Jews With Horns / Possessed
US release date: 12 February 2002 (original release: 8 April 1997)
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When I received the Klezmatics album Possessed in the mail this spring it was already three years old, but this re-release couldn’t be more timely considering that this band continually but playfully struggles with themes of assimilation and traditionalism—as, I would say, do all Jews (they just don’t all happen to be fantastic musicians). On the day I received the album, Israeli troops had or hadn’t massacred women, children, and unarmed men in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin. Men usually referred to as “Palestinian gunmen” but occasionally simply as “terrorists” had for roughly a week been under siege in the Church of the Nativity. This wave of violence originated in another suicide bombing, which happened just as observant Jews were sitting down to Passover seder.
The playwright Tony Kushner (of Angels in America Pulitzer-Prize-winning fame) wrote the liner notes, wherein I read the following astonishing statement:
“I want to be both a God-believing Jew and a historical materialist socialist humanist agnostic. I want the State of Israel to exist (since it does anyway) and I want the cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs honored and I want to shokl with Jews at the Wailing Wall and at the same time (and I’m afraid this won’t help the sales of your CD) I think the founding of the State of Israel was for the Jewish people a historical, moral, political calamity.”
A historical, moral, political calamity. From the Latin calamitas, calamity is akin to the Latin word clades, which means destruction and is thereby linked to the word “halt” via the notion of break or rupture. Although the Klezmatics take their name from Klezmer, the Eastern European Jewish folk music whose oral tradition is as long as the history of the Jews in that region, the “matic” suggests an update, a reinterpretation within the old framework. A break with tradition—and as anyone whose ever listened to the music from Fiddler on the Roof knows, Tradition is what keeps the Jews together as a people.
Or does it? As with any religion, Judaism today is composed of countless sects, beginning with the Reformed, the Conservatives, and the Orthodox, but continuing into the vagaries of the Hasidim, which include more sects than I (a very, VERY lapsed Jew) am aware of, except to say that many of them hate each other, hate Zionism or are rabid Zionists, and on and on.
In other words, the Klezmatics dance and swing and sing (in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish) in that odd space created by any sort of rupture: in the uncertainty of a moment left undetermined by history, at the cost of thousands of lives.
On the other hand, the Klezmatics are just a group of New York Jews who play traditional Jewish music in a modern context. It’s just that considering this context is bloody at best, the music gets to be representative of a host of conflicting concerns and interests, and to ignore that context is to diminish the importance of how the Klezmatics view their role within the Jewish community (such as it is).
So, although in general I like to focus on the music, with the Klezmatics it is always a little bit more. The fact that each album contains lengthy notes confirms this uneasy position between those “in the know” and those whose families have forgotten the old ways.
Jews With Horns is a joyful album, full of obscure Kabalistic cleverness (the liner notes by Canadian Rabbi Kaiman be Zishe Holzhacker explain all the secret numerical affinities buried in the album), but also with wordplay that the average English speaker will understand and enjoy. On the first cut, “Man In A Hat”, the vocalist (nearly all of the six Klezmatics sing lead vocals, and apparently its political whether or not they sing in English—more on this later—so I’m not exactly sure who is singing here) celebrates Manhattan in a series of puns so silly and so clever that the listener can’t help but be drawn into his enthusiasm. “I met a man in a hat with a tan / Met a man in a hat with a tan / Man-hat-tan, I met a Manhattan man.” All of this to the rollicking, staccato beat and twisting clarinet and trumpet that most will recognize as quintessentially Klezmer.
The melody for this upbeat number is traditional, and the opening words, sung in Yiddish, translate like this: “I’ll sing a song for you / Though the melody is old / The words are all brand new.” Most likely the singer here is leader Lorin Sklamberg, and the sentiment expresses perfectly the kind of traditionalism the Klezmatics are going for on this album.
