British pop-culture monthly Uncut excited music fans this month with its review of what may be the world’s first Finnish-Jewish blues trio. Trouble was, the magazine got it wrong. Talmud Beach may have a Jewish name, but none of its players are members of the tribe. The band’s moniker, though, bears a Semitic connection. Bearded, hat-wearing guitarist Aleksi Lukander nearly got beaten for his “Jewish” looks, “and the experience led to the phrase Talmud Beach,” says their label’s website.
The band also draws on Jewish inspirations for its stripped-down, nearly sepulchral tunes; Lukander cites sources as far-flung as Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Saul Bellow and Woody Allen for Talmud Beach’s textures and colors. The band got its start in 2006 on Mannerheimintie — one of Helsinki’s main drags, and a hub for buskers — where Lukander and drummer Petri Alanko both lived and played. Bassist Milko Siltanen joined in 2011. The Forward talked to Lukander by email from Helsinki about mistaken identity, the musical potential of the Talmud, and a pointed Jewish response to the band’s name.
Michael Kaminer: You adopted the name Talmud Beach after a few scary incidents where you were mistaken for a Jew — and violence ensued. Can you explain?
Aleksi Lukander: Me and the drummer Petri were traveling around Eastern Europe and playing on the streets a few years back. For the first time I had grown a long dark beard. I’d bought a black hat for the trip, because all the old bluesmen wore hats. At the time I usually wore a black blouse and black pants — so I was wearing black pants, black blouse, black hat and I had long dark beard. I didn’t realize it myself, at first I was stunned, why do people think I’m jewish? Then my friend took a photo of me and it was only then, when I saw the connection.
I didn’t think too much of it before in Riga and Kaunas some drunken men were quite offensive towards me and only because of how I looked. We also had to face one truly violent accident and our Esthonian friends got beaten up very badly by some Russian guys — it was also so clearly reminiscent of the complicated history of Russia and Esthonia.
We hate violence and we needed some peace and we headed on to Lithuania on our way to Poland, and reached long and narrow peninsula called Neringa. If I remember correctly it was night time when we first walked to the 100 km-long beach that opens to the Baltic Sea. It was a huge relief from the sores of the road to hear the waves coming to the shore and feel this place with it’s dark and mysterious waters. And this was the point when I just knew that the name of the band was to be Talmud Beach. It was this kind of absurd association based on the events and the place we were at. And on some kind of feeling of coming home.
Did you ever consider changing your look after the incidents?
After the time in Neringa I shaved, I bought green shorts and I even gave up the black shirt. We also went to Auschwitz and Birkenau and I started to think that someone might believe I’m trying to insult or make fun of Jewish tradition. I didn’t want that to happen nor did I want any more attention based on mistakes. My “look” was purely unintentional in the first place, so it was no problem for me to change it.
Bone Voyage Recordings, your label, notes that “The Talmud (hebraic: “instruction”, “learning”) is one of the basic, most important Jewish books. It’s a collection of rabbinic commentaries and discussions, a Jewish social and legal scripture.” What’s the connection to your music?
I think Bone Voyage Recordings makes those notes mainly because most of the people don’t know at all, what Talmud is. There’s no straight connection to our music. We play the blues. But on the other hand for example Lou Reed and Bob Dylan are our huge idols and we’ve listened to so much of their music that it’s obvious that it can be heard in our music — in what way, that’s a different thing. Talmud per se doesn’t connect to our music, but Jewish tradition in a more general since it definitely connects, but in a more subconscious way.
Personally I’ve grown up listening to the music of, for example, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, watching the movies of Woody Allen, Joel Coen, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, reading Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Isaac B. Singer, enjoying the comedy of Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David and so on. Those were just a few names, the list goes on and on. I don’t know how those names use their jewish heritage, but I would guess that it affects their work and so it must have affected me some way. But on vague and subconscious levels.
What’s the Helsinki scene like? My impressions mostly come from Aki Kaurismaki movies.
Aki Kaurismäki’s Helsinki is a quite nostalgic or almost dreamlike vision of Helsinki. It’s something that feels real — though there never has been a Helsinki like that, it’s not there now and it will never be like in Kaurismäkis films. But still occasionally, when walking the streets of Helsinki, one shall see something that’s straight out of some Kaurismäki film. I would guess that the relation between Kaurismäki Helsinki and real Helsinki is quite close to the relation between Woody Allen’s Manhattan and the real Manhattan today.
Have any Jews raised questions about the band’s name?
Once, after a gig in Helsinki. An older woman came to talk to me and she said that she had enjoyed the music, but she was worried that we’re making fun of Jewish people by using such a name. She was from Poland and she’d lost both of her parents during the Nazi occupation in World War II. It was very sad and we talked about it all for quite a long time. We ended up hugging and she did realize that we have no intentions to ridicule anyone’s religious or political views and that we are aware of the horrible events that took place in Europe during The Second World War. Or actually the complicated history of Jews in Europe is much older and longer than just Nazi era.
You started out busking. How did you progress from there to a label contract?
We started out busking and then we decided that we need a third member and that we need to start doing gigs. Then we made some recordings and Finnish [label] Helmi Levyt released our vinyl and we also released a cassette. And after a gig by [Finnish band] 22 Pistepirkko I gave our cassette to the drummer of the band and then the Bone Voyage Recording Co. contacted us and wanted to release a CD. Things just happen, when you don’t try too hard to make them big.
Have you ever actually read the Talmud? Do you think it would work set against your music?
I’ve read some passages of the Talmud. It’s possible that it would work. The problem is, that because I haven’t grown up in a Jewish tradition, I would probably make such interpretations that would tear the book out of its natural belongings and it would in the worst scenario just bring more misunderstandings. And when it comes to people’s religious, political or philosophical views, we try to honor them no matter what they are. We try to give people a rest from all the problems and the hassles of the world, we don’t want add any more of them.