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Dramatic, Ecstatic Klezmatics Bring Danceable Joy to the Mahaiwe

By Robert Burke Warren

When trumpeter-composer Frank London formed the Klezmatics in the East Village in 1986, he and his bandmates sought to revitalize and update klezmer music, the Yiddish folk/American jazz amalgam popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the band’s first gigs, the mix of young and old faces in the crowds showed them they were on the right track; elders lovingly recalled the once-dominant Lower East Side Yiddish culture, forgotten as many post World War II immigrant Jews assimilated into American culture. Meanwhile, youngsters tapped into an imperiled heritage, all while everyone got sweaty. Twenty-seven years on, the Klezmatics boast ten CDs, an international touring schedule, bookings on The Late Show with David Letterman and A Prairie Home Companion, stages and studios shared with famed violinist Itzhak Perlman, and a Grammy for their 2006 CD Wonder Wheel.  So… mazel tov, already. But they’re hardly finished. Fresh from stints in Sweden and Vienna, the renowned live act brings their “wild, mystical, provocative, reflective and ecstatically danceable” tunes to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday, November 16 at 8 p.m., presented by the Yiddish Book Center as part of “Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music.” It’ll be a stop on an ever-changing, revelatory journey. (Photo above: Joshua Kessler.)

“When I first started playing klezmer,” Frank London says from his East Village apartment, “the audience would include old people talking about the old days in New York or Europe. Now, middle-aged people talk about their parents playing our music when they were young. That’s a real transformation.”

London sees the Klezmatics’ continued success in several lights. “We’ve not only presented old music in a new way, we’ve found aspects of our cultural heritage that aren’t so widely known. From the very beginning, we’ve had an integral relationship with archives and research, trying to find new old sources, new old music. There’s a researcher in each of us. In fact, [Klezmatics singer-guitarist-pianist-accordionist] Lorin Sklamberg has worked for years as a sound archivist at YIVO, the Yiddish Institute for Research.”

For those who wonder how the Klezmatics went about updating klezmer, which, in its original form, is very old-world, London says, “We put forth a consistent and coherent political and aesthetic Yiddish/klezmer music that embraces our political values—supporting gay rights, workers’ rights, human rights, universal religious and spiritual values expressed through particular art forms. We eschew the aspects of Yiddish/Jewish culture that are nostalgic, tacky, kitschy, nationalistic and misogynistic. We’ve 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.”

This approach provides the Klezmatics a particularly broad range of gig possibilities. In a given year, they’ll play festivals in Europe, rock clubs in the U.S., schools, theaters, cultural centers, private functions, and museums.

London is still buzzing from a recent engagement at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. The Klezmatics created musical accompaniment for Letters To Afar, a YIVO-sponsored video installation by Hungarian artist Péter Forgács. “American Polish Jews went back to visit their families in Poland in the 20s and 30s,” London says. “The exhibit is largely their home movies, that’s the raw material; it’s found footage. And of course, we’re a dance band, but Forgács wanted ambient, minimalist, unchanging music. It forced us to re-look at how we approach stuff, get a fresh look at things. It’s an extraordinary exhibition.”

London says they may play a bit of that at the Mahaiwe. They’ll certainly dip into their extensive back catalog, packed with traditional tunes evoking Ashkenazi weddings, horas, dances with Roma around fires in the old country, as well as more modern fare, featuring Woody Guthrie lyrics given to them by Nora Guthrie (the entirety of Wonder Wheel), plus… who knows? As-yet-unheard material, certainly, the fruits of recent discoveries in the archives of the New York Public Library, where London and Co. were granted unprecedented access. “It’s yet another treasure trove of Yiddish material,” London says, still excited after all these years. “It’s great. We’re looking through scores of operettas, Yiddish theater pieces from the teens, ‘20s, and ‘30s. We’ve found sources of tunes we know, so it’s an affirmation.”

After a quarter century, does any specific gig stand out in London’s memory? “Not really,” he says, laughing. “Although there was the show in Massachusetts where we met Nora Guthrie, or the one we where we met Holly Near and the Weavers’ Ronnie Gilbert, or when we were the first Jewish band to play in post-communist Hungary… or our last concert in Vienna. That was as stunning as any we’ve done. That transformation of sound into energy always works. It’s a rediscovery every time if done right, a re-transmission of the material, and people experience it anew.” 

The Klezmatics
Saturday, November 16, 8 p.m.
The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
14 Castle Street
Great Barrington, MA

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