The Klezmatics At 25: Yiddish Music In The Mainstream
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The Klezmatics At 25: Yiddish Music In The Mainstream

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Café Darro in the East Village, where the Klezmatics played their first gig a quarter-century ago, may be long defunct, but the pioneering group is rambling, or more aptly, krekhtsing on. And this week as they mark their 25th anniversary, the Klezmatics are, if not the best-known klezmer band in the world, then certainly among the oldest continuously performing ones.

At the time of their first public performance, in 1986, Lorin Sklamberg, the band’s lead vocalist-keyboard player and, along with trumpeter Frank London, one of the two original members still in the group, was 30 and had been in New York City for only three years. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t think anyone was projecting 25 years into the future.

“I don’t think anyone thought about that kind of longevity,” he says, chuckling. “Maybe you think like that if you are starting a business.”
That first gig provided at least one memorable moment for Sklamberg.

“There was a woman there who was doing some college work on Yiddish music,” he recalls, “And she was furiously scribbling down notes as we were playing.”

These days you are more likely to see dancing than note-taking at a ‘Matics gig, but Sklamberg says that on some level, the first gig revealed a band that knew what it was doing right away.

“When I listen to the tape of it, it sounds very innocent,” he says, “But even at that point we kind of knew what we were doing. We were already grounded.”

That was a long time ago in terms of pop music history. Since 1986, the band has released 10 albums, including their new two-CD set, “Live at Town Hall,” which came out this week. Their discography includes “Wonder Wheel,” their Grammy-winning recording of previously unknown Woody Guthrie material, the first such recognition for a Jewish musical aggregation. They are the subject of a feature-length documentary, “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground,” which will open theatrically in October. They have toured the world and worked with some of the biggest stars not only in Jewish music — Theodore Bikel and Chava Alberstein, among others — but with giants of world and pop music as well, ranging from the Master Musicians of Jajouka to John Zorn and Neil Sedaka.

Their reach extends into the world of modern dance where they have collaborated with Twyla Tharp and Pilobolus. They have won every world music award under the sun and performed on television and radio in venues no other Yiddish-language musical group could have penetrated.

And they are still together, which is no small trick, as Sklamberg admits.

“Some of us, our lives have gotten more complicated,” he says. “You find yourself asking, ‘Do I really need this?’ It’s not sustaining us financially. Some of us have found other musical outlets that give us a lot of pleasure. It’s about trying to juggle a lot of things, and with success there are more objects in the air to juggle, and they’re not all the same size. And that’s even trickier.”

All of the band’s current members — Sklamberg, London, reed player Matt Darriau, bassist Paul Morrissett, violinist Lisa Gutkin and drummer Richie Barshay — have outside musical projects. (It’s one of the worst-kept secrets in the New York music scene that you can’t make a living playing ethnic music, no matter how brilliantly.) But, Sklamberg adds, if that is a source of occasional tensions within the group, it may also be the secret of their longevity.

“Coming up with new projects and interesting people to work with, new concepts, things like that — that’s what’s kept us going and kept us challenged,” he says emphatically.

A quarter-century since that college student scribbled notes in the darkness of a club, the Klezmatics have become synonymous with Yiddish music for mainstream music fans who know little or nothing about klezmer. That is a source of great pride to Sklamberg.

“I think that people recognize our name,” he says. “They may not have heard us play. But they’ve heard of us, and that they’ve heard of someone who does Yiddish music is remarkable. You couldn’t say that in the early days of the so-called klezmer revival. The music is out there in a more tangible way than it was.”

And the Klezmatics deserve a lot of the credit.

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