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Metropolitan Klezmer

Yiddish for Travelers reviews

The music covered by Metropolitan Klezmer on Yiddish for Travelers is of an impressive breadth. The at-times eight-person-strong ensemble consists of topnotch music professionals with a wide array of specializations: ranging from the Balkan, Middle Eastern and Eastern European music to Afro-Caribbean, jazz, ska, R&B and Cajun. Apart from Metropolitan Klezmer, they have been involved in many other artistic projects.

But the common denominator on this album is the klezmer musical tradition that has evolved over centuries among Jewish communities throughout the Old World, before crossing over to the other side of the Atlantic — sadly often under far from felicitous circumstances, to say the least.

To give the listeners a comprehensive impression, Yiddish for Travelers carries them on a 24-track grand tour of the genre: from Jewish weddings via Warsaw film studios on to Greece, the Jewish quarter of Istanbul, into the Bulgarian countryside and on theatre stages of Rumania, visiting forgotten regions like Bessarabia and traveling into time with Sephardic music, betraying the influences of Arabic and Persian poetry.

The producers have even thrown in a travelers’ companion to the Yiddish language: the typical Patois spoken among the Jews of central and eastern Europe. [Namely,] the CD flyer…

Yiddish for Travelers offers an entertaining musical journey through a unique and truly global musical tradition that deserves every effort to be preserved.
Carool Kersten, Rambles: a cultural arts magazine
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Subtle but ear-catching arrangements. Strands of Greek fire, substance and rhythm are blended with overlays of drum and Druze dance, and tone colours that show a Turkish leaning here reawaken themes that over-exposure by others elsewhere had jaded. Pleasantly inventive. [recommended]
Folk Roots Magazine (UK)

This versatile sextet from the Big Apple is comfortable with styles ranging from Middle Eastern-drenched dance music to Yiddish theater music to the classic klezmer of Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein — but its lounge-jazz version of the Yiddish classic ‘Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen’ (Raisins and Almonds) takes the cake. Extra points for the female drummer…

Distinguished by just plain great, versatile ensemble playing on the two dozen selections offering a broad sweep of mostly pre-World War II klezmer and Yiddish music. With a wide range of instrumentation from which to draw… the mix repertory staples… with lesser-known and overlooked tunes from Yiddish film soundtracks and immigrant-era klezmer bands… exuberant, classic-style arrangements, but occasionally they tweak things: “Shyen vi di Levone” has a jazzy, rhythmic shuffle bordering on Western swing, the typically parade-like “Oy Tate” is turned into a snakey bit of Middle Eastern music… great spirit and wit.
Seth Rogovoy, Top 10 Klezmer CDs, Moment Magazine and THE ESSENTIAL KLEZMER, [Algonquin Books]

Metropolitan Klezmer Mixes it Up
There is power in diaspora, says Eve Sicular, founding drummer of Metropolitan Klezmer, one of Gotham’s most in-demand klezmer bands. “We believe that the Jewish identity is something that’s always under construction,” Sicular says. That’s why Metropolitan Klezmer… is as eclectic as it can be.

…Metropolitan Klezmer takes the music of its ancestors and combines it with American dance, trance, folk and swing [on] its high-energy debut CD, “Yiddish for Travelers.”
Robert Makin, The [New Jersey] Courier News

On Yiddish For Travelers, Metropolitan Klezmer demonstrates virtuosity aplenty on music drawn from deep Eastern European and Middle Eastern roots and from the Yiddish theatre of the Jewish Diaspora. If this is a part of your heritage, you’ll know some of it and appreciate all of it. If you’re just being introduced to klezmer, this is a fine place to start.
Shaun Dale, Cosmic Debris

Wildly variegated flavors… Clever, spirited and smart musicianship…a formidable debut.
Geo Robinson, Jewish Week

Yiddish for Travelers by Metropolitan Klezmer is a briefcase full of bulgars. Steering clear of klezmer’s darker side, this upbeat, on-the-go collection by the New York-based ensemble is as peppy as a round trip on a carousel with occasional slower songs that generously allow the listener space to catch one’s breath. Portability is the key in making this an exceptionally well-played, nicely arranged representation of the genre perfect for popping in a time capsule, intergalactic probe or overnight bag. A stand-out among the tried-and-tested strategy of serving up standards is “Mangiko/Yoshke Fort Avek” which tackles the same tune from two continents, beginning with a throbbing Greek Rebetic version that shifts to the more familiar Eastern European style, both performed on kanun zither, accordion, bass and hand drums. Most cuts opt for bigger arrangements with boucy brass and reeds, plus a haunting flugelhorn lead by Pam Fleming on the angst-laden “Libes Shmertsn” (The Pain of Love) or the full circus wagon of horns on the showtune “Yosl, Yosl.”
Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine

