A Euphonic Union of Klezmer and Punk

By Ted Siefer

Published December 29, 2008, issue of January 09, 2009.
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Scattered about T.T. the Bear’s, a hole-in-the-wall club in Cambridge, Mass., were plastic dreidels, bags of chocolate gelt and jelly-filled donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts. It was a feeble attempt to play up the show’s Hanukkah theme, and as demonstrated by a performance by the band Golem that had the audience dancing a dervish-like hora, it was probably unnecessary.

“We’re going to talk about the menorah and the miracle of the oil,” joked Annette Ezekiel Kogan, Golem’s front-woman accordionist, before the show. “In terms of Judaism, Hanukkah is a minor holiday, but everyone’s got a lot of energy to let out at the end of December — that’s an American thing — and that’s perfect for us.”

The show was sponsored by Birthright Israel Next — the alumni group for young adults who have taken a Birthright-sponsored trip to Israel — and the band’s Jewish music label, JDub Records. It was held on December 27, the seventh night of Hanukkah, and coincided with another JDub holiday show that took place in Philadelphia. In Cambridge, Golem shared the bill with opening band Wailing Wall, whose sound could be described as Bob Dylan meets the reggae-punk band Bad Brains. New York’s DJ Joro Boro played for the stragglers after the two bands.

Golem is certainly not the only music group to attempt to redefine traditional Eastern-European Jewish wedding music, but no other band seems more convincingly and energetically to make the case that klezmer and punk rock share the same DNA. Experiencing the physical and vocal contortions of singer Aaron Diskin and the music’s frantic downbeat, the connection is clear.

The group stays true to the spirit of klezmer in another way: Its music, at its core, is meant to get you moving. A good case in point is the song “Tucheses and Nenes” — look it up — a track on its forthcoming album, “Citizen Boris.” Due out in February, it follows the band’s 2006 release, “Fresh off the Boat” — its first with JDub, the not-for-profit label home to Balkan Beat Box and, at one time, the Hasidic reggae icon Matisyahu.

For Golem, which also includes a trombonist and a fiddler, klezmer and traditional music is not just a schtick. Ezekiel Kogan is a classically trained pianist and she is fluent in five languages; the band’s lyrics weave English, Yiddish and a Slavic pastiche. She took up the accordion because it had a familiar keyboard and, at the same time, she could rock out with it. “It’s better than lugging around a grand piano,” Ezekiel Kogan said.






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