Frank London of The Klezmatics - interview

Frank London of The Klezmatics: ‘We can really live with the tradition. We don’t think it should be mummified’

Just like there’s rock and classic rock, there’s klezmer and classic klezmer. The Klezmatics are often being called ‘The Rolling Stones’ of klezmer, which is no wonder for one of the first and the most successful contemporary klezmer bands with two Grammys in their pocket. We expect the revelation from the concert, we expect the guru opinion from one of the band’s founders, Frank London. Frank told us about the future of klezmer, tricks of history, Jewish poems of Woody Guthrie, the story behind the ‘world music’ and many more.

Ian: Here, at this festival, there’s a huge variety of music, which all goes under the same name ‘klezmer’. For yourself, what klezmer actually is?

Frank: Basically, there are two definitions of klezmer: sort of technical and correct linguistic definition and a practical definition. The correct linguistic definition is that klezmer is an instrumental music, so basically anyone who sings is not klezmer. It is also the music which is written by ashkenazi Yiddish speaking Jews in Eastern Europe, which broadened out to other places, to the Americas and other places in the mid XIX century. But then of course we know that nowadays, just like jazz, rock and other genres, any time the genre is established, the name is used in many ways. It’s the case of klezmer as well, and hopefully they all have some relationships to klezmer, to that real meaning of the word klezmer, but probably this relationship is different for each one. So similarly, klezmer get used to talk about as the music of the same people, Yiddish speaking Jews, so Yiddish songs are called klezmer. So that what klezmer is: certain rhythm, certain style, certain ornament.

- As far as I know, the main thing about the Klezmatics is that the band managed to turn the klezmer music into something more contemporary, more acceptable. It managed to add the tunes from other genres, according to my impression at least. Do I perceive it correctly?

- We don’t think of this this way. If you look at any music you can see that it grows and changes. Just be careful not to put anything into a little box. Because we are not the first band in Jewish/Yiddish music with mixing influences, we’re not the last, and it’s not like we only do that. You have to understand: the audio recording started around the 1890s. Commercial recording started in around 1905. Some of the first recording of klezmer music in New York City in 1911-1912 was a disk with two sides and two songs. One of them was called ‘The Yiddishe Charleston’. What i say is that from the very beginning you had a strictly East European klezmer and a fusion klezmer. Immediately, from the very beginning.

- As for Klezmatics, one of my favourite albums is the one with the songs of Woody Guthrie. I was wondering how did the idea appear?

- That’s a great question, the one when you can never think of it. So much about our careers and our lives are just about giving act into some history, and it’s kind of amazing. So what happened was that we met Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, and she told us about these amazing stories about her father Woody Guthrie. His mother in law was famous Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. So Woodie Guthrie was living with his Yiddish mother in law and he wrote these Jewish songs. His daughter said: ‘We don’t know which music he was using, so we would like to write these songs on his words’. So it’s not as if we thought of it; it happened, and we did what we did.

- But do you see any connection between your music and Woody Guthrie music or country music in general?

- Well, that’s funny, because if you listen to the two recordings we’ve made as well as the third part we haven’t recorded yet, ‘Wonderwheel’ and ‘Happy Joyous Hanukkah’, you hear a very big spread of style of music, more than on any other records, and that’s because we didn’t decide anyone’s strategy, like ‘we gonna write Jewish music’, ‘we gonna write country music’. We just looked at the words and wrote songs. Some songs have some kind of influences, some other. And that what’s great about this project - the diversity of it.

- You just mentioned the third part of the this album series; can you tell a bit about that?

- It’s just that we have more songs than those on two CDs; we have a third set of songs which we haven’t recorded yet. We feel like we shouldn’t waste stuff which we have there. I think that the band is anxious to move to the new Yiddish material, but I feel like we have it and we shouldn’t let it go away.

- Is it also mainly unrecorded material?

- Yes, and what interesting is that Hanukkah record contains all Hanukkah songs, and Wonderwheel is about certain more adult songs, there are also a lot of kid songs, a lot of funny kid songs on there.

- If drawing some connection between klezmer and jazz, or rock music, we can say that jazz originated as a music of a certain cultural group. Do you think that klezmer, just like jazz, can also become a very widespread music which everyone enjoys and not like it’s now, when klezmer is mainly known among people who have a certain connection to Jewish people and is perceived exclusively as Jewish-related music.

- Well, it is a Jewish-related music. The difference is between where does music comes from and who either enjoys listening to it or playing it. When a music comes from a community, then it has a certain function and role in this community. You can’t say klezmer has a certain function and role for Jews, because if you go to a rocky Jewish community, klezmer means nothing to them. It’s not about Jews, it’s about a certain subgroup, if not a subgroup of a subgroup of the Jewish people. That’s the functional thing, but it has nothing to do with who’s interested in hearing it or who is interested in playing it. Just like you said jazz is not precisely African-American music. So your question ‘how big will klezmer get’ - it’s already got to something. It’s interesting in the way how in the last 25-30 years klezmer has an effect on the world music scene.

- How would you explain that?

- ‘Cause it’s great. They all actually are.

- But why didn’t it happen before for some reason?

- Well, there wasn’t a world music scene before that. The world music as a genre was invented in 1986 more or less. There was a bunch of people in the music industry in London. I met one of them and he told me about their meeting in a pub and their discussion on how they are going to market this burgeoning interest in a different music from allover the world, which is both popular and folkloric. They were choosing which term to use, and they were talking about ‘global beat’, ‘world beat’ etc. Finally they decided at that meeting to call it ‘world music’. There was a certain group of people at a certain time and a certain place. Then they started world music festivals. At that time there were record stores, which had signs like ‘pop’, ‘rock’, ‘jazz’, ‘classical’ and ‘world music’. The goal was to have a sign there, so that to have a section so that people could come and see it. The simultaneous resurgence of klezmer music, with the Klezmatics being formed in 1986 and the world music being started in 1986 is just a trick of history. Our career is just parallel to the rising of the world music. That’s maybe why we had an effect, and klezmer music had an effect on world music. The klezmatics was formed right at the same time and had the right to be seen as the part of world music. We had some authenticity; they say ‘Oh, they are Jews, they are from New York!’. Of course, we are not all Jews, and whether or not we are authentic is another story. They also say: ‘they are playing traditional music, world music, we didn’t hear it before, they are playing with contemporary edges, they would fit nicely into our world music festival’. And what happens at the world music festival is that everyone goes and hears everyone’s concerts. So all of the sudden pignic groups, caribbean groups, aboriginal groups are looking at klezmer bands and we all are affecting each others music. My personal opinion is there’s the way a lot of American klezmer musician are getting attracted to the people all over the world, and it’s not unique for Americans. It’s a dual respect for the tradition. We really love our tradition; and we go, investigate, really trying to know it good. But on the other hand, we can be free with it, add to it; we can really live with the tradition, we don’t think it should be mummified and kept in the museum. That kind of the relationship and the process of how you do it is literally the process of learning world music, and replicating it is the process which has been done to all the world music.