[5 March 2009]
It’s hard to explain what drives musicians to obsessively study far-flung genres from across the world and create music in an idiom foreign to their native land. What do Germans love so much about rockabilly and old-time country? Why did British and American psych-rock leave such an impression on Brazilians and Cambodians in the 1960s? How did the Japanese come to appreciate, and imitate, the blues so profoundly? Why would an American folk singer seek to learn Tuvan throat singing? These are complex questions, each with unique answers that cannot be reduced to simple explanations in terms of globalization, colonialism, and the like.
Indeed, the strange, unpredictable, and sometimes completely serendipitous transmission of musics across borders and cultures is not entirely modern, let alone postmodern. One of the most conspicuous examples of such transmission is klezmer, which is recognizable at least back to the nineteenth century and possibly a great deal farther. As a result of Jewish diasporas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, klezmer spread from its roots in Eastern Europe to the United States, where it was woven subtly, but deeply, into the fabric of American popular song (due in no small part to the outsize participation of Jewish musicians and entertainers in composition, songwriting, vaudeville, and even jazz). For as much as klezmer has had its ups and downs in popularity and cultural support over the course of the twentieth century, it has been a constant presence in New York City as much as in Warsaw or Kiev, and many of the revivalists of the 1970s and 1980s were Americans (from Boston and Berkeley as well as the Big Apple). This is not exactly the case of studying a completely foreign music, as there is a living ethnic tradition grounding its practitioners. However, for the revivalists of the generation of the 1970s and onward, much of the work of recreating the sound was done de novo by studying pre-Holocaust recordings of klezmer, in addition to learning the much-changed music that had been handed down through the American Jewish communities.
Several hundred miles from Eastern Europe, and thousands from the United States, lays Amsterdam, which has apparently become a klezmer hotbed. This, however, should not be surprising; after all, there are Jews in every major city in the world, and they bring music with them wherever they go. In this unlikely place, an ensemble known as De Amsterdam Klezmer Band has been working in the idiom since 1996, and one of their previous efforts (2001’s Limonchiki) was even released on an American label, Knitting Factory. Zaraza is their seventh release, and while some of their earlier albums were primarily composed of traditional Balkan and klezmer compositions, the seven-piece band has recently been adding many more original works to their repertory.
In truth, the band isn’t playing straight klezmer, and anyone hoping for a rigidly traditional approach to the music will be disappointed. Like many ensembles with an interest in European folk music (to say nothing of the pre-Shoah Ashkenazim who got the ball rolling), they borrow freely from jazz, gypsy music, and a variety of European folk traditions, including Scandinavian, German, Hungarian, and Romanian. This opens them up to the charge of being another drop in the watering-down of local music styles in the name of a pan-global, all-encompassing yet indistinct “world music” which has no name and no color. To a certain extent, mashing all of these styles together bleeds them of their individuality and does violence to their ethnic significance, but the group obviously means no harm, and after all, the real test is how well the fusion turns out aurally, not how well the group can defend itself against the attacks of scholarly wankers.
It turns out pretty well, in fact. The mix will be familiar to fans of the recent gypsy-punk explosion, and the group might win some fans thirsting for more along the lines of Gogol Bordello, if they can handle its not being quite as frenetic or drunkenly over-the-top. The vocals are generally distracting, and the group is best in its instrumentals, such as the delightful romp “Alles Kan Beter” and the whirlwind “Sirba Katoomba”. The band dishes out plenty of the expected clarinet and violin, as well as some excellent accordion, trumpet and trombone. Their improvisational skills are well-developed and generally impressive, but like many groups of this sort (“world fusion”), the recording gives the distinct impression that the live show is so much more exhilarating than the studio recording – one where old biddies get up to get down alongside the shimmying college kids. Globe-hoppers both in studio and on stage, the group has announced dates in Holland, Turkey, Brazil, and Mexico for the spring of 2009; plan your vacation accordingly.