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Yiddish Band Brings 'Post-Klezmer' Music to New York

NEW YORK — On a recent Thursday evening in a small venue in Harlem, a band of French musicians called Kabbala could be heard practicing the traditional Jewish sounds of Klezmer, singing love songs such as "Mein Sugar Pie" in Yiddish.

It's the music their Eastern European grandparents would have listened to, albeit with a bullhorn, rapping emcee, surf-rock guitars and a North African mandolin.

As the newest purveyors of these post-Klezmer beats, Kabbala, which is named after a school of thought developed in Jewish culture in the 12th century and later popularized in the form of Hasidic Judaism, will be returning their "multicultural mayhem" to New York on June 14 during their first official U.S. tour.

The band calls their music "Yiddish Dada."
The band calls their music "Yiddish Dada."
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Emmanuel Schmitt

"It's quite fashionable," sax player and emcee Uli Wolters said about his band's post-Klezmer style, a mix of Old World Yiddish folk songs with newer styles such as jazz and hip-hop.

Kabbala will be playing what its members describe as a musical form of the art movement Dada, in four different venues in the East Village, Bushwick, the Lower East Side and SoHo, including Mehanata and City Winery, until June 17, before the band heads back to France.

"It's great, because I haven't been back for a long time," Wolters said about the city he called home while studying jazz at the New School nearly 10 years ago.

"We are really curious about how this whole thing is going to be received by New York audiences."

In fact, Wolters, who goes by Uliphant2000 in the band, thinks it will be a test of sorts. Although the band is from Southern France and is popular in Finland, Poland and Germany, some of their most striking influences come from Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods in the heart of Brooklyn.

"It's very rare [to hear Yiddish sung]. The only people speaking in Yiddish are religious Jews in Brooklyn," he added. "And it's a paradox, because the Yiddish language is not religious."

Inspired by the paradox of how the once-quotidian Yiddish language is used by religious sects in modern times, the band was created in 2004, to help revive the language and show that Jewish European culture can be lively.

Kabbala's members include Luigi El Gatto on drums, Anakin Startseva on strings, Stef Galeski on guitars, Pat2bass (Patrick) on upright bass, and Uliphant2000 as a rapper, and on horns and synthesizers.

Some of Kabbala's songs from their newest album, "Boxes, Bagels and Elephants," display a sense of humor in combining Yiddish language with modern ideas.

"Love Schnorer" combines trip hop with suggestive Yiddish lyrics, whereas "Devil," a song about a man confronting his sins, pairs Klezmer riffs with the freestyle, hip-hop influenced spoken word — in Yiddish.

"We try to actually write about modern day life and things that are happening today, even though it's in Yiddish," Wolters added.

Like many of the band members, Wolters is "not really religious," but he gets what he calls "Jewish notions" from his family. While he was in New York, however, he was inspired by a world of modern Yiddish songwriting from artists such as The Klezmatics, and the New York-based clarinet player David Krakauer, who is considered to be one of the world's leading exponents of Eastern European Jewish Klezmer music.

"The mixture of Jewish cultures and other cultures — that's what inspires us," Wolters, who was born in Germany, said in an interview before the start of his tour. "And it's really almost mainstream to mix everything up in New York."

If Kabbala succeeds, in fact, they won't be the first unorthodox Jewish band to recently strike a chord in New York. The Jewish heavy metal band Streimel Viking, originally from the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Judaism, has been giving Black Sabbath a new meaning in Crown Heights during the past year.

The difference between a band like Streimel Viking and Kabbala, however, is the underlying basis of Klezmer, the distinctive, rhythmic melodies originally played at dances or weddings in the ghettos of Eastern Europe.

The band was so influenced by the Klezmer sound, in fact, that it originally began as just a mishmosh of jazz and Klezmer, without the added violin, bullhorn, rapping or other West African influences, according to the Polish-Algerian guitarist and Kabbalah founder Steph Galeski.

"As we began [to] write our own songs, our repertoire went in a more contemporary direction," Galeski said.

"But these first influences remain important because they were there when the group first came together. It’s what united us at first, even if now we’re taking more musical liberties."

The response, they say, has been positive. There's always folks dancing to the upbeat tempo, and, depending on who's in the audience — namely, who would be able to understand the words — members say they often hear people singing along.

"Younger people just wanted to not lose this culture, but use it without being religious," Wolters said.

But it's more than that, he added.

"We’re not just trying to reach the community," he said. "Half the band isn’t Jewish. We want to appeal to people who aren’t purists, who may not even know Yiddish when they hear it, who ask, 'Hey, what language is that?'"

For a complete list of tour dates, click here.