Rollicking & Rebellious
The Grammy-winning Klezmatics bring their high-energy music to Detroit to help celebrate the JN’s 75th anniversary.
The Klezmatics aren’t just the best band in the klezmer vanguard; on a good night, they can rank among the greatest bands on the planet.”
And Time Out New York knows what it’s talking about.
More than three decades ago, musicians Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg happened to meet in New York’s East Village and realized a common interest in Jewish and Yiddish culture. London — who sings, writes songs, and plays trumpet and keyboards — asked Sklamberg — singer and accordion player, plus guitar and piano — if he’d be interested in being in a klezmer band. He was.
They added four more musicians, including Paul Morrissett — the band’s third original member — and created the Klezmatics in 1986.
“The nearly psychedelic variety of the sounds the band was pumping out onstage even outdid the reckless menagerie of bodies and sweat on the dance floor,” music critic Seth Rogovoy wrote in the Forward in 2016. “My critical distance went out the window as my heart did backflips and my soul connected deeply with the melodies that echoed the cantorial singing of my grandfather, and I found myself not so much dancing but ‘shuckling’ as I became one with the slivovitz-fueled crowd.”
The six-member Grammy-winning band plays instruments including the violin, accordion, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, electric bass, drums and more to create a “wild, mystical, provocative, reflective and ecstatically danceable” genre of music that borrows on history and tradition yet is entirely their own — and which has passionate fans around the globe.
On May 3, the Klezmatics, in all their colorful joie de vivre, will head to Metro Detroit to celebrate another long-standing tradition as they play the Detroit Jewish News Legacy Gala. The event will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the publication and highlight multi-generational families who have helped shape the Detroit Jewish community.
“We know that it takes a lot of work to keep something together for the long haul,” says London, adding that they also recognize the significance of being committed to Jewish culture and identity in an inclusive way. “I think we come to this particular event with a real great degree of respect for the Detroit Jewish News and what [it’s] been doing for all these years.”
Klezmer, a Yiddish word that comes from two Hebrew roots meaning “vessel” or “instrument” and “song,” was actually a term used for the person who played the instruments. Klezmer music, which has Eastern European Jewish roots, came to North America as those Yiddish-speaking immigrant musicians arrived with their communities from the 1880s to the 1920s, when they met and assimilated American jazz. At this time, it was often referred to as “Yiddish” music, or sometimes freilech music (“happy music”). The music, which waned in America following the Holocaust and also saw a paucity of new immigrant musicians, was rediscovered in the mid-1970s and spread in the decade that followed through North America, Europe and beyond.
Growing up in a Reform home on Long Island, practicing Judaism in English, Frank London didn’t discover Yiddish culture or language until later. But when he did, klezmer music spoke to him. A student of the world’s music, he discovered klezmer and Yiddish decades back alongside other global flavors of expression.
London went on to become a founding member of the Boston-based Klezmer Conservatory Band in the 1970s, before putting together the Klezmatics.
“Every music of the world does the same thing,” he says. “They express all the range of emotions people have.” But klezmer and Yiddish also speak to a certain type of flourish found in old cantorial music. Expressive melodies are intended to replicate the human voice — the sounds of crying, wailing and laughing.
“You hear the voices and the particularity of how the singers sing, and the particular way they’re crying out and the ornaments [musical flourishes], how they’re not just musical ornaments, but how they’re emotional ornaments that express the depths of emotion through the voice,” London says. “Klezmer music is the instrumental version of that vocal music, that’s what I really, really love about klezmer music.”
For co-founder Lorin Sklamberg, who grew up in a Los Angeles suburb in a Conservative Jewish community, the music is not only about heritage but also an outlet that resonates with him more deeply than much of what he grew up with Jewishly, he says. “I’m not being preached at. I’m doing it for myself and for the band.”
Sklamberg grew up around Yiddish speakers from his grandparents’ generation, hearing bits and pieces of the language with Jewish culture around him. He moved to New York from Los Angeles in 1983 to be more immersed in a city with more Jewish flavor, but he also arrived on a more developed music scene. When he and London met, Sklamberg was playing accordion in a brass band.