Almost all the songs on Jews With Horns follow this formula of traditional melody combined with new words. Sometimes, as on “Fisherlid” and “Simkhes-Toyre”, all the singing is in Yiddish, but both albums, provide Yiddish/Hebrew transliteration, English text, and original Hebrew alphabet text so that those not familiar with one or another of these languages can understand the meaning of the words. This gesture again underlines the way that the Klezmatics seek to celebrate this space of rupture between tradition and assimilation by reaching out hands/words in both directions.
There are several instrumentals on the album, “Khsidim Tants”, “Romanian Fantasy”, “Nign”, “Honga”, “Doyna”, “Fret Aykh, Yidlekh”, “Kale Bzetsn” and “Heyser Tartar-Tants”. Each of these identifies the arranger, usually Frank London, with the note “traditional”, with the exception of “Doyna”, which is a clarinet improvisation by David Krakaur. Some also offer further explanation: “Nign” is a “wordless song of ecstasy in the Hassidic style” and “Kale Bazetsn” is “The Seating of the Bride”.
The Klezmatic notion of “tradition” also extends to the history of the Jews in America. For example, the notes explain that “In Kamf” is “One of the most popular Yiddish labor songs, written in America in 1889”. This song has a mournful sound almost reminiscent of the earliest New Orleans jazz arrangements, but with a chorus of many voices celebrating both perseverance and suffering.
On Jews With Horns the main concern is arrangement of traditional melodies, as this music passed through the generations without benefit of sheet music or any other sort of formal recording. On Possessed, however, the Klezmatics have moved away from this formula and into composition. Frank London and Alicia Svigals (whose violin is both nimble and heartwrenching) trade off with original compositions, and instead of just London, Lorin Sklamberg also does some arranging of traditional melodies. Furthermore, not all of these songs are properly Jewish: there’s a Gypsy song, “Shprayz Ikh Mir”.
Even more shocking, for those who would like to see the Klezmatics stick to their original formula, there’s the improbable “Mizmor Shir Lehanef (Reefer Song)” and yes, they do mean reefer, as in “madness,” as in “grass”, as in getting stoned. How on earth these people located the Yiddish word for reefer—funfe—and then justified it by quoting the Maggid of Mezz Mezritch (who says it is “God’s best medium for consolation”) must testify at the very least to their resourcefulness, not to speak of their, well, traditionalism. I mean, it’s okay if the Rabbi says so, right? Of course right.
For all this, Possessed is a much darker album than Jews With Horns, with Kushner lyrics lamenting that “Dispossession by attrition is a permanent condition / That the wretched modern world endures.” This song’s lyrics are entirely in English, and because Lorin Sklamberg sings them, there was a bit of an uproar in the (admittedly small) Klez community in NYC. It seems with Possessed, which more directly addresses notions of exile, terror, and alienation, the Klezmatics felt themselves alienated, and were to some degree criticized by the community for abandoning the strict guidelines of their previous, more cautious update of tradition.
Politics aside, I love Possessed, because it is so haunting and spooky. Jews With Horns is fun, but it often slips past the untrained ear because of the rather uniform beat and melody of these traditional songs. They sound stereotypical, since everybody knows generally the Klezmer sound, which may explain all of the lengthy notes to explain what might otherwise sound like an undifferentiated mass. On Possessed, however, I hear the individual creativities of each of the Klezmatics expressing themselves, and I am intrigued and moved. On “Dybbuk Shers”, Alicia Svigals’ violin spins a web as delicate, intricate, and durable as a spider’s. But I don’t even mean on the original compositions—my favorite song on the album is “Mipney Ma”, a traditional song whose mournful, almost howling arrangement perfectly matches the Kushner-translated lyrics: “Why did the soul, oh tell me this / Tumble from Heaven to the Great Abyss? / The most profound descents contain / Ascensions to the heights again . . .”
This sentiment, though ancient, seems to express everything the Klezmatics are trying to do with their music. They embrace imperfection, multilingualism, and assimilation with a courage that can only be reinforced by their incredible fluency in the language and culture of their ancestors. Advocates of so-called “multiculturalism” should be so lucky. And those currently struggling in the Middle East in the name of various traditions, strictly interpreted, might do well to take a page from this gorgeous, passionate, and many-faceted book.