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Music Review: The Klezmonauts – Oy to the World! A Klezmer Christmas

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The Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock once wrote about a man who "…flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions." Musically, that's how this release feels. With only ten songs totalling less than one half hour duration, Oy to the World! A Klezmer Christmas manages to cover a lot of territory. It's Christmas music, Hanukkah music, klezmer music, tango music, movie music, surfing music. It's most serious and it's seriously silly. And it's just, well… wonderful!

A Jewish secular music form, klezmer has existed possibly since as early as the year 150, has been documented since the 15th century, and since the 19th century has spread from its modern origins in Bessarabia across Europe and into the the Americas, influencing many forms of popular music including polka and tango. It's a joyous, heart-stirring, practically irresistible form of music and an open invitation to dance.

The music on this release has the lively, exotic feel of an oriental bazaar, or at least the sort of oriental bazaar we see in old movies. Every song brings with it a sense of drama, the expectation that something wonderful may happen at any moment.

There's a serious side to this experiment in cultural blending. The musicianship is superb, and the songs are filled with allusions to other songs, other genres, and other musical eras. Within the klezmer envelope are included tastes of classical music, Dixieland jazz, classic rock, pop music, and other forms that add to the overall delight of this release. The effect is a psychedelic blending of musics and cultures into something truly universal. Yet, at root this set is a classic work of humour, at times subtle and at other times quite outrageous.

As I listen, I'm flooded with memories of recordings heard long ago. There's the irreverent clatter of Spike Jones' "Nutcracker Suite" with all its insanity, "I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas" and "Yingle Bells" from Harry Stewart as Yogi Yorgesson, and even, or perhaps especially, "Who Stole the Kishka" by Frankie Yankovic and covered by probably every other polka band in North America. Not really a Christmas song, "Kishka" inevitably got a lot of airplay during each Christmas season for more than a decade.

The set begins conservatively enough with a quiet version of "We Three Kings" that escalates not all that gradually into a riotous splash of klezmer that sets up the listener for the rest of the songs in the set.

The set ends in an equally quiet version of "Away in a Manger" that brings the listener out of the insanity and back to the real world. Peaceful and reverent, this is perhaps the most traditional of any song in this set.

Set against the mostly instrumental selections in this set, the lovely vocal version of "Jingle Bells" in Yiddish comes as a delightful surprise. The instrumental bits between and around the vocal evoke memories alternately of B. Bumble and the Stingers' hit "Bumble Boogie" (Rimsky-Korsakoff reformed as boogie woogie by pianist Jack Fina) and Spike Jones at his most riotous.

"Good King Wenceslas" begins with all the pomp and circumstance of a B movie about Arabia then swings into a Middle-Eastern melody over a bass line reminiscent of The Drifters and punctuated with heraldic horns that might hark back to Robin Hood. But wait! Is that just a bit of "Sunshine of Your Love" that I hear infiltrating this song? Yes, and then more classical allusions follow. The mind boggles. All this in just over two minutes.

"The Little Drummer Boy" lopes into sight quietly then, without warning, halfway through the song breaks into a wild drummer mode that can't help but bring to mind the surfing classic "Wipeout," right down to the guitar shots amidst the drums and those orchestral waves of instrumentation so endemic to all surfing music.

Be sure to listen for some echoes of old Clint Eastwood westerns in "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." The effect is almost disturbing, but in a fun way.

The only original song on this release, "Santa Gey Gezunderheit" is clever and funny and a joy to hear. This is a well-written, humourous story that should become a Christmas radio classic, if only as an antidote to the perennial schmaltz that fills the airwaves at this time of year.

If you prefer to take your music straight, conventional, and serious, this is not for you. Oy to the World! A Klezmer Christmas will appeal to the person who delights in the bizarre and the unconventional, who relishes the surprises in life and takes fun wherever it can be found. For such individuals, these songs will present an ecstatic kaleidoscope of musical colours. I recommend it highly.

You can learn more about The Klezmonauts at the Oy to the World! website. This website also includes a sampler page where you can download a full-length MP3 of the title song and listen to clips of the other nine songs.

Oy to the World! A Klezmer Christmas
The Klezmonauts
10 tracks

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  • Jewish music about Christmas…gotta love the irony. Then again, no one cared about that when Kenny G(orelick) was putting out Christmas records.

    I enjoy modern Klezmer music for the high wiggy factor. It can be some real entertaining stuff and it blends in well well other music forms, especially jazz and rock.

    This looks like a great holiday record to check out for someone looking for something off the beaten path, thanks for the tip, Bob.

    Expecting Saleski to chime in with the Zorn/Masada angle in 3…2…1… ;&)