Israelis Playing Klez — With Cello?
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Israelis Playing Klez — With Cello?

Welcome to the 12th Night Klezmer collective.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

In the world of Jewish roots music — that is, music that originated in the shtetls of Eastern Europe — Elad Kabilio has two strikes against him: he’s Israeli and he’s a cellist.

But don’t tell that to him or the members of 12th Night Klezmer, the Israel-based ensemble he leads that plays here this weekend.

Kabilio, a formidable classical cellist who has been winning plaudits here since he relocated to New York City six years ago, has some interesting observations to offer on his group, the unusual musical collective to which they belong and the place of cello in klezmer music. And, yes, there definitely is one.

“For me, as an Israeli, there’s a big bias [against] klezmer in Israel,” he admitted in a telephone interview last week. “It’s only for a wedding, a chasidic wedding at that. And it’s really not cool. We wanted to reconnect with it and with an audience, to reintroduce it from an angle you don’t know.”

It’s as much a surprise to the musicians as it is to the audiences, he said.

“Our musicians come from either a classical or jazz background, so all of us are as curious as the audiences about klezmer,” Kabilio added. “So it’s very fresh and the perspective comes from our curiosity. At every performance we find more about the music that fascinates us. We’re exploring its history. We’re pushing ourselves, and the audience gets to enjoy the results.”

It helps to have someone push you in the right direction. Avigail Malachi-Baev, the group’s clarinetist, found the best possible guide in David Krakauer, one of the pre-eminent klezmer players on the instrument.

“Avigail is of Yemenite heritage, but given the melting pot that is Israel, she had been involved in the Israeli klezmer scene,” Kabilio said. “She was pushing for the creation of the band, and when she and I were at Mannes [College of Music] she met Krakauer and he took us through this journey. He guided us with our research, sent us to historic recordings to map out what the original klezmer sound may have been.”

Kabilio explained that in order to make its own klezmer sound, the band first needed to know what to depart from.

“We’re trying to find an original sound using the old modes, different makam [Turkish] scales, all those Eastern colors,” he said. “You bend things a little, make the music ‘dirty’ trying to capture that old style. We have done a lot of research.”

The expressive touches — the growls, slurs, bent notes that make the music “dirty” for a classically trained instrumentalist — are precisely the elements that make it klezmer. The presence of the cello, by contrast, is one of the things that make it 12th Night Klezmer. (The name is a nod to the musicians in Shakespeare’s play.)

“When we thought about forming this group, we thought in terms of friends playing together, so we asked ourselves, ‘What can we do with these [musical elements],’” Kabilio recalled. “The cello sits on the bass figure most of the time, playing the bass line supporting the rhythm with the harmony, but sometimes the cello comes out and leads the melody [along] with the violin. Sometimes it even soloes. That’s unusual in klezmer, the lower instruments mostly don’t get that role.”

Kabilio loves the improvisational aspects of playing klezmer but he concedes his limitations as a still nascent klezmer player.

“My challenge is that I always want to play the melody,” he said. “I know it, so it’s easy for me to join the [melody line], but whenever I leave the bass and the rest of the rhythm section, the group feels it immediately. So I have to be very calculated when I do it. I really enjoy this thing where I have possibilities and I’m not stuck in one place. It makes the entire experience very enjoyable.”

He certainly has ample opportunities to play in other contexts. In addition to his growing career as a classical soloist and chamber player, he is active in the overall 12th Night collective, a core of Israeli musicians here in New York that can configure itself as various sizes of chamber groups, jazz combos or little big bands, or the klezmer kapelye that will be playing on Nov. 23.

“It’s perfect for me,” Kabilio said. “You touch something in the right amount and you don’t get tired of it. It keeps [my playing] fresh; I can bring back things to classical music [from klezmer], and it helps my chamber music skills. It keeps me alert and I learn a lot.”

That last consideration is the one that guides both the collective’s choices and Kabilio’s.

“We’re not trying to reinvent klezmer,” he said. “We’re trying to capture the feeling and sound of going back to those roots. It’s all based on our friendship, on our enjoying everyone and letting the audience learn about the music and the musicians. We’re learning too, so it becomes about breaking down the barriers between the musicians and the audience.”

“Klezmer Jewels” with 12th Night Klezmer will take place Sunday, Nov. 23 at 3 p.m. at the Museum at Eldridge Street (12 Eldridge St.). For information, call (212) 219-0888 or go to http://www.eldridgestreet.org/events.

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