Klezmer is the music of Ashkenazi Jews, who created the music in Central and Eastern Europe in the 16th century. Although mainly instrumental, the music is usually sung in Yiddish. It was hugely popular before the destruction of Yiddish communities in Central Europe during the Holocaust. Professional Klezmer musicians who escaped to the US founded large klezmer orchestras in the first two decades of the 20th century, who competed with jazz ensembles and Irish big bands in New York.
The genre, which has Hasidic and Jewish musical roots, has assimilated sounds from other music, initially by incorporating Bohemian and Polish folk music but in more recent times adding Latin, dub and even electronica. The music features dances, instrumental tunes, Hanukah songs and Hasidic melodies and is often performed at weddings.
A Klezmer revival began in the 1970s when a new generation of musicians began to experiment with new sounds.
In the 1980s, the Grammy Award-winning band The Klezmatics was founded -- the band featured in World Beat back in the 1990s. One of the founding members of The Klezmatics is trumpeter Frank London, who also founded the Klezmer Conservatory Band and Les Miserables Brass Band. He is also the leader of Sir Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars, which has just released its fourth studio album, Chronika (Borscht Beat). The album was in the Top Ten of the Transglobal World Music Chart for January.
London has performed with everyone from David Byrne to Iggy Pop to Itzhak Perlman.
Surprising and very eclectic, the album features Klezmer, Hasidic and Yiddish music, Caribbean Soca, cumbia, dub and electronica. There's some punk spirit in there, too, for much of this music is loud and raucous. With a heavy brass line-up that includes two trumpets, two trombones, tuba and clarinet, along with drums and guitar, the ensemble has a harder, "bigger" sound than typical Klezmer outfits which often feature clarinet and fiddle as the lead instruments.
The new album has an interesting backstory as it was recorded over just two days in 2008. London has reportedly said that at the time he used to go to DJ nights in New York's Chinatown and the music spinning was Balkan, middle European, even cumbia got into the mix as it does on the wonderful Booze (Drinking Song). In fact, the whole album is rather like going to an "eclectic disco".
The album kicks off with two belting, brassy dancefloor stompers, reworked Hanukah songs Greekz and Topz. The former is led by London's energetic trumpet intro and the latter features the amazing guitar of the late Yossi Piamenta, who was often called the "Jewish Jimi Hendrix" although he sounds more like an Afrobeat guitar master to me. But the new release is centred on a song that is reportedly close to London's heart. Unity (Carnival In Crown Heights) is a brilliant mix of soca with a Hasidic melody composed by Crown Heights local Rabbi Levin. The song is London's attempt to bring together the Hasidic and West Indian communities who live next to each other in the Crown Heights district. If any song on the album can get people to dance it is this one, it's a belter.
The opening two tracks Topz and Greekz get big beat remixes at the end of the album by Sam Day Harmet and Curha, just to keep the club vibe going. The ensemble is joined by vocalists Michael Alpert, Sarah Gordon and Eva Salina.
One final note on this splendid album relates to the funky album cover artwork, which is actually a visual riff on an old hop-hop album by Dr Dre, The Chronic.
There are not many bands out there who play such an eclectic mix of music as Sir Frank London's Klezmer Brass All Stars. The band approaches music making in a way that reminds me of the sadly disbanded 3 Mustaphas 3, who ostensibly played Balkan music mixed with any music that caught the musicians' fancy. Highly recommended.
John Clewley can be contacted at email@example.com.