It all began with an ad in The Village Voice in 1985 looking for anyone interested in forming a klezmer band. The Klezmatics formed in New York’s East Village in 1986 when five people from different musical and geographical backgrounds, all recently arrived in Manhattan, answered the ad and followed their historical imperative to create the music of the Jewish Diaspora. Initially calling themselves “Hortzeplotz,” they soon renamed themselves the Klezmatics, a play on words inspired by the rock band the Plasmatics.
According to Frank London, an original member who plays the trumpet and keyboards and does vocals, “Klezmer is the unique sound of East European Jewishness. It has the power to evoke a feeling of other-worldliness, of being there and then, of nostalgia for a time and place that we never knew.”
But klezmer is constantly evolving, incorporating elements of the local culture, reflecting a feeling of the times and being part of a living tradition. “By putting forth a consistent and coherent political and aesthetic Yiddish/klezmer music that embraces our political values, we have shown a way for people to embrace Yiddish culture on their own terms as a living, breathing part of our world and its political and aesthetic landscape,” he said.
The Klezmatics, world-renowned and Grammy-winning superstars of the klezmer world who will perform at the Merage Jewish Community Center on April 20, offer music steeped in Jewish tradition and Eastern European spirituality. Yet it incorporates provocative themes with eclectic influences including gospel, punk and jazz improvisations and Arab, African and Balkan rhythms. Often called a “Jewish roots band,” the Klezmatics have led a popular revival of this ages-old art form.
In addition to London, current members include composers Matt Darriau, alto saxophone, clarinet, and kaval; Paul Morrissett, bass and cimbalom; vocalist Lorin Sklamberg on accordion and piano; Lisa Gutkin on violin and vocals; and David Licht or Richie Barshay on drums. They continue to evolve, while still drawing sustenance from the traditional music that first drew them together.
According to some musical reviewers, the Klezmatics take one of the wildest approaches to klezmer, the traditional dance music of the Eastern European Jews. Although their music is heavily influenced by the recordings of Abe Ellstein and Dave Tarras in the 1940s and 1950s, their lyrics comment on a wide variety of political and social issues and have led the group to be labeled “the planet’s radical Jewish roots band.”
Their album, “Wonder Wheel,” melds klezmer music with the lyrics of American folk icon Woody Guthrie. The album won a Grammy in the category of Best Contemporary World Music Album. Another album of Guthrie material, entitled “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah, was released in August 2006. Guthrie’s granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, has appeared with them. The Klezmatics received the Italian Tenco Award for songwriting based on their work with the lyrics of Woody Guthrie, a nice complement to the Grammy Award received for their Guthrie album “Wonder Wheel,” an album seven years in the making that features the late Woody Guthrie’s lyrics over Eastern European, klezmer, Latin, Celtic, Afro-Caribbean and folk-flavored music.
The Klezmatics have appeared numerous times on television, including on the PBS Great Performances series, with violinst Itzhak Perlman. They have also participated in cross-cultural collaborations, notably with the Gypsy virtuoso Ferus Mustafov, Israeli singers Chava Alberstein and Ehud Banay, American singer Arlo Guthrie, Moroccan musicians, the Master Musicians of Jajouka and Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner.
A powerfully diverse collaborative repertoire stands as a testament to the Klezmatics’ ability to broaden the definition of the term world music. They have made a career out of breaking down musical barriers, fully embracing klezmer and their Jewishness, while using these same essential spiritual, historical, and cultural foundations as a springboard to ambitious new musical hybrids.
The Klezmatics’ music is rooted in but is not a strictly traditional variety of the klezmer genre. Rather it is a comfortable hybrid that appeals equally to those with no previous exposure to the music and those already familiar with it.
Tickets for the Klezmatics show at the Merage JCC on April 20 at 7:30 p.m. are available online at www.jccoc.org or by calling (949) 435-3400. Reserved seating tickets for the performance are $30 for JCC members, $35 for the public and $40 at the door if available. The Merage Jewish Community Center is located at 1 Federation Way in Irvine.
The DNA of klezmer music went from ancient scales to Europe to American Yiddish theater to the present, according to Yale Strom, klezmer musician and historian, who has written extensively on the subject. The antecedents of klezmer music came from the Rhine Valley in the early medieval period, when the Ashkenazic culture was born. Klezmer music is improvisational and incorporates various cultures. The klezmer revival in the late 20th century combined a desire for Jews to return to their roots while making the music their own by bringing in elements of modern musical trends, Strom said.