About 20 years ago, a disparate group of musicians with backgrounds in avant garde jazz, alternative rock, Eastern European folk and contemporary classical music founded The Klezmatics to supplement their incomes by playing bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, weddings and parties. What started as a casual association quickly evolved into a passionate undertaking, transforming the band into a fervent, innovative ensemble grounded in Yiddish culture but open to a multitude of creative currents.
Fusing progressive politics with the ecstatic, secular celebratory Jewish music of pre-World War II Eastern Europe, The Klezmatics now occupy the vanguard of a loose movement of musicians expanding the possibilities of klezmer. In the past decade, the band has collaborated with a stunning array of artists, from violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner to choreographer Twyla Tharp, poet Allen Ginsberg and the Master Musicians of Jajouka from Morocco.
“Everybody came into the band to earn a little extra money,” says Klezmatics vocalist Lorin Sklamberg. “There was no real agenda, and we had no idea that we would somehow end up personalizing the music and touring all over the world.
“What I like most about us is that no matter how much other stuff we throw into the pot, we never stray that far from home. That makes it a joy to play in this band, and I think that comes across.”
One of the band’s latest projects, Happy Joyous Hanukkah—which arrives at the Sunset Center on Saturday as part of a national tour with special guest vocalist Susan McKeown—perfectly captures The Klezmatics methodology, combining Yidishkeit (Jewish culture) with Americana. The program features music from two recent albums, Wonder Wheel and Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah, a collection of previously unpublished Hanukkah lyrics written by Guthrie.
The project reveals a little-known side of the Oklahoma-born Dust Bowl troubadour, who died in 1967 after a prolonged illness. Guthrie became an iconic figure through his ramblings as a tireless tunesmith whose songs helped define an inclusive vision of America forged by the New Deal and World War II. But who knew that he was also a mensch who celebrated Hanukkah and doted on his mother-in-law, Aliza Greenblatt, a noted Yiddish poet?
The Jewish chapter of Guthrie’s life opened through his relationship with Marjorie Mazia, a Martha Graham dancer whom he married in 1945. The daughter of Aliza Greenblatt and the mother of Nora and Arlo Guthrie, Mazia settled with Woody in Coney Island, where the family held annual Hanukkah parties. Woody fully engaged with the vibrant cultural and political world of Brooklyn’s Jewish community, and often conferred with Greenblatt, who saw him as a kindred spirit. This little-known period of Woody’s life is thoroughly covered in Ramblin’ Man, a penetrating biography by Ed Cray, the first journalist with full access to the Woody Guthrie Archives.
The Klezmatics first connected with the Guthrie Archives after a 1997 concert with Itzhak Perlman at Tanglewood, when Lorin Sklamberg noticed Woody’s daughter Nora in the audience and introduced her to Perlman as Aliza Greenblatt’s granddaughter. Unaware of her grandmother’s reputation in Yiddish literary circles, Nora Guthrie was amazed to discover that the concert she had just heard featured a poem by Greenblatt that had long been part of the Klezmatics’ repertoire.
“Nora says, ‘Listen, I have these archives and Woody wrote all these Jewish songs,’” recalls Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London. “We’re like, ‘Right,’ and being the fools we are we did nothing about it. But years later we were brainstorming about a big new project and I suggested doing a concert of these Woody Guthrie songs.”
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Since Woody didn’t know how to write music, his unrecorded work survives as lyric sheets, often with notes he scribbled in the margins. Born in Okemah, Okla., in 1912, Guthrie was an amazingly prolific artist until the mid-50s, when Huntington’s Disease incapacitated him, leaving him hospitalized for more than a decade before his death. He left behind thousands of songs, which in recent years have flowed like wine from the seemingly bottomless Woody Guthrie Archives.
The treasure trove gained widespread attention in 1998 with the two-volume Mermaid Avenue project by the British protest singer Billy Bragg and the eclectic American band Wilco, which was still in its early alt-country mode. The Klezmatics introduced their new Guthrie material at a 2003 concert with Arlo Guthrie and the great Irish singer Susan McKeown at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y.
