It was time to make a record. A festival in Berlin was booked after the group impressed producer Ben Mandelson (of 3 Mustaphas 3 fame), and that led to a recording contract with the newly established German Piranha Musik label. The Klezmatics’ first album, 1988’s Shvaygn =Toyt (Silence = Death), recorded in the German capital, established that, while it drew from the past, this music was to be no retro exercise—this was a band very much of its time, and not just musically: the Klezmatics, over the years, would also invest themselves in activism that would take many forms, from gay rights to human rights. That debut album’s title translated to Silence=Death, and it was, says London, “both an homage to the slogan of ACT UP [an organization committed to ending the AIDS crisis], and an acknowledgement that if one is silent in the face of injustice then one is siding with the oppressor. It was also a literal statement about the Yiddish language: if no one speaks or sings in it, it will be dead.”
The album received rave reviews for its forthrightness and dynamic reimagining of klezmer. In addition to the then-current lineup of the group, which by that point included Morrissett on bass (replacing Lindsay, who dropped out early on). Morrissett brought to the Klezmatics a familiarity with instruments from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia—he had studied with many masters of these traditions. Originally from Colorado, Morrissett started out playing piano as a child and found his way to his first artistic love, international folk dancing, a passion he shared with Sklamberg. Over the years Morrissett has recorded and performed on numerous instruments including hardanger fiddle, violin, nyckelharpa, gadulka, baritone horn, accordion and tamburitza, but it was his budding proficiency on the bass led him to the Klezmatics—first the upright and later electric.
“I was playing odd instruments for international folk dancing in Colorado in 1979,” says Morrissett. “I went to grad school for a couple of years and then moved to New York City to work for AT&T but started dabbling in different kinds of music, mostly Balkan, then Scandinavian. I was playing in a small Yugoslav dance group, essentially amateur stuff. That was the reason I started playing bass—everybody would change instruments and do music from a slightly different region. Somebody found out I played bass and I became the bass player. The Klezmatics had already started when Lorin asked me to join. I had heard klezmer and was interested in it but I didn’t know anybody who played it. To me it was like a flavor of something I’d been dancing to since I was a kid, the Eastern European modes, so it was not a stretch at all to play.”
The debut album also featured Les Misérables Brass Band, one of whom was saxophonist Darriau, who would soon become a full-fledged member of the Klezmatics. Slowly but surely, the lineup that would continue to grow over the next quarter-century was falling into place.
For their 1991 sophomore album (originally on Piranha and Flying Fish, then later Rounder), with clarinetist David Krakauer having now replaced Leverett, the Klezmatics chose the somewhat audacious, but quite accurate, title Rhythm + Jews. Inspired by their label head to “be themselves,” the group created an exciting recording boasting near rock and roll energy and a gorgeous group vocal blend uncommon to classic klezmer. The release furthered the Klezmatics’ reputation among cognoscenti of the cutting edge. Its songs, arranged by the group, mostly focused lyrically on romantic themes. But although it still largely hewed to traditional klezmer structure, it was obvious to all who heard the album that this group was also marking new trails. As London has said, “The music has to mean something in the contemporary world.”
Rhythm +Jews, he adds, “was and remains a watershed recording. It gives a blueprint for over a dozen ways to approach klezmer and Yiddish music from a traditional foundation while building a modern edifice. Structural experimentation abounded: multiple overlapping rhythms, ostinato improvisation, jazz, Arabic, rock influences. All the voices of our musical identity were tossed into the blender. This album was the first to define our musical identity and distinguish us from other groups.”
One highlight of the record was “Honikzaft (Honey-juice),” with words adapted by Sklamberg from King Solomon’s Song of Songs and music and arrangements provided by London, showing how this Biblical text could be read as a homoerotic love poem. The Rough Guide to World Music later dubbed Rhythm + Jews “one of the greatest klezmer records ever made,” and it reached the top 10 of Billboard Magazine’s world music chart.
In 1994 the Klezmatics recorded music for a film about AIDS activists (Fast Trip, Long Drop). That was followed by a new album, 1995’s Jews With Horns (Piranha and Xenophile, later on Rounder). Said London at the time, commenting on the titles of this and the previous recording, “Those are not just puns. We want the word Jews on the covers of our albums. We believe in being out, honest, clear, who we are. Being quiet never worked for Jews. Politically, it never worked for anyone.”