The New Traditionalists

The New York-based sextet called the Klezmatics is known for playing "in the tradition." But Klezmatics trumpeter/keyboardist/arranger Frank London denies that this reputation means the band is unadventurous. "We make informed choices," he says. "We try to make our artistic choices based on a deep knowledge of our tradition and others. We find the commonality of both and try to highlight little points along the way. Regardless of our personal biases or our musical interests outside of the band, as Klezmatics we do it through the lens of Yiddish music."

More to the point, this ten-year-old combo does it in an especially entertaining way. On the 1992 Flying Fish release Rhythm and Jews and last year's Jews With Horns (on the Green Linnet imprint), the Klezmatics--London, violinist Alicia Svigals, accordionist/vocalist Lorin Sklamberg, bassist Paul Morrissett, drummer David Licht and saxophonist/clarinetist Matt Darriau--use the klezmer formula to produce challenging, danceable music whose appeal knows no boundaries.

Neither do the Klezmatics themselves. The presence of Svigals violates Hasidic statutes that forbid women from singing and performing alongside men. As for the rest of the ensemble, it's divided among Jews, non-Jews and homosexuals--a mix that's unique in the klezmer universe but perfectly natural to London. "We know where we're coming from, and we know how to be both inside our tradition and open," he points out. "And we do this in a band that's like one-third gay and one-third Jewish--and they're not the same third. We don't all have to be homogeneous in the group. We don't all have to be the same race, same gender and have the same income level.

"If anyone tells you that only a Jew can play klezmer, they're trying to sell you something," he goes on. "They're trying to sell you on themselves, and the only way they can justify that you should buy their klezmer is because they are Jewish, not because it's good. It's like the last justification for someone who doesn't have anything else to back it up. You know, if only Jews can play klezmer, then only dead Europeans can play classical music--so Yo Yo Ma should basically throw away his cello."

London does concede that "most of the great innovators of musical forms have come from the people of that particular ethnic group." But, he insists, "anyone can play klezmer if they study. Because it's just a form. We have non-Jews in the Klezmatics, and I don't see what the big deal is. I grew up Jewish, but I never heard any Jewish music in my house. Matt, he's not Jewish, but his parents played a lot of Jewish music when he was growing up. So who has more early life experience with Jewish music? Matt does."

Because of such attitudes, the Klezmatics feel just as comfortable performing at Jewish wedding celebrations as they do at gatherings such as a recent Gay & Lesbian Pride Week rally in New York City. London admits that political commitment binds the players together, but he adds, "We have a bigger philosophy--more than gay activism or any particular thing. And that overriding philosophy is: Not talking about something is really bad. You've got to talk about things. And they don't embarrass us. Look, how else could we come out with titles like Jews With Horns? It's a joke, obviously, or a play on words, because we are mostly Jews and we play horns. But also implicit in that is the fact that, yes, there are horribly malicious stereotypes about Jews in this world. You probably haven't heard our first album we made in '88 because it's really hard to get, but it was called SHVAGYN=TOYT (Silence=Death). And that's my whole point. If you don't talk about something that's wrong in the world, people die."

Still, the Klezmatics are, first and foremost, musicians--and they've spent the last year or so collaborating with an intriguing gallery of artists. The act recently toured with Itzhak Perlman and three klezmer ensembles that first worked together on In the Fiddler's House, a popular PBS special that also spawned a 1995 disc released by EMI/Angel Records. The performers also joined Morocco's Master Musicians of Joujouka for an appearance at New York's Central Park and put together the music for a work by playwright Tony Kushner, The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds. About the latter, London says, "It's an amazing ghost story with possession and everything. Or, as we like to call it, Romeo and Juliet meets The Exorcist. It's one of those classic failed love stories where people are fated to be together but they're kept apart. But it takes a twist, and one of them dies and inhabits the other one's body."

In addition to the inclusion of snippets from the Kushner project, the Klezmatics' current live set veers back and forth between happy dance music and various dirges and ballads. "Those songs are good even if they are sad," London states, "because you can feel the beauty and cry about it but also understand that the artist making that piece of art is giving you a road map--an aid to embrace this tragic beauty without being crushed by it. That stuff exists. So that's why we deal with it."

Some concertgoers are confused by the Klezmatics' eclecticism; they'd prefer to hear klezmer standards they remember from childhood. But London would rather puzzle listeners than bore them. "People should just come out for what we are," he asserts. "They want to know where the standard tunes are, or why the heck we are doing a Yiddish song about smoking marijuana or something. But we're the Klezmatics--and we want to play for people who are open to experiencing things. Because, let's face it--80 percent of our songs are in a language that most of our audiences don't understand. But we'll explain what it's all about. Even if the people don't understand the words, we make sure that the songs have a meaning in our lives, whether it's a political song or just something about how much fun it is to drink and be together as a family."

The Klezmatics, in a performance benefiting B'nai Havurah (the Colorado Jewish Reconstructionist Federation). 7:30 p.m. Thursday, October 3, Jewish Community Center, 4800 East Alameda, $36 for adults, $18 for children, 388-4441; 7:15 p.m. Friday, October 4, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $13, 322-2308.


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