Who are The Klezmatics?

The Klezmatics group image

The Klezmatics will perform “Happy Joyous Hanukkah” on December 13 in Loeb Playhouse.

Since their emergence more than 25 years ago, the Klezmatics have raised the bar for Eastern European Jewish music, made aesthetically, politically and musically interesting recordings, inspired future generations, created a large body of work that is enduring, and helped to change the face of contemporary Yiddish culture. Often called a “Jewish roots band,” the Klezmatics have led a popular revival of this ages-old, nearly forgotten art form.

They have performed in more than 20 countries and released 10 albums to date—most recently the two-CD Live at Town Hall, recorded in their home base of New York and released in celebration of the band’s silver anniversary. On their Grammy-winning 2006 album Wonder Wheel, the Klezmatics set a dozen previously unsung Woody Guthrie lyrics to music, widening their stylistic base by largely diverging from klezmer. They have also recently served as the subject of a feature-length documentary film, The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground.

During their quarter-century existence the Klezmatics have collaborated with such brilliant artists as violinist Itzhak Perlman, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and Israeli vocal icon Chava Alberstein, plus many other prominent artists working within multiple genres.

Today, with three original members—Lorin Sklamberg (lead vocals, accordion, guitar, piano), Frank London (trumpet, keyboards, vocals) and Paul Morrissett (bass, tsimbl, vocals)—still on board, alongside longtime members Matt Darriau (kaval, clarinet, saxophone, vocals) and Lisa Gutkin (violin, vocals), the Klezmatics are without a doubt the most successful proponents of klezmer music in the world.

The Klezmatics’ music is rooted in but is not a strictly traditional variety of the klezmer genre. Rather it is a comfortable hybrid that appeals equally to those with no previous exposure to the music and those already familiar with it.

“Klezmer,” says London, “is the unique sound of East European Jewishness. It has the power to evoke a feeling of other-worldliness, of being there and then, of nostalgia for a time and place that we never knew.”

Although tradition is at the core of what they do, since the beginning the Klezmatics have adapted to the artistic sensibilities of a contemporary world. “Klezmer has everything you want, ethnically, and yet it’s so intertwined with American culture,” says Morrissett. “We want to make sure that we are part of a living tradition, and living traditions change; they don’t stay in a pickled form.”

Indeed, the Klezmatics are very much of the modern world. Says London, “By putting 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—and eschewing the aspects of Yiddish/Jewish culture that are nostalgic, tacky, kitschy, nationalistic and misogynistic, we have 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.”

“People are quite detached from their Jewish roots,” says Gutkin. “The Klezmatics fill an incredible void.”

Formed in New York in 1986, the Klezmatics quickly built a devoted following that expanded outward once word spread about this exotic new band that was bringing klezmer back from the abyss. For some fans, the group’s appeal went beyond the music itself. “People have a need for something to hold onto,” says Gutkin. “They want to be part of something.”

Throughout the years a wide range of lyrical ideas has inhabited the Klezmatics’ songs, ranging from contemporary issues of global import facing each of us to matters of intimate love, and from leftist politics to age-old Jewish mysticism. “From early on,” says Sklamberg, “even before we made a conscious effort to make the music our own, we decided that if we sang songs, they would be ones we believed in.”

Live at Town Hall, the newest Klezmatics release, captures the group’s March 5, 2006 20th anniversary concert at the New York venue. Recorded in conjunction with the On Holy Ground documentary, the set features a cross-section of music from throughout the Klezmatics’ history, and includes a lengthy list of special guests, among them previous members David Krakauer and Margot Leverett, who had never recorded with the band until this gig. The repertoire draws from the group’s earliest days and material as recent as the Guthrie adaptations.

Says London, “We wanted to celebrate being together for so many years with everyone who has been part of our family.”

Indeed, the Klezmatics have always been as much about community as music. Says Sklamberg, “The energy and support we received from the local community fueled the band, rather than it being a particular sensibility. At the very least it allowed us the freedom to be us.”

A quarter-century after their formation, the Klezmatics remain committed to their music and to the close relationship they share with their fans. “In 1986,” says Sklamberg, “I never imagined that preserving, disseminating and helping to redefine Yiddish music would become my life’s work. “I certainly don’t think we sound like anyone else.”

Indeed, they don’t. Never have and—should the Klezmatics (hopefully) last another 25 years—it’s a safe guess that no one else ever will!

By Jeff Tamarkin