstein from their Shirley MacLaine. This is a smart band, weaned on years of study and practice, and they’re not randomly disrespectful. Unlike MDC or Anti-Nowhere League or GBH, they poke their fingers judiciously; when they hate, it’s not a fake sensation. That’s what makes their cover of Holly Near’s “I Ain’t Afraid” so wonderfully powerful. The lyrics are not profound, and won’t offer many revelations, but their directness (“I ain’t afraid of your praying / I’m afraid of what you do in the name of your god”) makes them very powerful for these times. Rise Up! features two version of the song — one mostly in Yiddish and one in English. The Yiddish version has the language going for it — a unique language that carries all of its history with it when it is spoken or sung. This history heightens the tension established in the music; it glides with righteous spit from their lips, and you get a good sense of how religious wars are devastating our languages, and thus our humanity. Then again, the song gets slightly skewed in this version, because it’s hard to sing in Yiddish and make bystanders believe you’re as angry at the Jews as you are the Muslims and Christians. The klezmer music behind the lyrics is quite another story. There’s something about this music (or polka, or any culturally rich music genre) that conjures up images of neighborhoods, streets, and the smells of real people. It’s emotionally pure. It’s human music, devoid of the materialism that videos and glossy photos that we associate with most pop music.

Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf! is very post-9/11 serious. It’s not preachy, and needn’t be (when I listen to Yiddish, I let the sounds conjure up my own frustrations, not theirs); it’s aggressively forthright, and none of the songs end with a question mark. The deconstructed piano work in “Kats Un Moyz”, for example, sounds as if every note was abused in a specific manner for specific reasons; I could just envision the cat throwing the mouse back and forth as the piano rocked. While “Tepel” includes a faux-Hasidic boys’ chorus, there’s nothing giddy about my interpretation of it, either. I don’t hear innocence — I hear revenge and chases and violent slow-mo sequences. Throughout the record, the fiddle, violins, clarinets and piano are plucked and banged upon with professional aggression, the performers’ heads and hearts completely in synch.

Rise Up! will not be food for the skinheads; it’s punk rock for people disheartened by society, who need the energy music provides in order to keep on fighting until their own inevitable ends. Listeners who are getting on in years should never forget bands like the Klezmatics when they’re looking for that punk fix; instead of the sweet nostalgia that the Damned might conjure, The Klezmatics’ music actually pricks the skin and keeps the blood boiling.

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