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It's not get the chance to hear conventional Yiddish music with a contemporary sensibility, let alone a queer one. But the Klezmatics--a six-piece New York-based klezmer ensemble with a gay vocalist/accordion player and a lesbian violinist--provide that opportunity. Mixing mid-20th century klezmer (think your grand father's or your friend's grandfather's bar mitzvah), ancient Eastern European melodies, and noisy avant-garde jazz, the Klezmatics update Jewish roots music and broaden its intensely perky party perspective to create something that modern-day queers and their ancestors could groove on, regardless of ethnic or religious background.

With lyrics by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, the Klezmatics' fourth album, Possessed, is the group's most ambitious and cosmopolitan. Ghosts of the Old World mingle with the new and the living: Traditional Yiddish folk tunes alternate with the band's own compositions, with neither sounding foreign or false next to the other.

Otherness is a topic the band knows well. There's a heaviness to the Klezmatics that's anathema to ordinary klezmer music, which by its very nature and function is escapist, even as it celebrates cultural cohesion. When Lorin Sklamberg sings Kushner's words about being an exile in "An Undoing World," the connections between Jewish and gay identity come to the fore. Phrases like "Dispossession by attrition is a permanent condition / That the wretched modern world endures" deal with holocaust and plague, and the contemporary ravages of AIDS are set against the age-old horrors of anti-Semitism.

That heaviness is welcome and gives the often-giddy melodies--played on horns, woodwinds, accordion, violin, bass, and percussion--the substance of a different style of soul, the disco of an earlier generation. World music is perhaps second only to jazz in its straightness, but tender Sklamberg and bold violinist Alicia Svigals assert their queer selves without making their sexual identity the group's primary focus. Sklamberg sometimes sings in English (the Kushner lyrics), yet his lilting tenor is far more expressive while rasping through the guttural syllables of Yiddish.

The entire band can impose its persona on any music it chooses, and on "Mizmor Shir Lehanef (Reefer Song)," it tackles trippy reggae, integrating Middle Eastern elements to the arrangement without losing its klezmer touch. The song also celebrates pot smoking and manages to do it from a historically Jewish viewpoint. Oy vay!

RELATED ARTICLE: In profile: Klezmatics

"There's a parallel between gays and Jews," says violinist Alicia Svigals of the Klezmatics. For Svigals and her band mates, the gay-Jewish parallel has formed their creative core. The New York City sextet is renowned for its mastery of klezmer music. And both Svigals and vocalist Lorin Sklamberg are openly gay.

"At first, being Jewish provided a model to be gay," explains "klezbian" Svigals, who has a 16-month-old baby boy with her girlfriend. "So gay Jews were already one step ahead of everyone else, because as Jews we were already marginalized.... Then in the '80s, with the advent of Queer Nation and in-your-face politics, being queer provided a model for being Jewish."

By mixing what Svigals calls klezmer's "incredibly complex, deep, rich musical language" with other forms such as jazz and reggae, the Klezmatics have helped to fuel an American klezmer revival. They've fiddled with Itzhak Perlman and even reached Billboard's top ten. With their fourth CD, Possessed [see review on page 65], the band keeps practicing what Svigals: calls "in-your-face Jewishness a la Queer Nation." Among the album's cuts, for example, is a collaboration with fellow gay klezmer enthusiast Tony Kushner for a revival of the classic Jewish play The Dybbuk.

"Many movers in the Yiddish revival scene are queer," Sklamberg happily reports. For him, the combination "allows me the freedom to create using my entire person. Because I'm in the contemporary Yiddish world, my gay identity is not a problem. So we can do things like take words from the Song of Songs and alter the lyrics so they're same-sex lyrics."

But for the Klezmatics, alterations must be balanced with tradition. "We tried to relate `Silence equals death' to the Yiddish language," says Sklamberg. "If you don't speak it, it will die out. If you don't express yourself as a Jewish person, those sources of expression won't be there anymore."
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Article Details
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Author:Walters, Barry
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Jun 10, 1997
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