The Klezmatics: 30 years of devotion to klezmer revival

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In my first full week at Ashkenaz, I had the opportunity to check in with Klezmatics’ Frank London to weigh in on the iconic group’s influence and contribution to the revitalization of klezmer music over the past three decades. The Grammy-award winning band is performing its 30th anniversary show on the Festival’s opening night, Tuesday, August 30.

Q: As one of the most iconic and influential bands of the klezmer revival, credited with redefining Yiddish roots music for the past three decades, what is your relationship toward the Ashkenaz Festival and what is its personal significance? What does it mean to you to be kicking off the Festival with the Klezmatics’ 30th Anniversary show?

A: Both the Klezmatics & Ashkenaz Festival are simultaneously products of and strong motivating factors in the revival of interest in klezmer and Yiddish music and culture that began in the 1970’s and flourishes today. Our paths have been parallel; we both believe in the strength of adhering to your roots and moving forward into the future. For us to celebrate our 30th Anniversary and release of our new cd Apikorsim – Heretics at the Ashkenaz Festival is so fitting, a real celebration of what we both stand for.

Q: As the only klezmer band to have ever won a Grammy, what does the award mean to you and how has it shaped any of your future projects, if at all?

A: Winning a Grammy was not only a triumph for the Klezmatics, but also an acknowledgement of all the amazing work created by the countless Yiddish groups over the last 40 years. It both gave the band some serious ‘street cred’, but also added to the consciousness of our music and culture.

That said, winning the Grammy never influenced our work after that — nothing so cynical as trying to do another project like a previous one because of its success. Our goal is to continue our growth and exploration of Yiddish music and culture in any way possible.

Q: You released your first album in 1989, now 30 years later; you’re releasing your latest album since 2011. What are your feelings going into the release of this album versus your first album given the resurgence of klezmer music over the past three decades? Has your artistic approach changed? How has the band evolved?

A: The Klezmatics evolve, but not in a linear fashion. Our latest recording — our 11th or 13th, I can’t count — is in certain ways a serious nod to both the tradition and to the sound of the band itself. Hard to believe, but after all these years, Apikorsim – Heretics is the first recording we’ve done with just the six of us, no long list of guest artists and session musicians and friends and community singing with us, and therefore really represents who we are. Is this a sign of a move towards a ‘roots-revival’ sound for the band? Nope, it’s just who we are on this record. We move in a lot of directions.

Q: How do you manage to stay together over thirty years when so many other revival bands have disbanded? What’s the secret to your longevity?

A: Our longevity is based on a mutual desire to keep things new, evolving, relevant and challenging. Not staying in one place. In addition to Apikorsim – Heretics , we have recently created the avant garde – found footage film museum installation with Hungarian film artist Peter Forgacs; and are working on a possible Broadway musical! The secret is to focus on the work. The tradition is strong, it is a well that we dip in and that nourishes us.

Thanks for the great interview, Frank! Side note, according to Eric, Frank is one of the busiest guys around and yet he got back to me with his answers within 24 hours. What a mensch!

The Klezmatics perform their 30th Anniversary show on the Festival’s opening night, Tuesday, Aug. 30.

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