The Klezmatics,
(Rounder, 2002)

The women pictured on the front of the CD booklet cover their eyes with their hands, the lit Shabbas candles glowing before them. Inside the front cover of the booklet is a lengthy letter to the Klezmatics from playwright Tony Kushner. This letter is more a rambling personal essay in which Kushner attempts to demonstrate how Jews in general are possessed by the past. He discusses how they seem possessed by the ancestors from whom they are descended, the spirits that have haunted them, and the cultures that have shaped them and that they themselves, in turn, have shaped.

The individual songs, however, work with that theme strictly on the margins. As typical with klezmer music, most of the songs are not performed in English. It's convenient that the CD booklet includes lyrics in Yiddish/Hebrew, a transliteration, and an English translation. The songs written in English were penned by Kushner himself as part of his play A Dybbuk, Between Two Worlds, creating a sort of klezmer music for English-only speakers.

Of course, how many "traditional" Yiddish songs are about smoking marijuana? "Mizmor Shir Lehanef (Reefer Song)," with lyrics by Michael Wax set to Klezmatic Frank London's music, even has a line that translates to "Smoke a spliff -- Cannabis." That line is followed by "I'll praise the Lord, sing to God/The creator of the world/A song of coughing/Because he has given every generation/An herb which represents the earthly Wild Ox." I wonder how many traditional rabbis would raise their eyebrows just a smidge. However, I also could see some more liberal worshippers approving of this "tikkun (healing) for the spirit." However, the follow-up instrumental, "Shvarts un Vays (Black and White)," is a different tikkun for the spirit. It's a revved-up klezmer number that invites the listeners to get up and dance. While Alicia Svigals' violin and Matt Darriau's clarinet seem to lead the way, all six band members have a brief chance to solo and show off their skills on this wild, fun number.

Lorin Sklamberg's musical arrangement of bits of "Song of Songs (Hinokh Yafo)" isn't so much wild as haunting with Darriau's flute and Sklamberg's chanting at its start. The album's closing track, "Eyn Mol," leaves behind all of the musical instruments, with stamping and clapping keeping the beat on this traditional drinking song. Again, however, there's that temptation to beat along with the musicians and get up and dance.

While it may seem that the Klezmatics are a niche band with a narrow focus, their music can have a broader appeal. Surprisingly enough, members of Canada's Moxy Fruvous contribute backing vocals on two numbers, "Shprayz Ikh Mir," the opening track and a traditional adaptation of a Gyspy song, and "An Undoing World," with Svigals' music and Kushner's words. It's not necessary to be Jewish to want to dance and "rock out" to this CD. Maybe the album's title is true; perhaps it can possess its listener just a little bit. The Klezmatics bring klezmer music to the masses.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 29 June 2002

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