The Jewish Chronicle

Our own brand of world music

- KLEZMER BEVERLEY D’SILVA written after Guthrie became involved in the

FRANK LONDON is reflecting on his long and happy life as a founding m ember of The Klezmatics. Not just the 33 years he has spent with the band, touring the world, recording albums and delighting audiences with their uplifting, celebrator­y music. But also cementing their reputation as the best-known, and certainly one of the oldest, Klezmer bands in the world.

This month sees a kind of homecoming for the band, when they return to play at the Womad festival, in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, on July 27, some 30 years since they first appeared there.

“Womad kick-started the huge interest in world music,” says London. “And I think it’s no coincidenc­e that the rise in interest in the west in Klezmer and Yiddish song and music stems from then, too, right back when we first played the festival. To be going back all these years later feels fantastic.”

The Klezmatics are renowned for revitalisi­ng Yiddish music, in England, and the world over. “You could say we were one of the first internatio­nal ambassador­s for Yiddish culture,” says London, talking from his home in New York.

But while the band have done a sterling job promoting interest in

Klezmer and Yiddish music, you can’t overlook what they’re adored for — catchy, pulse-quickening party tunes and heart-warming melodies — just try to watch them and not a) weep or b) stop yourself dancing.

Yiddish language is stamped through everything they do like a stick of seaside rock. “Yiddish music and language is so distinct,” says London. “We work really hard to make sure it does not fade away. Out of real love.”

Out of the band, only two grew up speaking any Yiddish, its inclusion in their lives is “an amazing gift, as well as the fact we can connect with people and cultures, and with Jews who may not have a connection to Yiddish — that is wonderful,” he says.

“We’ve met many people and seeing how they adopt it as an art form and find the local expression of it — this is what I love.”

Klezmer — Yiddish for musical instrument— reflects the Jewish search for home, he says: “With other musical cultures there’s a place the music and performers come from. With Klezmer there is no place — or “Yiddish land” — where we live. As Jews, we live in a diaspora; as Yiddish musicians we are in a double diaspora. So we make our home where we can and that encourages a more internatio­nal relationsh­ip.”

The band’s multicultu­ral, panglobal stance is in their make-up: from the early days, channellin­g the small American klezmer bands The Klezmatics of the 1930s and ’40s, and in more recent times including Aramaic and Bavarian music, making music for audiences whose knowledge of klezmer might have not stretched beyond watching Fiddler on the Roof or a round on the dance floor of Hava Nagila.

Their eclectic sound and dynamism is bound up in the variety of instrument­s they play: Frank on trumpet and keys; Paul Morrissett on bass and tsimbl, which is akin to a dulcimer; Lisa Gutkin on violin and vocals; and Matt Darriau on kaval — a shepherd’s flute— clarinet and sax. Lead vocalist Lorin Sklamberg plays accordian, guitar, and piano; and one of the youngest members, Richie Barshay, 36, is their man on percussion, when he’s not playing in Herbie Hancock’s quartet.

This is a band that loves collaborat­ions: to name just two Sklamberg has a project with Merlin and Polina Shepherd, and London has been working with cellist and composer Francesca Terberg. “I met her through the Klezfest,” he says, referring to the Jewish Music Institute’s summer showcase for internatio­nal klezmer musicians which this year runs from August 18-23 at SOAS.

With violinist Itzhak Perlman, the Klezmatics recorded the album In The Fiddlers’ House. They’ve also worked with Palestinia­n musician Simon Shaheen, and with Vivi Lachs, who has researched the English Yiddish music hall repertoire, core to the English history of Yiddish music.

From collaborat­ing with Israeli singer Chava Alberstein, came one of London s favourite of their albums, The Well. “Chava found Yiddish poets who survived the Holocaust and had moved to Israel, then she wrote new music to their Yiddish poetry and we recorded the songs.

“Did you know for many years Israel forbade Yiddish song? It couldn’t be sung on the radio. They were trying so hard to create a unique Hebrew national identity that they forbade Yiddish.”

He urges me to look it up but cautions: “You’ll have a hard time finding the dates — it’s buried in the crack.”

They have performed live with Billy Bragg, and they were chosen by Woody Guthrie’s daughter Norah, to record her father’s unrecorded songs. Wonder Wheel, their “Guthrie-penned Jewish Brooklyn Americana” was seven years in the making, and won a Grammy.

“It’s our one album almost entirely in English. It’s not a Klezmer recording, even though it’s a Klezmatics one.”

Asked why he thinks Guthrie’s daughter chose them, he ripostes: “Because we’re lucky!” More seriously, he adds: “I guess she realised our politics were the same as Woody’s.”

They also self-produced an album of Guthrie’s Chanukah songs, titled Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah, Coney Island Jewish community through his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt.

Their 2016 album, Apikorism picks up on “the tradition of questionin­g Jewish traditions from an informed place… We all have the same Torah, or other text, but our relationsh­ip to it is different, and arguing about it is part of the Jewish tradition since time eternal.”

In all, it’s been an amazing 33 years, he says, with highs of the “outsider and insider kind”. An “outsider high” was working with Gnawa musicians, from Morocco and Algeria in the Maghreb.

“They spoke Arabic, we were speaking English and Yiddish, it took a few days to figure out we all spoke French — then we could talk!”

A distinct “insider high” came when they performed in Budapest in the early 1990s. After one concert, a young man came up to him and said: ‘This is the first time in my life I ever knew being Jewish is something you could feel good about.’ “You know, that made us so grateful we come from a relatively open atmosphere. Sure it can be difficult being Jewish, but it’s not been constant oppression as it has for others.”

Have these decades together changed how much fun they have together, doing what they do?

“Trust me, it doesn’t pay well enough for us to stick together for the money,” he says wryly.

“We do it purely out of love and commitment.”


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