So, Nu, You Wanna See a Movie?
With the current gypsy music craze, interest in klezmer – which had become something of a cult subgenre again since its big resurgence in the late 80s – has picked up, which is a good thing. It could be said that klezmer is Jewish gypsy music, the two styles sharing a lot of the same eerie Middle Eastern inflected tonalities and bouncy dance rhythms. Tonight at the famous, recently reopened synagogue at the base of Eldridge Street, Metropolitan Klezmer reminded why they’re one of the foremost groups in the current wave of klezmer revivalists. But they didn’t do it with the party music. Instead, bandleader/drummer Eve Sicular – who’s also a film historian – assembled a program of incidental and theme music from Yiddish film from the 1930s and 40s, from both the US and the Soviet Union (hard to believe, in the land of so many massacres, but as Sicular explained it there was actually an official Soviet Yiddish theatre company in the years before World War II!). The band interpolated their songs – a mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers – between movie clips which played on a screen on the left side of the gorgeously renovated synagogue.
They opened with two wedding tunes, both with slow, strikingly mournful introductions before the drums kicked in and they picked up the pace. To Sicular’s immense credit, even though she’d brought a full kit, she felt the space and played with a light touch that resonated throughout the synagogue’s beautiful acoustics while letting the rest of the band cut through. The way the musicians were set up created an intriguing if completely unintentional stereo effect, the wind instruments (clarinet, trumpet and trombone) with the drums front and center, with violin, bass and accordion (the lightning-fast Ismail Butera, from the exhilarating retro East African group Sounds of Taraab) panned right. Trumpeter Pam Fleming, as usual, stole the night with one of her signature solos, pulling a crescendo out of thin air. The crowd burst into applause before she was done.
Since the synagogue has been reopened under the auspices of Orthodox Judaism, lead vocalist Debby Karpel was replaced for this show by three male singers who took turns fronting the band: two baritones and then a tenor who was responsible for the Molly Picon songs (from her legendary roles in Yiddle Mitn Fiddle and Mamale). Ironically, this was a better fit than one would imagine, as the role the pioneering comedienne/actress/athlete (she swung on the trapeze) played in Yiddle Mitn Fiddle was that of a girl violinist who dresses as a man so she can tour with a band and be a star.
They closed with an original, a song that ought to be covered by Chicha Libre. Written by their usual trombonist Rick Faulkner, it had a bouncy, Peruvian cumbia rhythm. But Sicular picked it up by the tail and swung it around, punching it along on a 50s jazz beat – four-and-ONE, two-and-THREE – with a steady barrage of rimshots. It was a well-chosen way to end a night of otherwise rather haunting, ominously captivating material. Metropolitan Klezmer play the sixth night of Passover at Drom at 7:30 PM on April 24, opening for the highly regarded New York Gypsy Allstars. If the headliner is anything like the opening act, it should be a spectacularly good double bill.
And the space – now known as the Museum at Eldridge Street – has been brought back from the dead, spectacularly. Ten years ago, it looked like a crack house both inside and out, with holes in the roof, rodents everywhere, the aisles littered with debris. Now, the magnificent front window with all its many stars has been restored, the walls gleam and the beautiful, late 1800s woodwork is all renovated: for the many thousand descendants of those who passed through this neighborhood eighty or a hundred years ago, a tour could be a spiritual experience.