FJO: Something that has come up in this discussion when you described getting into this music was learning more about Judaism and reconnecting with your Jewish roots. How much of this music is tied to cultural and religious connections? How important are those connections for the listener? I love klezmer but I’m not Jewish. I’m reminded of the old commercial from the ’70s that said you don’t have to be Jewish to like Jewish rye…
DK: Levi’s Rye Bread! I’m not religious at all.
FJO: None of it was about getting religious?
DK: No, it had nothing to do with religion. But, on the other hand, going to these places and playing concerts in Brooklyn…there was this huge pocket of Yiddish speakers, not just Hasidic, people who were children of garment workers, middle or working class Jews who were Yiddish speakers. And this was astounding to me. I had no idea.
FJO: Did anybody in your family speak Yiddish?
DK: Well, my grandparents spoke Yiddish to hide things from my parents. So my parents had a smattering, so I have a smattering of words in my vocabulary.
FJO: Well, everyone who lives in New York City does. I do too!
DK: Exactly. But probably I might have a couple more than the normal New Yorkese, but not many… Another early introduction in the early ’80s was when I played this opera by David Schiff called Gimpel the Fool. That had three short runs, three years in a row. It was basically a long weekend at the 92nd Street Y. It was a three performance hit, and then “see you next year.” I did an opera by Bruce Adolphe too at that time about a Jewish singer/actor during the Stalin period who was purged. This was also a kind of tease and introduction. And when I started playing klezmer, it felt so familiar to me. It feels so natural. I just felt like my grandmother taught me her vocal inflections, the way she spoke.
FJO: So do you need that family background to play this music? How significant is it?
DK: I can only talk for myself. I think there are many, many amazing non-Jewish klezmer players. I don’t think that’s a prerequisite. Just like I don’t think you have to be African American to play jazz. But I do think that for me personally, there was a certain kind of cultural connection that connected me in a certain way. It was helpful for me, like African Americans playing jazz or funk, growing up with certain references. It gives you a solid grounding. I think America now, we’re just swimming in our own culture. There are so many things going on, so the actual background of who you are and where you grew up isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite.
FJO: You have these weird cultural displacements all around the world like European bluegrass bands. Their accents aren’t quite right when they sing but they play really well. In Japan, there’s an all-Japanese salsa band. There’s a Finnish tango group.
DK: There are klezmer groups all around the world now too…
FJO: Do they get it? Can they get it? So much of music grows out of language, even the way you mentioned how klezmer connected you to the way your grandmother spoke. Can you learn the language without being steeped in it?
DK: I think it’s all about being yourself. For me, if I were to play in a klezmer band that tried to replicate late-19th century klezmer, I may as well not even play klezmer. That to me would be such a lie. I’m not drawn to playing classical music on period instruments either. It’s not to say that’s a lie; some people really like that. Some people like reconstructions of 19th century klezmer music. I see the whole klezmer revival as a bigger picture. You have experimental bands; you have bands that reconstruct a classical klezmer. I think everything can co-exist. But I think it’s about who you are. There might be a band in Japan playing bluegrass music, but wouldn’t it be great to mix traditional Japanese music with bluegrass? Sometimes people don’t think out of the box. They think, “Well, we like bluegrass music, so we’ll just reconstruct what we hear on the records.” My mantra is: “Don’t reconstruct. Do what you need to do to learn the music, but be yourself. Do something original.”