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This article by Kevin L. Carter was prepared for the November 27, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Giving Voice to Modern Klezmer Music

Since Lorin Sklamberg is the lead vocalist and one

of the founders of the contemporary Jewish band Klezmatics, it would

make sense that he spends a lot of time thinking about singing —

especially Jewish singing.

He’s not too happy about what he has been hearing. Sklamberg, who

also plays piano and accordion for the group, says he was talking

about this subject with bandmate Frank London a few days ago. "I

think the Jews in the United States have been very careless with their

culture, especially with music and language, and I get very angry

when I think about what was denied me when I was a kid," he says.

"There are all of these cultures who sing just as part of what

they do on a daily basis," says Sklamberg. "Ashkenazic Jews

used to have a singing culture, but now we do not. In the Hasidic

community that continues, but largely, here in America, that is gone.

Who are the great Jewish singers? There aren’t any. You can’t name

one in our `ethnic’ music. Jews may be singing new things, but not

our music. I think about us, and I think about other cultures such

as Cuba, for instance — Where is our Ibrahim Ferrer, our Celia

Cruz?"

Sklamberg chooses not anoint himself, preferring to think that he

is simply trying to sing Jewish music — in Yiddish, English, Hebrew,

and Aramaic — as well as he can.

Klezmatics, who will appear Wednesday, December 4, at the State Theater

in New Brunswick, formed in New York in 1986. They play klezmer, which

is sort of an umbrella term for Eastern European/Ashkenazic Jewish

popular music, usually sung in Yiddish, that arrived in America in

the first half of the 20th century from areas that ranged from Poland

to Romania. With settlement and contact with American music came huge

influence, and today’s klezmer would not be klezmer without jazz.

Even though klezmer’s antecedents go back hundreds of years, to many

musicians and music listeners, Jewish and Gentile alike, klezmer,

heavy on the clarinet, accordion, and violin, did not become a known

part of the Jewish or "world music" scenes until the 1980s.

That’s when several bands, most notably Boston’s Klezmer Conservatory

Band, founded by New England Conservatory of Music professor Hankus

Netsky, began learning, performing, and recording old Yiddish and

other European Jewish tunes. Other performers that took up the klezmer

revival included Andy Statman, Kapelye, and the Klezmorim.

But the Klezmatics, and other bands in what Sklamberg calls klezmer’s

"second wave," are much less bound to tradition. Although

Sklamberg sings in Yiddish, he also does songs in English, Hebrew,

and Aramaic, and many of his songs do not harken back to the shtetl.

Many contemporary klezmer bands often operate, at least

in an emotional and musical sense, in the same ambiance as bands that

have both revived and invented music based on structures and modes

that recall Eastern Europe and the Middle East, as well as more contemporary

sounds.

In addition to the Klezmatics, some kindred klezmer and Jewish groups

include Atzilut, the New Klezmer Trio, and Brave Old World. Then there

are other non-klezmer bands, such as the rock-polka band Brave Combo,

the British/Balkan experimental group 3 Mustaphas 3, the Slavic brass

band Zlatne Usne, the Bulgarian clarinetist Ivo Papasov, and other

groups that combine music of "the old country" with American

pop stylings, jazz harmonies, and a generous dose of irreverence.

"The difference between [the Klezmer Conservatory Band] and us

is that by and large, they have always been recreators," Sklamberg

says. "They play preexisting arrangements — basically they

emulate different period styles. They don’t sound like a modern band

like we do. In the ’80s, we were one of the first bands to put ourselves

into this music. The work of the bands that came before gave us permission

to go further with the music, to breathe life into it and make it

contemporary."

Klezmer’s first wave, says Sklamberg, saw a need to recreate the feelings

and emotions of the past — emotions that, while largely understood

by the Klezmatics, they could not fully feel. "Nostalgia was not

something we were particularly good at. There is nothing wrong with

that material per se, but all of the old songs evoke nostalgia for

something we know nothing about," says Sklamberg.

Klezmatics — the name is a take-off of the wild ’80s punk band

Plasmatics — prefers to make its own way. The band includes Sklamberg,

London on trumpet, David Licht on drums and percussion, Alicia Svigals

on violin, Matt Darriau on clarinet and other horns, and Paul Morrissett

on bass and other instruments.

The band is known for its off-the-wall, fierce approach to the music.

Although much of the emotion and feeling of old klezmer is present,

not too many old klezmorim or the first wave of revivals would play

Moroccan music, as the band does on its recent album "Possessed"

(on Rounder Records), or sing "Mizmor Shir Lehanef," a song

about marijuana.

Sklamberg, 46, grew up in Monterey Park, California, the son of a

single mother (his parents divorced when he was five) who worked as

a shipping agent for a trucking company and was a member of the Teamsters’

Union. As a youth, he played piano, guitar, and accordion, but he

had no strong interest in or knowledge of klezmer.

But since he was a member of a Conservative synagogue,

Sklamberg says, he had been exposed from an early age to Jewish religious

song and Israeli folk music. And when he moved from Los Angeles to

New York about 20 years ago, he really started to understand klezmer.

"I wanted to be in some place that had an older, larger Jewish

community," Sklamberg says. He soon began playing with world music

bands, including Zlatne Usne, and one day in 1986 he met London, who

was a veteran of the Klezmer Conservatory Band who had started to

play with Zlatne Usne.

"I happened to run into him at a Moroccan restaurant," he

says, "and he asked me if I wanted to play in a klezmer band."

London had responded to another musician’s Village Voice ad, and the

Klezmatics soon began rehearsing and writing.

When talking about his fellow bandmate London, Sklamberg takes pains,

to point out that London is not the leader of the Klezmatics. But

he doesn’t take credit for that either. Rather, the band took pains,

from Day One, to portray itself as a collective. Working that way,

Sklamberg says, "creates an interesting amount of creative energy."

"Everybody has things they do well, and everyone has things they

don’t do well. I think the reason this band does not work well with

a director, is that there are too many strong personalities for one

person to be calling the shots, and the members are not willing to

go that round."

Klezmatics have recorded six albums and, because they are between

managers, they have another waiting to be recorded. All of the members,

Sklamberg included, work on other projects.

Sklamberg revels in his band’s freedom to play klezmer the way it

wants to play klezmer. "We have played all over the world, and

what I’ve seen happening is that the definition of klezmer has become

much less particular. Now it kind of means `bands that play Jewish

music,’ and people are not particularly didactic about what that means.

The term of klezmer music is pretty broad."

But Sklamberg’s original lamentation remains. "The fact is, we

do not have a singing culture any more, where the music is connected

with the spoken language. You can teach the language, but it is not

part of the same thing, like it is for those who grew up in the Baptist

church and become soul singers. In the Jewish world, there are too

many who are singing nice but bland music that is void of any Jewish

inflection or phrasing, and (the result is) certainly not related

to any spoken language.

— Kevin L. Carter

The Klezmatics, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue,

New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. Pre-performance talk ($6) at 7 p.m. at

the nearby United Methodist Church. $16 to $22. Wednesday, December

4, 8 p.m.


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