When it comes to unlikely collaborations, the Klezmatics are unbridled virtuosos. Fusing progressive politics with the ecstatic Jewish dance music of pre-World War II Eastern Europe, the New York City-based ensemble is in the vanguard of a loose movement of musicians expanding the possibilities of klezmer music. The band’s interest in spreading the gospel of klezmer can be seen in the stunning array of artists with whom the group has joined forces, including violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, choreographer Twyla Tharp, poet Allen Ginsberg, and the Master Musicians of Jajouka from Morocco. Last December, the group performed in Berkeley as part of a Cal Performances program with Arlo Guthrie, playing previously unknown songs by Woody Guthrie that explored Jewish themes.
“When people present us with these ideas, a lot of the time we sort of think, “Okay, but what will we do with them?'” says Lorin Sklamberg, the Klezmatics’ lead vocalist and accordion player. The band also features trumpeter Frank London, reed player Matt Darriau, violinist Lisa Gutkin, bassist Paul Morrissett, and drummer Paul Licht. “We know their work, but where does our music intersect, where is our meeting place that we can start from? That kind of thing is only limited by our imagination.”
The Klezmatics’ latest collaboration is with the extraordinary African-American Jewish gospel singing star Joshua Nelson. They perform together on Sunday afternoon at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium as part of the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center’s twentieth annual Jewish Music Festival. Nelson, whose career has been boosted by several recent appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s show, is a tremendously charismatic vocalist who is featured on the Klezmatics’ latest album, Brother Moses Smote the Water (Piranha), recorded live in Berlin. Combining the Klezmatics’ repertoire of traditional Yiddish anthems and Nelson’s resonant spirituals and “kosher gospel,” the album is a tour de force that seamlessly synthesizes two soulful traditions.
Nelson, who teaches Hebrew school at his synagogue near his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, descends from a long line of Black Jews who may date back to the prerabbinic tradition of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. He discovered gospel music at eight when he happened to put on his grandmother’s Mahalia Jackson album. Given his experience growing up, the music immediately struck a deep chord. “The synagogue we went to in Brooklyn was a black synagogue and they were no stranger to spirituals, probably more than a regular Ashkenazi temple,” he says. “Black synagogues tend to have chanting, but end up with psalms sung in a spiritual or gospel style, so it wasn’t strange to hear Mahalia Jackson. She had that same bluesy, spiritual sound.”
The subject of Keep On Walking, a documentary that has aired throughout Europe and at numerous Jewish film festivals, Nelson has shared stages with jazz stars such as Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis, and gospel greats Albertina Walker and Vanessa Bell Armstrong. He performs widely at churches, concert halls, and particularly temples, where he has been a hit among Jewish audiences. “I was going to identify as a Hebrew spiritual singer, but synagogues liked the term “kosher gospel,'” Nelson says. “And now you’ve got Jewish reggae singers too, so there’s no excuse not to come to shul.”