An encompassing survey of selections from Klezmer’s origins and crossroads….Eve Sicular’s rolling drumbeats and Steve Elson’s piercing clarinet melodies lead the orchestra from quietly affecting passages to unexpected bursts of wildly-excited flurries. ‘Mangiko/Yoshke fort avek’… hauntingly played on the kanun….’Oy Tate,’ a khosidl hypnotically cast via the bendir (hand drum) and ney flute. Metropolitan’s klezmer mastery, well-researched selections, and enlightening liner notes translate to one thing: recommended.
Dirty Linen Folk & World Music Magazine

Easily one of the most significant klezmer discs in some time
CMJ New Music Report

Yiddish for Travelers (Metropolitan Klezmer): The six-piece New York outfit take a very particular attitude to their music – reflecting the sound of the New York klezmer scene between the wars with great accuracy. At the same time, MK achieve the fine balance of a traditional and contemporary feel within their music which keeps them totally relevant to the music scene of today. Both Metropolitan Klezmer and off-shoot sister band, Isle of Klezbos, contain a bunch of highly talented and original players whose musical roots can be traced back through the Jewish diaspora, across central and eastern Europe, taking in local influences wherever people settled. The 24 tracks on this recording run the gamut of the klezmer tradition, from heart-rending melancholia to heart-bursting rumbustiousness, which make for a riveting and enrapturing debut. Personal favourites include an excursion to Romania in the ‘Mainly Rumanian’ quartet of tunes which swing from the funereal crawl of ‘Ismail’s Doyna’ through to the mad breakneck pace of ‘Volokh’ with consummate ease.
The Phat Planet (U.K.) World Music website

These folks offer a spirited but respectful look at the klezmer tradition as it traveled across Asia Minor, Eastern Europe, and into the Americas (and back). Opening with a medley of a classic hora and a lively show tune by one of the fathers of American klezmer, Dave Tarras, the band shows energy and topnotch playing skills, and an openness to new ideas that never mows over the feel of the original. The mix of instruments is completely modern. Metropolitan Klezmer mix old and new Middle Eastern instruments like bendir and European transplants violin and clarinet with the more modern tools of accordion, upright bass, and drum kit to create a blurred line between ancient and contemporary. They combine and contrast tunes, playing the same song in the style of two or more different places, to give the listener an idea of how the music has traveled. Which is not to imply this is a scholarly performance. Metropolitan Klezmer play with verve and offer great music on this journey.
Louis Gibson Editorial review, Amazon.com

Authentic Klezmer Music to Dance to: If there is a line usually drawn between the scholarly type of klezmer which features older melodies and traditional instrumentation and the leading edge klezmer played by groups who see it as a starting point for blending into other genres, Metropolitan Klezmer is one of the few groups that can stand in the middle of the divide and quietly dominate that space. Yiddish for Travelers is a witty, tightly performed collection of klezmer pieces that doesn’t pretend to be anything but klezmer. Conversely, Metropolitan Klezmer’s mastery of the genre is not a historical period piece to be placed in Smithsonian archives; it is animated dance music that defies feet to be still. The only thing better than hearing the CD is hearing the band live. Get your dancing shoes ON!
Elissa Sampson, Amazon.com

Some people, me for example, think of klezmer as great party music, even though they’ve never been to a Jewish party! I always think of partying when I hear klezmer, even if I am deep in the Cascadian forest and the other partygoers are pine trees!

The Metropolitan Klezmer is from the huge metropolis of New York City, far from these Pacific mountains. Formed in 1994, they released their first album, Yiddish For Travelers in 1997, and their second, Mosaic Persuasion in 2001. The women in MK do double time in an all-girl band called Isle Of Klezbos, which has other members as well. Both groups have similar instruments and arrangements and include some non-Jewish musicians. Most have played several other styles of music, ranging from Cajun to Greek to jazz. As in many bands, these influences have led to a cosmopolitan sound, integrated at the roots, so that the music sounds like vivid, solid klezmer instead of fusion. And they don’t sound cheesy either — something people out here worry about!

