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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
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
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
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
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
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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