The Klezmatics/ Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf!
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The Klezmatics
Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf!

cd cover Joseph Roth's The Wandering Jews (2001, Granta � a translation of the original 1926 German-language edition) offers some edifying reflections on music in pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jewish life. Musicians, says Roth, "are very poor, because they live off the joys of strangers." Some things haven't changed.

Others have. Consider the new Klezmatics album, Rise Up! Coming a bit more than a year after the New York and Washington attacks, its release is no ordinary event. In the album notes, Public Radio International host Ellen Kushner writes of a year of struggle and loss: "We lost 3,000 fellow-citizens, we lost hope and we lost heart, and for a while we even lost the music." But in these uneasy times, phoenix-like, Rise Up! offers spirited testimony to human resilience, against what is shaping up as an enduring humanitarian struggle against ignorance, fear and ethnocentric hatred.

"I Ain't Afraid"
Rise Up! confirms the Klezmatics' status, since their 1986 founding, as one of the most innovative and provocative voices of klezmer and avant-garde Jewish music. Illustrating their eclectic musical interests, four tracks come from the Pilobolus Dance Theatre's Davenen score (music by trumpeter Frank London). "Klezmorimlekh Mayne Libinke" ("Beloved Klezmorim, My Dear Ones"), a traditional tune, opens the album in prayer-like fashion, borne aloft on singer Lorin Sklamberg's exquisite tenor. "Kats un Moyz" ("Cat and Mouse") has a distinctive Latin-jazz drive, especially in David Licht's percussion, and the straight-ahead piano montuno of guest Steve Sandberg.

"Hevl Iz Havolim" ("Vanity Is Vanities") achieves a tantalizing balance between Sklamberg's plaintive vocals, Darriau's airy kaval (flute) and wailing clarinet, and Lisa Gutkin's adroit violin, over an insistent piano and percussion foundation. The traditional Yiddish text can be read as a pointed commentary on the latest crisis of corporate criminality.

One's whole life is misery,
Another one lives large....
Oy, vanity is vanities
Oy, vanity is vanities
A dream is the world
And the world runs on money.

"Davenen" ("Prayers"), an instrumental, blends violin and kaval in the upper register against a simple piano and tsimbl underpinning, giving way to London's rueful, evocative trumpet. Another instrumental, "Di Gayster" ("The Ghosts"), composed by Darriau, sets up a gorgeous interplay between piano, Paul Morrissett's ringing tsimbl, and Darriau's ethereal kaval, suggesting great lamentations, a haunted Kaddish for the hovering spirits of disappeared humanity.

"Bulgars #2," an essay in musical evolution, with its opening accordion-tsimbl-violin interplay, harkens back to nineteenth-century Eastern European dance, moving through klezmer history from Joseph Moskowitz-Abe Schwartz territory to the more contemporary North American sound of the clarinet, trumpet and percussion.

"Loshn-koydesh" ("Holy Tongues," in reference to sacred Hebrew and Aramaic texts), is a prayerful invocation of the Song of Songs. It also is the anthem of a Hebrew teacher to his student favorite and beloved, a verse by the pseudonymous Yiddish poet A. Alm (1892-1963) set to a traditional tune. Its frank sexual theme will leave homophobes Lynne Cheney, John Ashcroft and the religious right spluttering and fulminating:

Moyshele and I begin
To chant The Song of Songs.
And our two hearts then start to
Thump rapidly along.

I interpret every word �
I don't get paid to skip;
When I get to "yishokeyni,"
I kiss him on the lips...

And handsome, fair Moyshele
Now knows the Holy Tongue.

If that is not enough to spark authoritarian ire, the album centerpiece should arouse the unreflective "patriotism" of all who would shoot first and (maybe) ask questions later. Holly Near's eerily prophetic "I Ain't Afraid" (from Edge, her latest, released a month before the US Supreme Court appointed the present Pennsylvania Avenue potentate) assumes form as a powerful gospel choir. Sung in Yiddish and English (and reprised to close the album), it stakes out an unequivocal spiritual and political position.

I ain't afraid of your Yahweh
I ain't afraid of your Allah
I ain't afraid of your Jesus...

Rise up to your higher power
Free up from fear, it will devour you
Watch out for the ego of the hour
The ones who say they know it
Are the ones who will impose it on you.

Rise up and find a higher story
Free up from the gods of war and glory...

I ain't afraid of your Bible
I ain't afraid of your Torah
I ain't afraid of your Koran
Don't let the letter of the law obscure
The spirit of your love, it's killing us.

I ain't afraid of your money
I ain't afraid of your culture
I ain't afraid of your choices
I'm afraid of what you do
In the name of your god.

Against extremist sentiment of every stripe, "Yo Riboyn Olam" ("Creator, Master of This World") is a song of fervent devotion, a pacifist vision of an enduring ecumenical peace in Jerusalem, as the international cultural capital it has been for most of its history. Lorin Sklamberg gives loving voice to divine yearning, coming as close as a secular artist can aspire to the cantorial sublime. An evocative Middle Eastern feel comes from a jagged blend of choral voices, plus guests Myra Melford (a sublimely evocative harmonium) and (on percussion) Aaron Alexander, Samard Walker-Butler and Jacob Heifetz-Licht. Sklamberg opens up another sphere of devotional ecstasy on his own (ironically titled?) composition, "St. John's Nign" (a wordless song of ecstasy). Its accelerating chorus ("Dai dai dai," like "Daiyenu," the Passover song) and keening clarinet cry out, "Enough! It is enough!"

And so it is, in this treacherous era, that Rise Up! renounces all manner of high unholy madness: messianic politics, the self-righteous fire-and-brimstone moralizing, fascist faith, a demagogic language of enemies and evildoers, covert secular crusades, clandestine detention and inquisition sans habeas corpus, deception and hypocrisy, the dismissive pre-meditated assurance of sanitized mass murder, all on a mission from god.

I had the opportunity to see the Klezmatics perform most of the material on Rise Up! at the summer 2002 Nürnberg Bardentreffen Fest, a multikulti (as Germans say) weekend of live outdoor music. Artists converge from all over the planet to perform at a half-dozen free street venues throughout the extensive pedestrian zone. In this medieval city (emerging from its own sinister National Socialist history), the band captivated listeners from a stage nearby the memorial where the former Nürnberg synagogue stood, destroyed as a prelude to Kristallnacht in 1938. Sixty-odd years later, before a rapt crowd, in a country that cannot get enough of klezmer, the paradox and pathos of this historical juxtaposition was manifest.

It seems doubtful that a band of this spirit, complexity and integrity will perform next year in Jerusalem.* But as debates over the past are always arguments about political struggle in the present, one can hope and beseech the divine � as these artists do, with great passion � for a world in which nation-state is not synonymous with cultural identity, in which the denial of political autonomy is not synonymous with cultural extinction. � Michael Stone

Rise Up is available from cdRoots

The Klezmatics web site

Audio: "I Ain't Afraid" composed by Holly Near (p)Hereford Music
Yiddish adaptation by Adienne Cooper and Michael Wex
©2002 Rounder Records, used with their kind permission

Editor's Note: About a week after this review was first published, we got this letter from a reader:
"I agree with every word of Michael Stone review. But I wanted to correct one thing. The Klezmatics performed last year in the Israel Festival in Jerusalem and performed most of the Rise Up songs, including 'I Ain't Afraid.'... Israel is managing a barbarous and cruel occupation regime over the Palestinian territories, but we still have our freedom of speech." - Eyal Hareuveni, Jerusalem

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