What an ethnic party headbanger! There is not a track on Yiddish For Travelers that drags; the slower tracks move a long like a diesel ferry through the dark waters of night. MK, with its often perky brass and drums and more subtle clarinet, violin, and accordion, visits a number of locales. Most are similarly rich, eastern, and captured with energy and soul, but a few break the pace. “Mangiko/Yoske Fort Avek” sounds Greek to me, because the first part is the Greek original played by Michael Hess on kanun (Middle Eastern) zither; the second part is the Yiddish derivative. Speaking of trips to other places, “Russian Sher” and a string of Romanian tracks seem not really so unlike each other in style, and point towards a homeland based on culture and religion rather than geography. But those geographic differences do exist in the tunes.

Yiddish For Travelers also includes a few show and movie tunes, not uncommon for klezmerites. Deborah Karpel sings two of these, in a sweet but piercing low soprano. “Farlangen/Longing” is from a 1937 Polish movie. “A young woman sits in an alcove with her face against the wall.” The jazzy “Sheyn Vi Di Levone/Beautiful As the Moon” is from the Yiddish theatre.
Judith Gennett The Green Man Review (KPSU Radio)

A very interesting, unusual and wide-ranging klezmer band with all sorts of different looks … different dimensions.
Rob Weisberg, TransPacific Sound Paradise, WFMU-FM (Jersey City NJ / NYC)

It’s a great band!
John Zorn

This group spans a range of ages and genders, and includes a repertoire that squeezes 1,000 years of Jewish history in song — from Asia Minor, the synagogue, Swing Era dance halls and ’30s Jewish film music. When you hear the songs with vocalist Deborah Karpel, you’ll realize how much Jewish music influenced the torch-song tradition and The Great American Songbook.

The orchestra’s bassist, Dave Hofstra, has a veritable who’s who resume: the Waitresses, blues guitarist Bobby Radcliff, Luka Bloom and ‘Downtowners’ John Zorn and Elliot Sharp. Eve Sicular, the orchestra’s drummer & leader, has played Cajun and zydeco, rhythm and blues and rock. She has also led an all-female klezmer band, The Isle of Klezbos. With the incredible variety of songs and styles, and the infectious joy that infuses their performances, you won’t need to go to Vegas this season for a show.
Mark Keresman, The (NYC) Resident, December 1998

Yiddish music has developed a multi-ethnic heritage along its route of development. Metropolitan Klez mer embraces these varied aspects by exploring the roots of wedding music, folk rituals, prayers, lullabies and thejoyous celebration of Yiddish history.
Hear’s Music, Tucson AZ

Great klez [sextet] that have truly studied the depths of klezmer from many areas & eras. Each of these 24 cuts is an historic gem of klezmer’s rich heritage. With Steve Elson (Big Joe) & Dave Hofstra (Microscopics…) A 1000 year history in 60 minutes!
Downtown Music Gallery

The [NY] neighborhood band for whose concerts I am even willing to drive down from Boston…Yiddish for Travelers is a beautifully-produced, exquisitely packaged CD…. The music is excellent… A lovely revitalization of what we now consider the ‘classic’ American klezmer repertoire (with touches of Balkan and Greek as well).
Ari Davidow’s Klezmer Shack

Lovely and it helped me to make a point about music shared around the world. Thanks.
Judy Rose, Wisconsin Public Radio

Some more from Yiddish for Travelers just because it’s such a fun album.
Frank Gosar, KLCC-FM Eugene, OR

Very effective use of the accordion and kanun especially. Thoroughly enjoyable — this is the way I like my klezmer!
Wendy Morrison, Klezmos/House of Musical Heritage

Usually klezmer gets too humorous for my taste but Yiddish For Travelers is a surprisingly enjoyable album.
D. Holland, US Army

The CD is wonderful, and I have been using it for the local (read: Northern Italy) radio show…Thank you very much.
Francesco Spagnolo, Yuval Italia Centro di Studia sulla Musica Ebraica Italian Center for Study of Jewish Music

Die Aufnahmen sind vorwiegend ausgezeichnet und im klassisch traditionellen Stil arrangiert mit nur wenigen experimentellen, leicht jazzig angehauchten Ansätzen. Die Interpretation ist überwiegend zeitlos. Mit diesem Debutalbum hat sich die New Yorker Formation auf einen Schlag einen sicheren Platz in der Klezmer-Szene erspielt. Ich würde sie, obwohl sie erst ein paar Jahre alt ist, zu den Klassikern zählen.
Eine CD, die ich immer wieder gerne auflege und ein überzeugendes Beispiel zeitgemäßer traditioneller jüdischer Musik.
Stefan (“Gus”) Bauer, Virtual Klezmer (www.klezmer.de) German-language site

