The dance sextet Pilobolus employs the movements associated with Jewish prayer as a basis for its brand-new piece, Davenen. Using gestures of reverence as a point of departure, the dance unfolds into quirky body sculpture, acrobatics and unexpected shapes. It's an abstract and incredibly accomplished piece, something that borrows from Jewish culture but is not necessarily representative of it.
Once Davenen was choreographed, Pilobolus looked for a Jewish band to create music as individual and cutting-edge as the dance. The group, of course, sought out the Klezmatics, the New York-based klezmer band that has done other dance, theater and film projects, including one with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner.
But Davenen was a unique collaboration, says Klezmatics vocalist and accordionist Lorin Sklamberg. The dance troupe would say "we want something like this" or "this section takes a minute and a half," says Sklamberg. "So the specific pieces we wrote are grounded in a klezmer language, but are definitely a lot more radical than traditional klezmer music."
Which is how the Klezmatics approach music anyway.
Klezmer was a mix of Eastern European dance and freylekh (party) tunes and ritual music. Klezmer music came to the United States in the late 19th century with millions of immigrant Jews. Here the music took on aspects of the Yiddish musical theater and American big-band swing. The genre waned from the late 1920s onward until it had almost disappeared. But just as the blues came back, klezmer was revived by a new generation of Jewish musicians in the late '70s and early '80s.
Like most revivalists, contemporary klezmer musicians sought out forgotten first-generation players as well as their old 78s. "Authenticity" became the buzzword. Informed by a folk-roots aesthetic, many of the klezmer bands never ventured beyond the traditional repertory. By contrast, the Klezmatics are rooted in tradition but are equally versed in jazz, rock and world music. The band weaves together the styles in a way that somehow sounds natural.
"We don't approach klezmer as nostalgia," says Sklamberg. "We got to that point early on. If the music is to be alive, you have to play things that you feel. Most of the old repertory has nostalgia for an Eastern Europe that didn't exist, only in people's imagination. Those kinds of things don't have meaning for us."
When the Klezmatics do draw from older tunes, the players don't treat them like sacred objects, never to be profaned. The group puts its own spin on them.
A classic example is the Klezmatics' version of "Ale Brider" ("We're All Brothers"). Originally a labor anthem that first appeared as a poem in a Socialist newspaper around the turn of the last century, "Ale Brider" became something else altogether when the Klezmatics latched on to it and turned the piece into a theme song. From the original idea that all people are related, the Klezmatics have added a verse that says "we're all sisters" and "we're all gay," reflecting the feminist and queer lifestyles of two band members.
"One thing that is special about the band is we don't leave our personas at the door. The stage and private persona is who we are," says Sklamberg. "It became important to represent ourselves not as a band that dabbles in Yiddish music but as living, breathing people who have struggles, lives, progressive ideas. We express that through the music just like any other kind of music. Older songs reflected the personalities of the people who wrote them. So why not continue to do that?"
Which brings us back to the idea of authenticity. For some musicians, authenticity means original manuscripts and traditional instrumentation and approaches. Sklamberg's take on authenticity has more to do with being true to yourself.
"Music that's authentic is music that's true," he says. "There are plenty of bands playing tunes in periodic style that don't sound authentic to me. They may be playing an old tune, but are they putting themselves into the music? Or are they imitating someone else's authenticity?"
The bulk of the Klezmatics' repertory is sung in Yiddish, a language that resonates with people interested in Jewish heritage. But it's no longer a living language like it was prior to World War II. So instead of taking the well-worn path of Yiddish music in America, the Klezmatics seek out more obscure political material. They even write original things like the world's only Yiddish ode to the joys of cannabis, "Mizmor Shir Lehanef."
"I don't know why other Jewish bands don't find more interesting music to do," Sklamberg says. "As time goes on, music has less and less personality. People are afraid to be themselves, to be idiosyncratic, to have particular ways of playing that distinguish themselves from other people. They're not inclined to let those rough edges show. But when you listen to older recordings, the musician's personality is really there. Our heroes are people who are quirky, unique and special. And there aren't so many of them anymore."