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22 April 2012

Review- The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground (DVD Video)

It is a rare thing to get an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at a popular band of any genre, let alone a World Music one. But The Klezmatics is certainly one worthy of the celebration and scrutiny that comes with documentary filmmaking. Erik Greenberg Anjou takes us on a journey of intimacy and insight as he looks at life both on the road and at home in The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground.

The film opens with the band on tour in Michigan, throwing us right into what a musician’s life on tour looks like. This is not the rock-star life of private jets and hotel suites. Yet the dedicated professionalism and enthusiasm the band shows could hardly be matched by the household names we know from the rock/pop music scene. These folks are the rock stars of this genre.

There is a learning process with Yiddish-based Klezmer music. It’s not just a matter of sitting down and writing songs. There is a vast existing repertoire that must be mastered  before anything else can happen. An early scene shows Lorin at the YIVO Institute For Jewish Research, looking through the sound archives and playing old Yiddish 78 records. Then we see him, along with Lisa, practicing with his Yiddish teachers at the Workmen’s Circle Library. 

We see Frank riding a bike through Manhattan, Trumpet case slung over his shoulder. He has a pragmatic view of the work a musician does: “Well, you have to work. That’s a given. So you might as well enjoy what you do.” So true. If you you don’t enjoy it, why bother?

Matt and Paul did not grow up Jewish, but found their own path to Klezmer and are able to bring much to it. Paul says they take the sounds of Klezmer music and add things to it from their own personal experiences. This makes it a living tradition.

The film features a segment with Joshua Nelson, probably the most unique performer in the genre. Known as the Prince of Kosher Gospel Music, Nelson grew up in an Orthodox Ethiopian synagogue, where the music is syncopated in a way very similar to American Gospel. Nelson had previously collaborated with The Klezmatics on the Brother Moses Smote The Water album, and we get to see him perform Ki Loy Nue and Elijah Rock

The film focuses on the Woody Guthrie project, Wonder Wheel, showing the creative process the band used to create the album. We hear from Nora Guthrie about her collaboration with the band to set music to her father’s lyrics. Lisa talks about finishing a song that has incomplete lyrics. Frank talks about the band’s group decision making, describing it as a band without a leader, an anarchist collective. The album gets nominated for a GRAMMY® award, and we follow the band to Los Angeles as they perform at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Wonder Wheel wins in the World Music category, and we see a marketing strategy session at the office of the band’s label, JMG. We see JMG President David McLees talk about the importance of the win and the positive effect he hopes it will have on album sales.  Unfortunately, JMG later went out of business, and the band members talk about the impact this had on them. 

We see The Klezmatics on tour in Poland, bringing back the music that had originated in that country. They visit with school children in Klodzko, visit the White Stork Synagogue, and perform in Wroclaw. We see Janusz Makuch, director of Yiddish Culture Festival Krakow talk about the importance of The Klezmatics to the music scene there. “You could say oh, everyone can do it, yeah? So show me the other band like Klezmatics.He goes on to say “They are one of the most authentic bands. They don’t imitate anything.” We also hear from Christoph Borkowsky- President, Piranha Records, who was instrumental (no pun intended) in producing The Klezmatics’ early recordings. His enthusiasm is still unwavering after all these years.

There are scenes of life at home, with family and kids. We learn about the struggle to balance home life with the life of touring with the band. There is also some honest talk about the struggle to earn a decent living as a musician. Some have second jobs. Frank is seen in a number of musical settings, keeping busy as a musician, composer, and arranger. As well known as The Klezmatics are, income from the band alone is not sufficient to support the families. Quite a contrast to the public perception of the earning potential of touring bands.

This struggle to keep the money coming in boils over when Frank is taken to task for wanting to perform less with the band as he searches for a teaching job. There is some conflict and a level of dysfunction among the group, but Paul says “You know what? I would call us incredibly dysfunctional, except for one thing. We still have a band. How do you argue with that?”

We see the creative process at work again as the band meets for a workshop for a new album in Lorin’s apartment. Frank starts with a very basic outline of a song and the band builds an arrangement around the theme together. This shows their collaborative style at work. It is an amazing thing to witness. Frank says “The fire to make good new music never leaves.” And certainly, the fire for us as an audience to hear good music never leaves, either.

The Klezmatics remain at the top of the Jewish music scene, keeping up their world touring schedule as they always have. The drive to keep bringing this music to the public is a testament to the spirit and dedication the band has to each other, the music profession, and their worldwide audience. Every place The Klezmatics walk is definitely Holy Ground.

Keith Wolzinger
©2012 Klezmer Podcast

Note: Hear David McLees on Klezmer Podcast 7

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