Since their emergence more than 25 years ago, the Klezmatics have raised the bar for Eastern European Jewish music, made aesthetically, politically and musically interesting recordings, inspired future generations, created a large body of work that is enduring, and helped to change the face of contemporary Yiddish culture. Often called a “Jewish roots band,” the Klezmatics have led a popular revival of this ages-old, nearly forgotten art form.
They have performed in more than 20 countries and released 10 albums to date - most recently the double album Live at Town Hall (MWCD 4067), recorded in their home base of New York and released in celebration of the band’s silver anniversary. On their Grammy-winning 2006 album Wonder Wheel (MWCD 4064), the Klezmatics set a dozen previously unsung Woody Guthrie lyrics to music, widening their stylistic base by largely diverging from klezmer. They have also recently served as the subject of a feature-length documentary film, The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground.
During their quarter-century existence the Klezmatics have collaborated with such brilliant artists as violinist Itzhak Perlman, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and Israeli vocal icon Chava Alberstein, plus many other prominent artists working within multiple genres.
The Klezmatics’ music is rooted in but is not a strictly traditional variety of the klezmer genre. Rather it is a comfortable hybrid that appeals equally to those with no previous exposure to the music and those already familiar with it.
“Klezmer,” says London, “is the unique sound of East European Jewishness. It has the power to evoke a feeling of other-worldliness, of being there and then, of nostalgia for a time and place that we never knew.”
Although tradition is at the core of what they do, since the beginning the Klezmatics have adapted to the artistic sensibilities of a contemporary world. Morrissett: “We want to make sure that we are part of a living tradition, and living traditions change; they don’t stay in a pickled form.”
Says London, “By putting forth a consistent and coherent political and aesthetic Yiddish/klezmer music that embraces our political values—supporting gay rights, workers’ rights, human rights, universal religious and spiritual values expressed through particular art forms—and eschewing the aspects of Yiddish/Jewish culture that are nostalgic, tacky, kitschy, nationalistic and misogynistic, we have shown a way for people to embrace Yiddish culture on their own terms as a living, breathing part of our world and its political and aesthetic landscape.”
Formed in New York in 1986, the Klezmatics quickly built a devoted following that expanded outward once word spread about this exotic new band that was bringing klezmer back from the abyss. Throughout the years a wide range of lyrical ideas has inhabited the Klezmatics’ songs, ranging from contemporary issues of global import facing each of us to matters of intimate love, and from leftist politics to age-old Jewish mysticism. “From early on,” says Sklamberg, “even before we made a conscious effort to make the music our own, we decided that if we sang songs, they would be ones we believed in.”
A quarter-century after their formation, the Klezmatics remain committed to their music and to the close relationship they share with their fans. “In 1986,” says Sklamberg, “I never imagined that preserving, disseminating and helping to redefine Yiddish music would become my life’s work. “I certainly don’t think we sound like anyone else.”
Today, with three original members—Lorin Sklamberg (lead vocals, accordion, guitar, piano), Frank London (trumpet, keyboards, vocals) and Paul Morrissett (bass, tsimbl, vocals)—still on board, alongside longtime members Matt Darriau (kaval, clarinet, saxophone, vocals) and Lisa Gutkin (violin, vocals), the Klezmatics are without a doubt the most successful proponents of klezmer music in the world.