Legend tells us that the 16th century Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel created a golem to protect the Jewish ghetto in Prague from pogroms during the Easter/Passover holiday season. A creature made of clay, the golem was brought to life when the Hebrew word for truth, emet, was carved on his forehead and put back to sleep when the first letter of the word was removed leaving met, the Hebrew word for dead. While golems have been depicted as everything from shambling monsters to articulate figures akin to our idea of artificial intelligence, they are also a reminder of the struggles for survival Jewish people have faced through history.
Now aside from both being parts of Jew’s European heritage, at first glance golems and klezmer music have very little in common. However, klezmer shares the same roots as the golem, as it comes from Central and Eastern Europe. The word klezmer comes from the Hebrew words klei (vessel) and zemer (song) which, when combined, literally means instrument of song. Originally it was the word for any musician. It wasn’t until the 1970s that it was used to describe the music of the Yiddish speaking people of Eastern Europe. Today the music not only draws upon its traditions, but has incorporated aspects of contemporary popular music.
One of the great examples of how klezmer has evolved is the Brooklyn-based band Golem. Referring to themselves as “Not your grandfather’s klezmer band”, the band sings in Yiddish, English, various Slavic languages and German, plays instruments traditionally associated with the genre (violin, accordion, horns) but infuses it with an edge that can only be called a punk rock sensibility. Their latest album, Tanz, on the Mexican-based Disco Corason label, is a rollicking adventure in high energy anarchic music that still manages to capture both the spirit and feel of klezmer.
Instead of singing songs about a way of life which no longer exists, Golem have taken the form and turned it into the means of expressing what’s important to them today. While there are still some traditional songs included on the disc, the majority, like the title song “Tanz” (Dance), are originals which they’ve based on the lives of people and experiences they are familiar with. “Tanz” is the story of a survivor of the death camps who went on to build a small fortune as an adult. Instead of worrying about what would become of his money, he lived life to its fullest. When he died, unmarried, childless and without a will, nobody inherited his wealth. “This cash is only paper/Let’s buy a fast red car/We don’t believe in heaven/Just want to die happy/Tanz tanz tanz…dance!”
Alongside this life affirming, live for the moment song, you also have some very witty satire. “Vodka Is Poison” bases its lyrics on a Russian self-help tape designed to help cut down on the rampant alcoholism in the country. The lyrics are hysterical, “It makes you sickly, makes you cough/Makes you smell like dirty socks/Makes you happy, makes you free/Makes you wish you were me/Vodka – Yad.” The song’s lyrics are sung in both Russian and English (I’m not sure if the English are a direct translation of the Russian), but if they’re any indication of Russia’s methods of trying to curtail excessive drinking I doubt any real dent has been made in the problem. While the song’s lyrics are obviously not meant to be taken seriously, they are real enough to make us realize the ridiculousness of a self-help tape being used to cut down on people’s drinking.
However, not all the songs are humorous or even satirical, some like “7:40” deal with more serious issues. In the former USSR it was impossible for a Jew to go to medical school. The only way a cousin of lead singer Annette Eziekiel Kogan was able to receive medical training was by becoming a member of the very anti-Jewish Soviet Armed Forces. The song’s title refers to the first time of day Orthadox Jews pray, 7:40 AM. In the Soviet Union her cousin was forbidden to pray at any of the three times designated for prayer; 7:40 AM (shacharit), 4:15 PM (mincha), and 8:35 PM (maairv). “Sacharit, mincha, maariv/I do no work on Saturday/Back home Jews can’t go to med school/ When someone called me a kike/I stuck a finger in his eye/And now I’m free to daven (pray) as I like”. (The cousin actually took out somebody’s eye when he was called a “kike”—not surprisingly, he emigrated to Chicago as soon as he was able.)
Musically, Golem somehow manages to combine the familiar plaintive sound of traditional klezmer with the harder edge of their punk ethos. A great deal of their success comes down to them having not only mastered the original form, but also have a great deal of respect and affection for its traditions. It also helps that both Kogan and co-vocalist Aaron Diskin are able to sing with conviction and feeling in all the languages used on the disc. Instead of the clarinet you would expect to hear playing leads in a klezmer band, Jeremy Brown on violin and Curtis Hasselbring on trombone accompany Kogan’s accordion in pumping out the melodies while they are kept on beat by Taylor Bergen-Chrisman on bass and Tim Monaghan on drums.
While this mix of instruments might sound odd on the surface, once you hear them play you’ll be hooked on the infectious music they’re able to create. Golem aren’t like any klezmer band you’ve ever heard, but that’s what makes them so much fun to listen to. There aren’t too many musicians who have the ability to take a traditional form of music and bring it into the modern world while still remaining true to the genre’s origins. Golem may not be your grandparents’, or even your parents’, klezmer band, but that doesn’t make them any less authentic or inspiring.[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B00JS508UU]