When the Klezmatics started, the goal was to express a music they loved, says London. That ran counter to the current at the time of treating Yiddish culture and klezmer music as a thing of nostalgia or kitsch. Instead of seeking to make the music hip by modernizing it, they sought to let it stand in its own right.
“We said, ‘This culture is already hip; we don’t need to do anything. All we have to do is strip away layers of kitsch or sentimentality that people have put on it because it already has everything,’” he says.
Klezmer music is fun and accessible even if it’s in a language many people don’t understand, London says. Building off of their passion for the music, they’ve mixed it with others over the years, like a recent kosher gospel tour with Joshua Nelson that had people dancing in the aisles. They’ve collaborated with violinist Itzhak Perlman, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and Israeli vocal icon Chava Alberstein. They’ve worked with folk singers Theodore Bikel and Arlo Guthrie, poet Allen Ginsburg and Neil Sedaka. Choreographer Twyla Tharp incorporated their music into a new work to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Martha Graham’s birth. And the list goes on.
But that’s not because audiences anywhere in the world can’t enjoy klezmer on its own, London emphasizes, adding that at heart, they’re traditionalists. “It all adds to it, but it also shows the strength and durability of the thing itself,” he says. “I think what it comes down to is that core trust in the tradition itself.”
Over their time together, the band has deepened its connection to the Jewish, Yiddish and klezmer elements at its core and built a rapport as a group — their newest member has been with the band about a decade — while also continuing to learn and transcribe new material. “It means with every project we do we can bring more to it; we can infuse it more with its roots,” London says.
What’s the secret to continuing to write and play with broad appeal after 30-plus years? Playing quality music without trying to play to an audience or figuring out what most people want to hear, London says. They also try to “keep it fresh,” he says, and take on each project on its own terms. From embracing Americana as they work on Woody Guthrie material to taking a “very modern, almost Philip Glass-approach to Jewish music” as they work with an avant-garde Hungarian filmmaker to playing thriving dance music at weddings, they come to all of their projects with integrity and bring to it the highest quality level they can.
Mixing the music, at the end of the day, he adds, is less important than the people they meet along the way. The music creates a context for reaching people by bringing something familiar to them alongside something unfamiliar, and opens a dialogue and communication between people. “We are emissaries and ambassadors of Jewish and Yiddish culture,” he says, “and we can walk anywhere and meet anyone and find common language.”
The band hopes its music can be a vehicle for change in local communities, breaking down walls and stereotypes. Music helps create openness for dialogue, London says; activism is an important part of their work. “Our reason to be together is not only to make music, but to work for social change and to try to make the world a better place — it’s kind of a Jewish thing.”
Along that vein, the diversity within the group is also one of its strengths, London says. There are Jews and Quakers, for example, and members hailing from different musical disciplines, including classical, folk and rock. “The thing that keeps us together is the focus on klezmer and Yiddish music,” he says. “But because we’re so diverse, we bring lots of different attitudes to it, and I think that’s another thing that keeps our music alive.”
They play klezmer because they love the music, he explains. “I love what the songs have to say, and I love the idea that we’ve been able to also create new songs, or to kind of modify existing songs to say what we want to say, or to be able to bring songs that one doesn’t think of as Jewish songs into the Yiddish world.”
He says he’s also honored to be part of the movement to make sure the tradition of klezmer lives on. “I want people to love this music, I want them to love this culture that we’re a part of,” Sklamberg says.
The Klezmatics’ music can also help people as they navigate their lives and the world, he adds. “We can make a community with our audience, at least for a couple hours, and we can make people dance and make people think and make people sing along, and I think that’s really fulfilling.”
The Klezmatics will perform Thursday, May 3, at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, followed by a dessert afterglow, as part of the Detroit Jewish News Legacy Gala. General admission is $75; $36 for those 36 and younger. Event begins at 7 p.m.
(248) 351-5108; djnfoundation.org.