Fiddler on the Roof goes to Jamaica and joins a klezmer band
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 14, 2003) – For the first decade of the klezmer revival, bands mostly tried to recreate the sounds they heard on vintage 78 rpm recordings made in the 1920s and ‘30s. But by the late-1980s, several of the more adventurous groups realized that those bands were playing music that showed the influence of its particular time and place. It made little sense that a group playing in 1990 shouldn’t acknowledge the intervening 60 years of musical growth and evolution, or that the musicians shouldn’t incorporate elements of their particular musical personality that could work well with the basic melodies and compositional devices and strategies of klezmer.

Klezmer fusion was born, and a dizzying array of blends came pouring out, including klezmer-bluegrass, shtetl-metal, avant-klezmer, and klezmer-jazz. Some worked better than others, and always the result was only as good as the musicians who were playing it.

As its name implies, Klezska plays a blend of klezmer and ska, the frenetic, horn-drenched Jamaican dance music – the klezmer of Kingston, if you will. The combination isn’t unique to Klezska; the pioneering klezmer fusion band the Klezmatics have dipped into that well on occasion, and other groups, including King Django’s Roots and Culture, have investigated it in more depth.

But at Club Helsinki on Sunday night, in only its second public performance, Klezska acquitted itself amazingly well and held forth great promise for its future. The group’s dedication to both klezmer and ska was obviously deep-seated and heartfelt. While they seem to be on more intimate terms with the ska idiom, they also evinced an enthusiasm and willingness to delve into and explore the melodic and harmonic possibilities that the Yiddish modes presented, and the result was a warm and at times deeply soulful journey.

If some of their choices in their generous, hour-plus first set were obvious, the results were not. In fact, the band uncovered surprising resonances in tried and true material, such as in a very jazzy, reggae version of “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn,” featuring great work by the three-person horn and reeds section, especially Meg Montgomery’s Ziggy Elman-style trumpet, and in a very loungey “Skava Nagila,” featuring guest vocalist Jeff Newalt, who turned in a clever bit of improvisational, Jamaican-style toasting on reggae-fueled rendition of “Tradition” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

While the origins of “Misirlou” are probably Greek or Armenian, the tune has found a home in the modern klezmer repertoire, and Klezska’s haunting improvisations based on the Near Eastern-style melody were spiritually suggestive, taking the music to that place where the best ska and klezmer musicians always try to go. Bandleader Glenn Tamir kicked off the tune with some hand drums, and reed player Alex Kontorovich played a hypnotic solo. Guitarist Angela Babin and bassist Wayne Batchelor – playing a standup acoustic bass – were utterly reliable, and keyboardist Nick Balaban sprinkled well-placed, syncopated chords in all the right spaces.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 15, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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