The trumpeter who blew up klezmer

By Miranda Hinkley, August 1, 2008

Frank London's fresh approach to klezmer sparked a global explosion in traditional Jewish music, rejuvenating an entire culture in the process


If you have any album in your CD rack that you happily label "Jewish music", chances are Frank London had something to do with it. The American-born trumpeter is arguably one of the most important figures in global Jewish culture today. London was one of the leading lights of the New York scene that dusted off a few crackly 78s some 30 years ago and set about bringing the Jewish world's attention to their forgotten musical heritage.

Back in the 1980s, his band the Klezmatics made it hip to like klezmer - the old Jewish celebratory instrumental music of Eastern Europe - and since then he has become an in-demand composer, arranger and teacher, travelling the world to reconnect young Jewish musicians with their musical past.

At a time when statistics on intermarriage and assimilation make for regular doomsday predictions about the collective Jewish future, musicians like London - whether by accident or design - are pulling resolutely in the opposite direction, giving alienated Jews a first point of access into Judaism and Jewish tradition, and presenting a proud Jewish face to the outside world.

"Tradition is not a limitation," he says on the phone from his home in New York. "Traditions are wells that we can draw from that nourish our spirit, our art, our creativity - it's not a straightjacket. When people get involved with any sort of traditional music and become part of modern, living tradition they end up feeding the source of that well for future generations. It's cyclical - being part of long chain of people who are drawing from the past and moving to the future is a wonderful thing. It's important that we don't ever see tradition as a limitation, but more as an opportunity, as a legacy, as a gift and as a continuum."

With his zeal and love of tradition, London can sound more like a rabbi than secular trumpet player. It is hard to believe that when he started out in Jewish music in the '70s, the term "klezmer music" did not even exist. Today, are international festivals of Jewish music in Pittsburgh, Poland and St Petersburg, and over 40 klezmer bands currently performing in Germany alone.

Jewish music in general - and Ashkenazi Jewish music in particular - is in ruder health today than at any time since the 1930s. The reasons for this are complicated, but when a group of curious, young American musicians from a variety of backgrounds set about hunting down old recordings of Jewish melodies from Eastern Europe and playing them again, they triggered a wave of interest that later came to be known as the "Jewish music revival".

At its forefront were London's band the Klezmatics, whose first album Shvaygn = Toyt (Yiddish for Silence = Death) is 20 years old this year. "When I was really young," he recalls, "before I started studying music, I was really influenced by UK folk fusion bands like Steeleye Span, Pentangle and John Renbourn, all these artists who were looking at British folk music but putting a new twist on it. In some ways, their work from 40 years ago became the model for how the klezmer revival has flourished."

For tradition to stay relevant it cannot stand still, and London is a relentless innovator, continuously looking for new ways to expand understanding of what Jewish music is. One example is the Klezmatics' recording with gospel singer Joshua Nelson. "He's from a long line of African-American Jews who trace their personal history back to Africa," explains London. Joshua is a genius who sounds exactly like [legendary gospel singer] Mahalia Jackson. He is a practising Jew who does ‘kosher Gospel' - he sings from the Old Testament, with the same repertoire and style as Christian Gospel music, just without the references to Jesus! For our album Brother Moses Smote the Water [released in 2004] we worked on the liberation songs in the Passover service. We've always been attracted to songs of social justice, and they come up a lot in the black American struggle too."

This ability to find fertile common ground has led to recordings and tours with musicians from almost every imaginable background: from Latin to North African Sufis, Roma gypsy brass bands and Jewish chazanim. But his career could have turned out very differently if it was not for one of great unsung heroes of the British music scene, Jewish guitarist and composer Ben Mandelson. "Ben Mandelson and his pioneering band the 3 Mustaphas 3 were one of first bands to record Jewish music [and make it accessible] in the early '80s. I was on tour with the Afro-Cuban Jazz Band in the UK when I met Ben - he's had a huge influence on my life and music. I grew up a very assimilated American and then somehow became an ethnic musician, which is thanks to that tour and Ben Mandelson as much as anything else."

Next week, London is coming back to his namesake city to direct the faculty at this year's Klezfest summer school, run by the Jewish Music Institute. Here, students learn for the most part without musical notation - everyone is encouraged to use their ears as much as possible. "I studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, and there was a philosophy in my department that you could learn any kind of music just by listening," says London.

"Today it seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but at the time it went against everything that had been done up to that point. The convention was that you would read about music and analyse it - but this was using your ears and the idea was to listen to all sorts of different musics and try and copy them."

This philosophy continues to drive his creative approach to this day. "Genres and styles are nothing but a set of rules - anyone can understand them as long as you put in the hours. It doesn't make a difference whether you're in a jazz orchestra, or a klezmer group, or playing fusion - just listen to as much music as you possibly can. Find the music that drives you crazy, that you can't live without: the sources of passion that drove you to become a musician. And train your listening skills, because the more we listen, the better we're able to understand other people - the better we're able to communicate. At the end of the day music is nothing if it's not about communication."

Frank London is at Klezfest, West London Synagogue, London W1 from August 10-15. He leads Klezmer Klimax, an allstar Klezfest concert on August 13.


Five must-have albums for your collection


The crucial recordings any fan of Jewish music should own:

Klezmatics with Chava Alberstein
The Well (Rounder / Xenophile)
Israeli chanteuse Chava Alberstein has been singing the songs of her grandparents since way before the current Yiddish-hip revival. Her pairing with the Klezmatics is inspired: the gorgeous arrangements and trademark inspirational singing make this a modern Jewish classic.

Frank London Klezmer Brass Allstars
Di Shikere Kapelye (Piranha Records)
One of the funkiest and easiest starting points for those looking for a way into klezmer music. London leads his brass band with style and swing.

Oi Va Voi
Laughter Through Tears (Outcaste)
Not really a klezmer record at all but undoubtedly one of the most influential Jewish records of the past decade. This album took international non-Jewish awareness of klezmer-style clarinet and violin to a whole new level, as well as the career of a little known singer called K T Tunstall.

Various Artists
The Soul of Klezmer: Reve et Passion (Network Medien)
The compilation to get if you want to understand klezmer music past and present.

John Zorn/Masada Chamber Ensembles
Bar Kokhba (Tzadik)
One of experimental-jazz composer John Zorn's most accessible recordings, featuring his exceptional string trio. No "out there" blowing, just a kaleidoscopic exploration of Jewish-inspired melodies.

Last updated: 5:30pm, July 31 2008