FJO: So, how far can you go? You’ve incorporated samplers, funk beats, one album you did has Latin drummers… In Europe, there was this cross-cultural pollination you just described with Rumanians, Hungarians, Poles. Here you’re now doing this cross-pollination with jazz and funk, salsa and hip-hop. Are there kinds of music that wouldn’t work blended with klezmer?
DK: I think that’s a really hard question to answer because at a certain point it’s very intuitive. Right now I’m in the middle of a very interesting and stimulating collaboration [with a guy who] uses the name “So Called.” He lives in Montreal. He’s remarkable. He’s not just a DJ: he has a sampler and a sequencer and he makes beats. He’s not just saying we’re gonna make a house beat and play some klezmer on top of it. He’s an accordionist. He sings in Yiddish. He’s deeply committed to klezmer music. I’m 48 and he’s 27, so it’s a real cross-generational collaboration. He’s been making beats since he was 15 years old, so he’s actually been making beats for quite a long time. As much as he loves house and hip-hop and all of those kinds of forms, he’s also deeply into klezmer music. He and I will discuss a little trill or an ornament on some old Dave Tarras record that he worships, or Aaron Lebedeff and Moishe Oysher. That place that he’s coming from makes the music have that connection. If you lose that connection then it loses its meaning.
My new record is continuing the collaboration with So Called and Klezmer Madness. It’s probably going to be called Superstitious Devices, Bubbermeises and so we’re continuing to do stuff with the beats but going further. We’re also doing a crazy version of “Rumanye, Rumanye,” this slager Yiddish theater classic, but we do it really dark and slow. The words are about how everybody in Romania drinks wine and eats pastrami and anybody who kisses his own wife is out of his mind; it’s a happy land. Aaron Lebedeff’s recording from the ’20s or ’30s is unbelievable, so powerful and joyous. But it’s hard to copy that. Where do you go from there? Some people have done some nice versions of it in the klezmer revival. It wouldn’t be my thing, but I’ve always secretly wanted to sing that song. So I sing it, but we have this dark version. The image is like, “Oh, America’s always going to be a free country. No fascism.” And then there’s a dark underbelly. We left to do the recording on November 3, 2004, and we were all in a really pretty shitty mood, and I think that was pretty powerful. Doing this song where there’s this image of Romania, but there’s corruption and poverty, horrible infant mortality rate, Ceausescu, dark awful things, difficulty and tragedy…
FJO: Now, if you took a traditional klezmer audience and presented them with something like this, would they acknowledge it as klezmer? Who is your audience?
DK: It’s really mixed, ranging from really young people in their 20s or even younger, little kids, on to people in their 80s. And there are interesting reactions. This one woman came up to me in France. She was in her mid 80s and she said, “I’m a Polish Jew. I grew up with this music. I fled to France when the Nazis came. I was hidden during the war and I survived. I knew this music; it’s where I came from. When I saw the electric guitar and the drums, and I was ready to hate your music. But then you played and you convinced me and I loved it.” Here was a person who listened with an open mind and open ears. I think my music is not forbiddingly academic or anything, but sometimes people talk about it as though it is: “Oh, my God, he’s so radical!” I’m just trying to make music that’s stimulating and fun and kinda crazy and wild. So this woman really heard it. I wrote a piece called “Love Song for Lemberg/Lvov”—Lemberg is where my grandfather came from and it’s a beautiful Austro-Hungarian city—so I start off with an Austrian/Eastern European/Central European waltz and suddenly it erupts into a screaming doina with a lot of noise. And with each one of the interruptions, it gets louder and louder and more and more intense. It’s like the screams of the Jewish dead. There’s a lot of emotion and a lot of rage.
FJO: Of course, the disappearance of klezmer music in Europe was another byproduct of the Holocaust.
DK: Because of the Holocaust, because of Stalin, and because of assimilation in general of the entire diaspora, the music and the culture got lost and shoved to the side.
FJO: We probably wouldn’t have any remnants of this original klezmer music if it weren’t for musicians who emigrated to the United States and made recordings here. So in a strange sense, klezmer is actually an American music in the same way that salsa is…
DK: Klezmer has become an American music but at the same time when I go to Europe, people say: “We are so happy that you are coming here and playing European music.” So there’s a perception in Europe, and it’s true, that this music belongs to the European tradition as well. It’s always that interesting thing of people being fascinated by Jewish culture in Europe when there are so few Jews left in Europe now. It’s kind of a gap in the European soul. That’s how I see it. They’re looking for something to fill that gap. “We had Jews here. We had Jewish culture. It was important to us.” And then, Americans are coming back with it… It sort of goes both ways. I find it really amazing to come back and play Jewish music, especially in places like Poland, Germany, France, where horrible anti-semitic acts were perpetrated. “We came to America, and look at what happened to it here.” That’s really cool…
FJO: What did happen to it here?
DK: It took on influences like it did everywhere else. People sometimes have said to me, “Is your music like Yiddish Melodies in Swing?” There’s this album that Dave Tarras played on. It’s swing versions of klezmer tunes. But it’s absolutely not! There was a sort of swing setting, but it was like cut and paste. You paste the klezmer musician on top of this. If you look at this swing music compared to 1938 Count Basie, it’s pretty lame. It’s just a functional Muzak-y arrangement of swing. We’ve come to a point now where klezmer musicians have heard enough American culture, they have enough James Brown running in their blood, Coltrane, Charlie Parker, etc. etc., so that when the influences are picked up, it’s not just a cut and paste. It’s a much more organic kind of synthesis.
FJO: It’s interesting though, because you’re talking about this as Jewish roots music from people who came here from Eastern Europe. Charlie Parker and Coltrane weren’t Jews!
DK: But they were Americans and that’s something that for me, listening to that music, that’s in my blood. From like age 11, I was sitting and listening and studying their music deeply.