The Klezmatics bring their unique brand of klezmer to Town Hall in Manhattan on January 20.
If you have heard the band before, you already know it won’t be your father’s brand of klezmer. If not, be prepared for traditional Jewish music filtered through the diverse backgrounds of the band’s members.
We caught up with two of the group’s founders, Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg, who explained the band’s genesis.
London, a trumpeter, grew up on Long Island playing weddings and bar mitzvahs. “But I never heard anything interesting in Jewish music,” he said. “Just schlocky wedding songs.”
So it’s not surprising that when London enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, he decided to pursue a degree in Afro-American music. In a telephone conversation, he defined that as “jazz, jazz improvisation, and all the music that comes from the African-American tradition.”
But at one point during his undergraduate days, London’s music took a detour. Hankus Netsky, a professor at the conservatory, recruited him for a new band that became known as the Klezmer Conservatory Band.
It did well, and as London recalls, “it turned out that this was the first wave of the klezmer revival. We didn’t know.”
London moved to New York in the early 1980s, “and through very random circumstances I met up with a bunch of people who were very different, and we all got together to play klezmer.”
Sklamberg was one of those musicians. A singer and accordion player, he grew up in a Conservative southern California household “I’ve been playing some form of Jewish music all my life,” he said in a separate phone interview. He had a band with three Hebrew school classmates, but back then he wasn’t certain where his musical future might take him.
He studied at both USC and UCLA, but found “no one knew what to do with me or make of me. The music departments, especially the voice departments, didn’t really have a way of supporting, training people, who didn’t fit into one sort of mold. The best thing my pedagogical teachers did was to kind of leave me alone.”
He dabbled in a number of musical genres, most notably in Balkan and east Europe folk, before moving to New York in 1983. Here he held a number of jobs: in the classical music department at Tower Records, taking class photos at a private school, singing in a church choir. And then he met London, when he sat in on a rehearsal of some Balkan music. “I ran into him later at a Moroccan restaurant in the East Village,” he said. It was then that he broached the idea of forming a klezmer band.
“It sounded like a good way to make some extra money,” Sklamberg said. “I didn’t realize at that point that it would become my main musical expression.”
Neither did London. “All we wanted to do was copy and play [the original klezmer] music,” he explained.
That was in 1986. By 1988, when the band booked its first concert gig in Germany, “the only thing we did different from any other klezmer group was that we refused to be nostalgic, refused to be kitschy, refused to do schtick,” London said. “We refused to do novelty songs.”
But a German record producer asked them a question that changed everything.
“ ‘You guys are all jazz players,’” London recalls the producer saying. “ ‘Why don’t you put your own personalities into the music?’
“We looked at each other, and said, ‘Are we really allowed to do that?’”
The answer was yes.
That question and answer changed the Klezmatics, who began incorporating their own styles and other musical influences into their work. At concerts now, it’s not unusual for an eclectic group of artists to join them. At Town Hall, for example, jazz pianist Fred Hersch, singer/songwriter Holly Near, and rocker Natalie Merchant also will perform.
The Klezmatics book between 50 and 60 gigs a year, and the audiences generally vary by venue: they tend to be very young when the Klezmatics play a dance club and older when they appear at a concert venue.
For the most part, despite rampant anti-Semitism, the group hasn’t endured any significant incidents. “In 1991 or 1992, right at the moment the Iron Curtain was falling, we did a crazy tour of East Germany in the last days of East Germany,” London said. “In some small cities, there were right wing neo-Nazis protesting outside our concerts. There’s always the possibility of that.
“We try not to be stupid. We try to reach out in every place and use our music to make bridges and open dialogue.”
“I think you might think about the danger when something comes up,” Sklamberg added. “But when you are in the middle of playing, you just do what you do.
“Playing in Poland for the first time was kind of weird, because we were playing in vacant Cracow buildings that had largely once been inhabited by Jews. It was sort of like playing in a Jewish ghost town.”
Everyone in the group has “outside musical projects,” London said. He’s done film scores, worked as a session musician, and performs with chasidic New Wave, which plays more of a mixture of jazz and chasidic music. That group will appear in Brooklyn on February 3, accompanied by a Senegalese drumming ensemble.
Sklamberg has a day job as the sound archivist at YIVO, and also has “several other musical aggregations I play with.”
The outside activities, London says, “keeps the Klezmatics fresh all the time. It allowed us to stay together for over 30 years. I don’t know many groups that have stayed together for 32 years. It wouldn’t have happened if we had to do one thing for 32 years.”
The performance is at 8 p.m. At 7, there’ll be a Q&A with band members. It will be moderated by Dr. Hanna Griff-Sleven, who is a noted folklorist and the program director at the Museum at Eldridge Street.
Tickets for the Town Hall Concert on January 20 are available through Ticketmaster, on the Klezmatics’ own website, klezmatics.com, and on Town Hall’s easily google-able site. Prices range from $47 to $67.