By the time the original Klezmatics came together in 1986, Chavez—the musician who had placed the original ad—was gone. The first official lineup of the group—their name a play on the punk rock group the Plasmatics—featured London and Sklamberg, with David Licht on drums, Margot Leverett on clarinet and David Lindsay on bass. It took them a while to find their way.
“We didn’t really set any goals at the outset,” says London, “but we found a way to express ourselves and put our personalities into a traditional musical form. We found a way to circumnavigate what had been a seemingly unbreakable connection between Yiddish music and kitsch or shtick. We were part of a community and generation that put Yiddish music culture back in the contemporary cultural discourse. We did this from a feminist, egalitarian, spiritual perspective.”
“When we first started,” adds Sklamberg, “we generally lifted arrangements and stylistic elements from vintage recordings. It was a big help that Frank had already spent several years as a founding member of Boston’s Klezmer Conservatory Band. All of us were avid students, and I think we eventually grew into the name, but we definitely didn’t represent the gestalt of it when we started!”
They were quick studies, however, absorbing the elements and intent of the music and—simply by virtue of being young, hip New Yorkers during an exciting period for emerging cultures—filtering it through their own sensibilities. “It was a constant study of going back to the sources, the recordings from the giants of the ’10s, ’20s and ’30s,” says Darriau, whose interest in klezmer was an outgrowth of a previous infatuation with Balkan music. “Those musicians played on a technical level, and a passionate level, that is rarely—actually never—heard today.”
The Klezmatics built a devoted following in New York that quickly expanded outward once word spread about this exotic new band that was bringing klezmer back from the abyss. For some fans, the group’s appeal went beyond the music itself. “People have a need for something to hold onto,” says Gutkin. “They want to be part of something. So the Klezmatics are, for many, more than just another world music group. We are their family. In a different era we would be their aunts and uncles and they know what we do needs to be preserved.”