…Traditional klezmer tunes, Chassidic nigunim and khosidls, Yiddish song, Balkan and Greek and Sephardic elements, as well as jazz. The traditional is blended very carefully and effectively with the contemporary, the old with the new. The arrangements on “Yiddish For Travelers”, credited variously to individual band members or several, or the band itself, are outstanding, even elegant, and in spite of their varying authorship remarkably cohesive. … versatile band … very wide-ranging musical backgrounds of the members, which span Cajun and zydeco to jazz and classical, including opera. The musicianship is impeccable, technical mastery is taken for granted, and everybody is evidently very well attuned to one another as an ensemble. The band not only take great pride in what they do and doing it with excellence, but also do so with great exuberance and flair.

…an incredibly tight album … consistently excellent throughout and forming a nicely cohesive whole. This is music with heart, soul and ear, for heart, soul and ear, and for the feet as well. While there isn’t a single weak track, certain highlights bear pointing out. “Mangiko/Yoshke Fort Avek” combines two versions of the same tune, shared by two different traditions. First, a rendition in the Greek Rebetica style, then in the Ashkenazic style of Eastern Europe.
Renaissance Man, Rainlore

Anatomy of a Band World Beat – Metropolitan Klezmer span the globe for musical inspiration How did an eclectic set of cajun, rockabilly and classical performers synthesize to form Metropolitan Klezmer? What could possibly bring together as variegated a bunch of musicians as this, musicians who have worked in everything from rockabilly to avant-garde jazz, from Greek rembetiko to rhythm and blues? Actually it was more of a who that a what. Eve Sicular is the band’s leader, organizer, scheduler and anything else it takes to get everybody to a gig. She’s also the drummer.

Metropolitan Klezmer had their beginnings in a gig in 1990. Sicular, now an elfin, bespectacled 36-year-old, was asked to put a group together. She… knew two guys who “had been playing a lot of Jewish music, but their musical roots were as varied as the roots of klezmer itself.” Michael Hess started out as a classical violinist and violist, but along the way he picked up a few other arrows for his musical quiver – the kanun, a Middle Eastern zither, Arabic ney flutes, frame drums. Ismail Butera is an accordion player equally comfortable with Greek, Albanian, Arabic, Turkish and Persian music as he is with klezmer, Sephardic and Israelis. Sicluar says of the duo, “They are among the only musicians in klezmer who instead of talking about the freygish mode will say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s in hijaz.'”

Next, Sicular contacted Dave Hofstra. “I wanted a bass player, I’d just seen Dave and it was a naural.” A natural for just about anything musiual you could name: Hofstra’s resume includes jazz gigs with Philip Johnston’s bands Big Trouble, the Microscopic Septet and the Transparent Quartet, appearances with the Klezmatics, John Zorn , Toshi Reagon, Luka Bloom, Tom Cora and Guy Klucevsek…

Factor in Sicular’s own background, which includes zydeco, rock and rhythms and glules (and an academic background in Yiddish film!) and you already have a band as musically multilingual as any imaginable. Of course, all that was missing was a vocalist trained to sing opera and art song. Fortunately, Deborah Karpel, the band’s vocalist, has klezmer bloodlines to balance out her classical training – she learned her first Yiddish songs from her grandfather. “Debby is known for so many kinds of music, but she wanted to do this for her family,” Sicular says…

The band played its first gig at one of John Zorn’s festivals at the Knitting Factory in March 1994… The initial offering, “Yiddish For Travelers,” reflects some of the wildly variegated flavors in the Metro mix. A Greek rembetiko tune transmutes into the Yiddish “Yoshke Fort Avek,” the evergreen lullaby “Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen” segues into a swing tune called “Metropolitan Raisins” … Two haunting numbers are drawn from the 1937 film of “The Dybbuk.” If all this sounds like the World-Beat band of your nightmares, don’t worry. It’s not. “Yiddish for Travelers” works nicely on its own terms and as a New Klezmer recording.

And Sicular promises that it’s only the beginning…
George Robinson, Jewish Week (NYC), The Arts feature


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