Written by Jeff Tamarkin
In the rich and colorful Yiddish language there are expressions that vividly convey virtually any emotion or action. One such phrase is farshafn a sakh freyd un fargenign, which means to give much joy and pleasure. Farshafn a sakh freyd un fargenign perfectly encapsulates the happiness that the Klezmatics have delivered to the passionate millions who have discovered their music since the band’s formation more than 25 years ago. In that time, the Klezmatics have raised the bar for Eastern European Jewish music, made aesthetically, politically and musically interesting recordings, inspired future generations, created a large body of work that is enduring, and helped to change the face of contemporary Yiddish culture. Not bad for a bunch of Americans who each came to klezmer music almost by accident!
Since their emergence, the Klezmatics, often called a “Jewish roots band,” have led a popular revival of this ages-old, nearly forgotten art form that, in its first incarnations, flourished at Jewish weddings and other joyous occasions. They have performed in more than 20 countries and released 10 albums to date—most recently the two-CD Live at Town Hall, recorded in their home base of New York and released in celebration of the band’s silver anniversary. They have also recently served as the subject of a feature-length documentary film, The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground.
During their quarter-century existence they have collaborated with such brilliant artists as violinist Itzhak Perlman, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and Israeli vocal icon Chava Alberstein. They’ve also worked with everyone from folk singers Theodore Bikel and Arlo Guthrie to poet Allen Ginsberg, the Master Musicians of Jajouka, New York downtown scene fixtures John Zorn and Marc Ribot, and pop singer Neil Sedaka.
The Klezmatics have appeared on TV programs as diverse as Late Night with David Letterman and Sex and the City, and have also guested on numerous radio programs, including the BBC’s John Peel Show and NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor. They’ve recorded two Yiddish dance standards with klezmer clarinet legend Ray Musiker for the album Klezmer Music: A Marriage of Heaven and Earth, Klezmaticized the Jamaican ska rhythm for a cover of the classic “Do the Ska (KlezSkaLypso)” on the Skatalites tribute CD Freedom Sounds and written music for the Pilobolus Dance Theatre’s Davenen (which premiered at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center). Their music was also incorporated into a new work by choreographer Twyla Tharp in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Martha Graham’s birth. Regardless of what they undertake, their creations bear the unmistakable stamp of the Klezmatics.
Today, with three original members—Lorin Sklamberg (lead vocals, accordion, guitar, piano), Frank London (trumpet, keyboards, vocals) and Paul Morrissett (bass, tsimbl, vocals)—still on board, alongside longtime members Matt Darriau (kaval, clarinet, saxophone, vocals) and Lisa Gutkin (violin, vocals), the Klezmatics are without a doubt the most successful proponents of klezmer music in the world.
As with any world music form, klezmer—with songs sung mainly in Yiddish—is easily appreciated on its own terms but it makes an even deeper impression with some orientation and knowledge of its roots and function. The Klezmatics’ klezmer is rooted in but is not a strictly traditional variety of the genre. Nor is it an avant-garde mutant form of the music. Rather it is a comfortable hybrid that appeals equally to those with no previous exposure to the music and those already familiar with it. The Klezmatics have brought the small-group klezmer style of the 1930s and ’40s into the modern world by incorporating elements of numerous other styles, updating its lyrical outlook and injecting it with plenty of downtown chutzpah. A Klezmatics song might take the form of a sober, florid, evocative ballad or it might aspire to serve as nothing more than joyous, danceable Jewish party music. Its richness and breadth is what makes the Klezmatics’ music such a gift.
At times—most notably on their Grammy-winning 2006 album Wonder Wheel, on which they set a dozen previously unsung Woody Guthrie lyrics to music—they’ve almost diverged from klezmer altogether. In every undertaking, the musicians’ personalities and experiences shine through, resulting in a sound that, ultimately, is wholly their own. One sharp observer has dubbed it—and he wasn’t being tongue-in-cheek—“Heavy Yiddish.”
The Klezmatics are about connections. For those within the Jewish Diaspora, especially, they provide a bridge to a culture that, in many ways, has long been threatened with extinction. “People are quite detached from their Jewish roots,” says Gutkin, who admits that, to many modern listeners, early klezmer “was old people’s music, and it was too schmaltzy.” She adds, “Very few families have kept the cooking traditions and even fewer have a connection to the music. The Klezmatics fill an incredible void for these people. They have memories of ‘Jewishness’ from their parents or grandparents, but they have little that is relevant to their present lives. Because of the more contemporary elements of our style they, and even their children, are brought closer to those old sounds, and what might have once produced scorn makes them happy. We are accessible, we are current, and yet we are a reference to the past.”
“Yiddish culture as it existed in Eastern Europe can never be revived as it was,” says Sklamberg. “Luckily, enough of the culture has been preserved in books, on recordings and by older mentors to have allowed us to pick up the thread and be a part of our tradition, even if it has evolved into something new and different.”
Musically, he adds, klezmer shares enough in common with music of other cultures that it can easily be adapted to suit the artistic sensibilities of a contemporary world. “The motor that drives the rhythm of Yiddish dance music is the tension between a straightforward, steady pulse and a syncopated pulse, similar to the ‘clave’ in Latin music or the Arabic çiftetelli,” he says. “It is what has enabled the klezmer repertoire to encompass both traditional Jewish modal tunes and tunes from surrounding non-Jewish East European traditions.”
“Yiddish rhythms are very grounded and earthy and the dancing reflects the music,” says Gutkin. “There are other folk styles where the emphasis seems to be for the dancers to lift off the ground, but aside from the few dances that mimic some of the flashier Russian dances, Jewish dancing keeps the feet closer to the ground.”
“Klezmer, when played with the proper ornamentation and rhythmic expression,” adds London, “is the unique sound of East European Jewishness. It has the power to evoke a feeling of other-worldliness, of being there and then, of nostalgia for a time and place that we never knew. Tradition is not static or fixed in time and place; it is a continuum. It is impossible to separate traditional music from the traditional function that it played in its traditional cultural context. Originally, this music was functional, used at community events, predominantly weddings but also in other religious and social contexts, and klezmer in the concert hall was once an oxymoron. Klezmer performed outside the Jewish community was preposterous. But these are now largely the predominant venues or contexts for klezmer. The Klezmatics are in the klezmer tradition, and a very important post-war exemplar of that tradition, although we often venture into other musical territories.”
“It’s marvelous music,” adds Morrissett about klezmer. “It has everything you want, ethnically, and yet it’s so intertwined with American culture. You can stretch it as far as you want. Everybody defines it in a slightly different way. When I joined I figured we were going to play this ultra-traditional music and wear outfits like we’re from the shtetl [a small Jewish village]. But we didn’t. We wanted to make sure that we were part of a living tradition, and living traditions change; they don’t stay in a pickled form. I’m still learning more about this music to this day.”
Whether what the Klezmatics do qualifies as bona fide traditional music or “in the tradition,” one incontestable truth is that a listener need not subscribe to the Jewish faith to embrace what’s been called Yiddish soul music. “There’s a slight exoticism that people hear in us, and a little romance with the Jewishisms that come through our music,” says Gutkin, “not unlike the songs on St. Patrick’s Day that make everyone feel Irish.”