It all started for the Klezmatics in 1985, with an advertisement for klezmer musicians placed in New York’s Village Voice by a San Francisco clarinetist named Rob Chavez. Frank London was among those answering the ad, and he brought in Lorin Sklamberg, whom London had known only as a Balkan accordionist, not as a singer with an interest in Jewish music.
London had arrived at klezmer as a result of his natural hunger for multiple musical styles from around the world. “In 1980 I was a student of Afro-American music and Third Stream Music at New England Conservatory,” he says. “At the time, I devoured every possible music I could: salsa, Haitian, free improvisation, gradual process, Balkan, etc. I was invited to be part of an NEC Jewish music concert, and a group was put together to play three songs. After that concert, the ensemble became the Klezmer Conservatory Band, one of the first post-1970 American klezmer groups. I was with them for about seven years and five recordings.
“I was very blown away by klezmer’s funky rhythms, the polyphony, the wild old-world, old-school ornamentation, the particular way it expressed its Jewishness and how the instrumental music was not at all kitschy or corny the way most Jewish music I had heard up to that point was,” he adds. “Klezmer is the intersection and interstitial space between East and West. It has its own integrity, a unique expression of Jewish culture and identity in sound. Klezmer is perhaps the most distinctly defined of all Jewish musics.”
For Sklamberg, klezmer came into the picture “when I was almost 15 years old. I had co-founded a band, Rimonim, with three other Sunday school/Hebrew school classmates at my conservative shul in Alhambra, California. This would have been around the end of 1970, well ahead of what would now be considered the beginning of the klezmer revival. We formed the band mostly to play Israeli folk dance music and made our debut at my sister’s Bas Mitzvah in January 1971. The clarinetist in the group had heard some recordings of the great Yiddish-American clarinetist Dave Tarras on the radio, and played us a reel-to-reel tape he recorded off the air. We managed to get our hands on a compendium of basic klezmer repertoire numbers. That was how I started playing Yiddish tunes. Rimonim survived for seven years as one of the few bands in the Los Angeles area that could provide virtually any combination of Israeli, Yiddish or pop music.
“The other seed that was planted for my future as a bona fide klezmer was that, around 1981, I attended a Balkan singing workshop with the great Yiddish singer Michael Alpert. At the end of the workshop he took me aside and played me a cassette of him performing a song on the seminal Yiddish band Kapelye’s then-unreleased first record. The voice that came out of the tiny speaker sounded more than a bit like me and, in the back of my mind, gave me the idea that this was something that I, too, could do.
“Fast forward to 1986. I had moved to New York because I wanted to live someplace with a more rooted Jewish history and a stronger cultural scene. By that time, I had attended two California universities and had dabbled in Early Music, opera, American folk and pop and Balkan and East European musics, in addition to having danced and sung in four semi-professional ethnic song and dance ensembles. I had studied voice, piano, guitar, accordion, recorder and oud and had served as the cantor at USC’s Hillel House and Los Angeles’ gay and lesbian synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim. It was through this last experience that I became part of a gay-Jewish-radical faerie folk duo, Pilshaw and Sklamberg, and traveled the country for a summer performing house concerts and shows in gay bars. We even recorded a commercially released cassette, Bending the Rules. But the most important thing that came out of that tour was that, when we drove over the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, we heard the ‘Art Raymond Simcha’ over radio station WEVD. I decided then and there that I would move to New York. And a little over a year later, that’s what I did.”