Klezmer, But With A Nordic Touch
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Klezmer, But With A Nordic Touch

For the mostly non-Jewish Mames Babegenush, it all began with a Chanukah party.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Mames Babegenush (Tobias Wilner)
Mames Babegenush (Tobias Wilner)

There are very few Jews in Denmark, perhaps 6,000 out of nearly six million Danes. However, the Danish klezmer quintet Mames Babegenush has that percentage beat.

“Not too many of us are Jewish,” says Lukas Rande, co-founder and sax player for the band. He pauses with a broad grin, then adds, “Emil [Goldschmidt] is our only Jewish member.”

Hey, that’s 20 percent.

Of course, there’s a story here, well worth hearing as the band makes its fifth trip to New York, with gigs on Aug. 27 and 29.

“It all started with Emil, our clarinetist,” Rande explains. “He was brought up with music. His father was a classical musician, but this kind of music has also been a part of his life always. Me and Emil are old friends; we met when we were 8 and students at the music school at Tivoli Gardens [in Copenhagen]. It was an elite school for kids. I was there for six years. The others are also old friends.”

(Bo Rande, the trumpet and flugelhorn player, is also Lukas’ brother, so it’s fortunate that he’s considered a friend.)

The band got going, Rande continues “when we were 18 and a friend of Emil’s asked if we could play for a Chanukah party.”

It was truly bashert – destiny.

“I just got into the music from the very first song we learned,” Rande says. “There was just this amazing burst of energy. It was more direct than any other kind of music I’d ever heard before.”

The partygoers must have agreed because several came up to the band and asked if they could book the group for parties. Thus begins a career.

The band has been together now for over 15 years and five recordings. At first, like many of the second-generation klezmer revival bands in the U.S., they studied from recordings of the masters.

“We really got into the roots of the music,” Rande recalls with a peppy grin. “Our first heroes were Naftule Brandwein, Dave Tarras, all these old guys from New York, and that was our main focus.”

Inevitably, as they became more comfortable with traditional klezmer they began to import other elements from their varied musical backgrounds and interests.

As Rande says, “At first we focused on other European folk traditions that related to klezmer, Romanian and Ukrainian. In the last few years we’ve been composing more of our own music. In our originals we try to recapture some of the Nordic traditions and energies we grew up with.”

Not that you can hear a specific Nordic influence on their latest album, “Mames Babegenush with Strings,” a powerful set that features the Nordic string quartet LiveStrings, the second time the two ensembles have collaborated on a recording.

As Rande himself notes, “Harmonically it’s not very close to Nordic folk music. But it does make sense as a description. Our tone, the sound quality of the music, some of the string arrangements are very Nordic.”

Not surprising for a band that prides itself on the diversity of its approach, drawing not only from the klezmer, East European and Nordic folk traditions, but also relying heavily on the extensive classical training of the five players, and their tastes for electronic music and hip-hop.

The audiences tend to be pretty diverse, too. One of the benefits of playing a purely instrumental music, as Rande says, “You can skip all the language barriers. It’s a privilege.”

On the other hand, as Rande says a bit ruefully, “If we were dependent on Jews in Denmark, we wouldn’t be playing much.”

Mames Babegenush plays with Slavic Soul Party at the Mercury Lounge (217 E. Houston St.) on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 6:30 p.m., mercuryeastpresents.com/mercurylounge/. On Thursday, Aug. 29, 8 p.m., the band performs at Guild Hall (158 Main St., East Hampton), guildhall.org/events/.

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