PRINT Summer 1996



I first heard the KLEZMATICS’ Rhythm + Jews (Flying Fish) over breakfast with five gay men in a purple-painted pad on Haight-Ashbury. Track one featured demonic yells and an Arab drum, track two a medley of “NY Psycho Freylekhs”—Imagine “Hava Nagila” in overdrive. The third track was a tender love song to “feygele mayn,” “my little bird” in Yiddish. Feygele is also slang for homosexual, my first inkling as to why the Haight-Ashbury house drank in the Klezmatics with their morning coffee.

The name of their first album, Shvaygn=Toyt (Piranha), rendered the ACT UP slogan “Silence=Death” in Yiddish. The mere fact of translation shouted “AIDS= Auschwitz,” precisely the kind of startling syzygy that in Klezmatic hands seems natural, even illuminating. They’ll toss a Bavarian folk song in the mix, or choose a wedding-type song to accompany an ACT UP kiss-in, or sing an old labor anthem for an AIDS protest march, as they did in Gregg Bordowitz’s 1993 film Fast Trip, Long Drop.

Some of the Klezmatics are gay, some straight, but that’s not a distinction they worry about. Gay activism doesn’t define them. Klezmer isn’t protest music; it’s party music, played for centuries at European Jewish weddings. They’re just determined that everyone be invited, and guarantee to galvanize all who are unafraid of ethnicity, chops, and soul.

And can they boogie. Alicia Svigal’s violin shimmers in a warped electric envelope or shivers like the shtetl fiddles of old. David Krakauer’s clarinet soars and shrieks in almost unholy glee. Paul Morrissett’s bass waxes funky, smooth, or cross-rhythmically subversive. David Licht presides nervously over his drums as if restraining a pack of highly strung dogs with musical bark but caustic bite. Frank London plays jaunty keyboard lines and a brisk or brooding trumpet that steers the band down back alleys of fusion or downtown rock. And, squeezing his accordion, Lorin Sklamberg sings: a racked, ecstatic voice that bears all celebrants aloft; a vessel of redemption.

Always good with names, the Klezmatics called their most recent and best album Jews with Horns (Xenophile/Green Linnet). A horned, bearded man on the cover recalls the myth that equated Jews with devils. Another bearded man blares the shofar, blown in temple today and on the battlefield in ancient times. The Klezmatics are on the march, sounding Joshua’s shofroth for every Jericho of intolerance. The walls are starting to crumble; triumph is near. Then we’ll really party.