The postcard-sized calendars strewn about the world music venue Satalla, on West 26th Street in New York City, proclaimed the band Klezska to be purveyors of “klezmer music,” which is a lot like calling turducken “stuffed turkey.” Neither description is entirely misleading. But like most labels, they hardly tell the whole story.
Founded and led by drummer Glenn Tamir, Klezska is one of several bands seeking to build bridges between Jewish and Jamaican music. As its name suggests, the group has a thing for ska, the brassy, high-octane dance music that emerged from Jamaica in the late 1950s in response to American R&B. They also deal in various offshoots, from slower, groovier rock steady and reggae to contemporary dancehall.
Judeo-Jamaican interbreeding is both less surprising and more unlikely than one might think. On the one hand, reggae is closely bound up with Rastafarianism, a religion replete with Jewish symbolism. Reggae lyrics are rife with Old Testament imagery and make frequent reference to Babylon and Zion. Haile Selassie I, last emperor of Ethiopia and the man whom Rastafarians revere as a living god, claimed descent from King Solomon; not for nothing was he known as the Conquering Lion of Judah. And Rastas get their dreads from the same biblical passage that gives Hasidic Jews their side locks.
On the other hand, ska and klezmer seem poorly suited to musical miscegenation. The basic problem is rhythmic: The accents, or stresses from which each form of music derives its sense of forward momentum tend to fall in different and not entirely compatible places.
Klezska overcomes this obstacle by avoiding it. For the most part, the band gets its rhythms from Kingston, the Jamaican capital, with occasional detours to Africa — as with “Shalom Everybody,” a song that Tamir attributes to the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda — and to the Near East. Klezska looks to Jewish music for melody, and to jazz improvisation for added excitement. Faithfulness to any particular genre is not a priority. As such, the manner in which Klezska mixes and matches various styles of music might offend some purists, but at its best the group’s good-natured jam-band energy is hard to resist.
Unfortunately, the band was hardly at its best in its May 12 performance at Satalla. Playing a late set to an empty house — beset by sound problems, an absent bassist and a keyboard player who unfamiliar with the repertoire — Klezska spent most of the evening at sea. Having to negotiate key signatures with a musician between songs is bad enough. Having to stop and start a tune three times while yelling chord changes at him is far worse. But it was the lack of a bass player that proved truly lethal.
A ska band gets its juice from its rhythm section: the keyboards, guitars, bass and drums that generate the genre’s characteristic “shuffle” rhythms. Rock steady, reggae and dancehall all have their own distinctive sounds, but they, too, live and die by the quality of their riddims, which fit together with all the precision of a Swiss watch. Remove even a single sprocket, and the whole delicate apparatus falls apart.
To be fair, Klezska coped better with its infirmities that night than most bands would have. Tamir knows how to strike a groove, and on at least a couple of numbers, including his own “Carpas” and “Scat Cat,” he pulled the ensemble together through sheer force of will. A steady stream of guest artists helped further enliven what otherwise might have been a depressingly ill-attended event. Jeff Newalt did some toasting, or Jamaican-style rapping, in the kind of gravelly baritone that’s weirdly common to both dancehall and South African pop music, and Yemenite-Israeli guitarist Avner Levy took a snake-charming solo on “Misirlou.” Pam Fleming, of the band Metropolitan Klezmer, helped redeem several shaky tunes with her jazzy freilach trumpet. And singer Calvin Christie, who looks to be about 7 feet tall and sounds even bigger, lit up the room with the Paragons’s “The Tide Is High” and Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” which the Heptones first reggaefied back in 1973.
When bassist Blaaka finally climbed onstage halfway through a driving rock steady version of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” Klezska found its footing at last, and the disappointments of the preceding hour evaporated. Once you’ve been swept up in the Dionysian abandon of a band dedicated to the proposition that music should be profoundly fun, if not exactly profound, almost anything can be forgiven.
Alexander Gelfand is a writer, musician and musicologist living in New York.