Finding common ground between Jewish music and its Eastern European cousins
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 5, 2002) – On a trip to Serbia last year, Annette Ezekiel wound up spending a long night jamming with a group of Gypsy musicians. With her dark, Eastern European looks, she could easily pass for a fellow Gypsy -- although they knew she was from the U.S. – and throughout the night they called her “sister.”

Then, after the last tune was swapped and it came time to say goodbye, they turned to her and asked her what she was. “When I told them I was Jewish they said ‘We’re the same thing,’ and then they played ‘Hava Nagila’ with all the wrong chords,” said Ezekiel in a recent phone interview from her apartment in New York.

Despite the wrong chords, it was a telling experience, confirming for Ezekiel what she had already sensed and what she had been exploring with her band, Golem – the natural affinity between Yiddish music and Eastern European songs from Russian, Serbian, Gypsy, Romanian and other traditions.

Although often lumped in with the vital klezmer scene centered in downtown New York, Golem – which performs at Club Helsinki on Thursday, November 14, at 8 -- is not really a klezmer band. It shares with klezmer the sound of Yiddish and the bittersweet, laughing and crying quality, which Ezekiel says she finds to some extent in all of the Eastern European folk music she plays.

One difference, however, comes in the Yiddish theater and folk songs that Golem favors over the wedding-dance repertoire that comprises the bulk of most klezmer band’s set lists. In Golem’s hands, well-known songs like “Papirosn” and lesser known ones like “Rivkele” – both found on the group’s great debut CD, “Libeshmertzn (Love Hurts)” -- are brimming with sensuality and passion and delivered with raw emotion.

“The Yiddish theater music is considered lowbrow stuff,” said Ezekiel, who began dancing with an Ukrainian folk ensemble as a child. “The sexiness is built into that, and people have let that fall by the wayside and let it get overrun by nostalgia.”

Golem also differs in its instrumentation. The group features two singers -- Ezekiel, who doubles on accordion, and Aaron Diskin -- as well as a bassist, a drummer, a trombonist and a violist.

“The only really klezmer instrument is the viola,” said Ezekiel. “Even the accordion wasn’t in klezmer bands until much later. I wanted that because I wanted it to sound different from the clarinet-driven klezmer bands.”

Rather than present an isolated style of music, Ezekiel’s aim is to recontextualize klezmer and Yiddish music by juxtaposing them with their coterritorial sounds.

“Klezmer originated in that region and incorporated influences from whatever music was around there, be it Russian, Moldavian, Balkan, Rumanian. I think it’s interesting to hear those different kinds of music together in one sitting. Somehow they are pretty different, but they do make sense together.”

The Jim Weider Band

A busy weekend at Helsinki kicks off tonight with the Jim Weider Band. Woodstock, N.Y.-native Weider is best known for his 15-year tenure as lead guitarist for the post-“Last Waltz” version of The Band. Weider’s band, which also includes post-“Last Waltz” Band drummer Randy Ciarlante, has just released “Remedy” (Moon Haw), an album that showcases Weider’s talents on the Fender Telecaster on eight original tunes as well as a hard-rocking cover of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and a reggaefied version of Robbie Robertson’s “The Weight.”

When Chris Thomas King portrayed legendary 1920s Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson in the Coen brothers film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” it wasn’t such a stretch. The actor, who performs at Helsinki on Saturday night, has been a blues and roots musician since he was big enough to hold a guitar. And while his contemporary, Fugees-style r&b/rap fusion as heard on his most recent CD, “Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues” (21st Century Blues) is a long way from the delta, the spirit and sound of Johnson and the likes of B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Leadbelly are never far away.

Mass MoCA’s winter concerts

Mass MoCA has announced a series of performances and music-related films for the winter that includes singer-songwriter Shannon McNally -- whose excellent debut CD, “Jukebox Sparrows,” was one of the best of the past year, garnering her comparisons to Sheryl Crow -- on December 7. Saxophonist Paul Shapiro, best-known for his work with Brooklyn Funk Essentials and Everton Sylvester’s Searching for Banjo, leads his eight-piece Holly and Dreidel Revue at a holiday dance party on December 14.

MoCA will also feature D.A. Pennebaker’s classic backstage look at Bob Dylan’s 1965 concert tour of England, “Don’t Look Back,” on December 19. Dylan reappears with a host of rock ‘n’ roll royalty on MoCA’s screen on January 23 in the Martin Scorsese-directed “Last Waltz,” which documents The Band’s farewell concert on Thanksgiving, 1976.

Other highlights of MoCA’s extensive winter programming includes a work-in-progress showing of “The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island or The Friends of Dr. Rushower,” a collaboration between graphic novelist Ben Katchor and Miracle Legion’s Mark Mulcahy (January 17-18); “Strange Fruit,” a documentary about the classic Billie Holiday song written as a poem by Communist Party member Abe Meeropol (February 6); F.W. Murnau’s 1926 silent version of “Faust” with a live score by ace composer Philip Johnston (February 7); a Valentines-themed cabaret performance by Living Colour frontman Corey Glover (February 15); “Scratch,” the acclaimed documentary examining turntable culture (February 20); and an updated performance by D.J. Spooky of his “Rebirth of a Nation” multimedia piece (February 28). Also on tap are spoken-word artist Sekou Sundiata (March 1); the classic rockumentary parody “This Is Spinal Tap” (March 6); “surreal cabaret” by Antony and the Johnsons (March 8); and a tiki-themed dance party featuring DJ Brother Cleve, formerly of lounge act Combustible Edison (March 15).

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 8, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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