“What’s beginning to emerge is a picture of him as a compulsive writer who wrote about anything and everything that was going on in his life at the time,” says Arlo Gutherie. “We’re getting a broader picture as time goes by, and there’s more to come.”
In combing through the archives, Nora Guthrie had noticed dozens of lyrics with Jewish references. She sent them to the Klezmatics, who went about composing music for the pieces. In some cases they wrote recognizably Jewish melodies for specifically Jewish songs, but in other cases the melodies don’t sound Jewish at all. More than anything, they were amazed at the vast range of topics he covered.
“If he’s reading the newspaper and something bothers him, he writes a song,” London says. “If there’s a Hanukkah celebration, he writes a song. Woody was a really spiritual person, and there are some songs that reflect that. In ‘Holy Ground,’ he wrote, ‘Every spot is holy ground. Every speck of dirt is holy ground. Everywhere I walk is holy ground.’”
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As a champion of labor unions and the author of the unofficial American anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody was already considered an honorary member of the tribe as far as many Jews were concerned. Discovering the Brooklyn connection will only deepen the attachment, just as new generations were turned on to his music by Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and the Mermaid Avenue albums.
A classic self-invented American character, Guthrie honed a studied folksiness that was no less authentic for being carefully fabricated. It’s now clear, on closer inspection, that the image of him as a progressive folkie carrying a guitar (emblazoned with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists”) is only a small piece of a much larger story.
It seems entirely appropriate that the Klezmatics, a quintessentially New York phenomenon, have revealed Guthrie’s creative connection with Gotham. The sextet is a product of Manhattan’s roiling downtown music scene, where polyglot collaborations are the rule rather than the exception. Violinist and vocalist Lisa Gutkin, for instance, is a prolific composer for film, theater and television (“Sex and the City”) and a founding member of Whirligig, the acclaimed Downtown avant-Celtic band.
Clarinetist Matt Darriau has performed widely in Balkan, klezmer, jazz and traditional Irish bands for more than two decades, and bassist Paul Morrissett brings a deep knowledge of Balkan folk music. When lead vocalist Loren Sklamberg isn’t performing, he’s a sound archivist for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, one of the world’s leading repositories of Yiddish culture. And with credits on more than 100 albums, trumpeter and pianist Frank London has recorded everyone from David Byrne and Lester Bowie to Mel Torme and LL Cool J.
“The band has a very large collective knowledge of different musics,” says Sklamberg, who also plays accordion. “We’ve all played everything from classical to salsa to jazz to avant rock, so it was natural that we would take all those elements and combine them with this Yiddish music and try to make something unique and original.”
In a fascinating twist, the band was first inspired to push beyond the traditional klezmer sound by a trip to Germany. Invited to perform at a world music festival in Berlin focusing on various diaspora musical traditions, the members of the group began to see themselves as part of a broader cultural phenomenon.
“All of the sudden klezmer was being included with Afro-Caribbean music and stuff like that,” Sklamberg says. “This festival was one of the first to program Yiddish music in a larger context.”
Afterward, the festival’s organizer approached the band about recording an album, but instead of recreating an Old World sound, he wanted them to personalize the music and make it contemporary. Since none of the band members grew up in households where Yiddish culture survived, the move turned out to be liberating, forcing them to draw on their own experiences.
“I can sing Hasidic songs, but I’m never going to sound like someone who grew up in Eastern Europe before World War II. That’s a sad thing, but it makes for something interesting and new.
“It’s important, though, that we started out as a wedding band, with the purpose of playing for simchas,” Sklamberg says, using the Hebrew word for joyous ocassions. “If you can’t get dancers to whip up a sweat, you don’t understand how the music works.”
THE KLEZMATICS perform at 8pm on Saturday, December 23, at the Sunset Center, San Carlos Street and 9th Avenue, Carmel. 620-2048 or sunsetcenter.org.