The Klezmatics ended months of discord and accusations of gender discrimination last week when five members of the popular and provocative klezmer sextet agreed to settle with the group’s former fiddler and founding member Alicia Svigals.
The settlement, which Svigals put "in the high five figures," ended a dispute among one of today’s most popular klezmer bands, whose blend of traditional Eastern European music with rock and jazz helped spark the klezmer revival in the late 1980s.
Svigals claims the trouble started in October 2001, five months after she gave birth. At that time, the other Klezmatics advised Svigals they were changing the group’s longstanding, but unofficial substitution policy.
After 17 years, "they kicked me out," Svigals said. "They told me to leave the band and not come back until I could promise never to sub myself out."
Svigals sued. A complaint filed last August with the New York State Supreme Court charged the male members of the Klezmatics with breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty and gender discrimination.
"I felt it was really sexist because I was the only woman in the band," said Svigals, who has a 7-year-old son by her partner, Ellen Marakowitz. "They have families too, but just because they’re fathers they’re able to go on tour as soon as their children are born. I couldn’t physically do that."
The Klezmatics established themselves as more than musical virtuosi with their progressive politics and outspoken embrace of feminism and gay pride. "It turned out that when it came to applying those ideas to their own lives, they were not quite as committed to them," Svigals said.
Speaking from Innsbruck, Austria, where he was touring with his own band, trumpeter Frank London said the accusation "would be funny if it weren’t so disturbing: considering the kind of people in band." He noted that "almost everyone in the band is a parent," many in non-traditional families.
London, who is named in Svigals’ complaint as one of the leaders in her ouster, said the violinist had been cutting out of tours for the past five years. "We asked her to leave because she wasn’t available and hadn’t wanted to be a full-time member," he said.
Svigals’ absence hurt the band because some in the audience came specifically to see her play, he said. "It’s like the difference between going to see the Beatles and going to see the road show of ‘Cats.’ With ‘Cats,’ as long as you see a good show, you don’t care who’s in it. With the Beatles, it’s ‘Where’s George? Where’s Ringo?’ "
The band has replaced Svigals with her longtime substitute, Lisa Gutkin.
Svigals said she relied on substitutes no more than other band members did, except during her pregnancy. She said she would have continued to tour, as she’s doing these days with her all-female band, Mikveh. "I’ve been traveling with them, to Florida and California and Detroit. I brought the baby to most of those gigs," she said.
The legal wrangling delayed the release of The Klezmatics’ latest CD, "Rise Up" (Rounder Records), on which Svigals does not appear; it’s due out May 12.
With the settlement, London said, "The Klezmatics are going on and our record is coming out. That’s about it for facts. Everything else is what someone is saying."