Desperately seeking Salman: Phil Sweeney on the Klezmatics' brand of 'rhythm and Jews' at Ronnie Scott's

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The Independent Online
Thank Jehovah - or Allah as the case may be - that word didn't get back to Wembley Conference Centre. While 8,000 fundamentalist Muslims bayed for the annihiliation of the Jewish state last Sunday, and Queers against Fundamentalism picketed the rally, a packed Ronnie Scott's audience clapped along to 'Honikzaft' (Honeyjuice), introduced as 'the world's first explicitly homoerotic Yiddish folk song', followed up by the old Hasidic 'Shnirele Perele' (A String of Pearls), an ode on the arrival of the Messiah. Only Salman Rushdie on spoons could have made it all more risky or enjoyable.

The Klezmatics are a six- piece group from New York specialising in klezmer, the wedding-band music of Romanian, Russian and Polish Jews. Almost extinguished in Central Europe by the Holocaust, klezmer survived and mutated in the United States, but by the 1960s had degenerated in the minds of young people to a schmaltzy, Fiddler on the Roof-style anachronism. Then young Jewish musicians looked at it again. In the Seventies, groups began recreating the old repertoire, and in the mid-Eighties a new, less traditionalist wave arrived. The Klezmatics, founded in 1988, are widely regarded as the best of the new crop.

Without wishing to stereotype, the Klezmatics do look the part. David Krakauer, whose agile, scurling clarinet and bass-clarinet lines carry so much weight, is a dead ringer for one of the Broadway Danny Rose cast, while Paul Morrissett, the bass guitarist, looks like a young Alexei Sayle. Stepping on stage, they announced a 'medley of everything we're going to play', and with an 'ein, zwei, ein, zwei, drei]' were off.

The basis of the Klezmatics' repertoire is the traditional body of fast circle dances - bulgars, freylekhs and horas - and the slow, rhapsodic Romanian doinas learnt from the recordings of masters like the 1930s New York band leader Naftule Brandwein, or personally from elderly practitioners like Bronya Sakina, who died recently in New York 20 years after emigrating from Russia.

Melodically, the Klezmatics' front line, over bass and drums, consists of clarinet, trumpet or sax, violin, played with sinuous virtuosity by the classically trained Alicia Svigals, and the accordion of the lead singer, Lorin Sklamberg. Sklamberg doubles on keyboards to provide some of the effects which combine with rhythm changes and jazzy solos - Ornette Coleman on the Roof - to extend the range of the music.

Although much of the evening was rapturous, wailing oompah stuff, certain numbers - 'Shnirele Perele', for example - carried a powerful spiritual charge, the thought of the tiny contemporary remnants of once vast klezmer audiences lurking at the back of the mind. And then it was 'ein, zwei, drei', and the clarinet whirled us off again . . .

Among the Klezmatics' many talents is a way with album titles; the follow-up to their excellent Rhythm and Jews is to be called Semitism. They're even available, they tell me, for occasional functions. Were it not for my elderly Catholic mother's blood pressure, I'd contemplate throwing a belated bar mitzvah myself.

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