Wending Through the World of Yidishkayt
Eve Sicular began drumming when she was 8. But it wasn’t until her senior year at Harvard — she got her bachelor’s in Russian history and literature — that she first heard klezmer. She followed the suggestion of a musician friend and checked out the Klezmer Conservancy Band. Her reaction? “Wow!”
In 1989, Sicular attended KlezKamp for the first time, and it was then that the “klezmer bug” took hold. When she found out about the gay and lesbian contingent at KlezKamp, she realized what had for her been three disparate identities — as out lesbian, as Jew and as folk musician — could be reconciled. “I was always feeling I had to have a split personality,” she said.
These days, Sicular is still splitting herself, but in a good way: She is head of two of New York City’s most prominent klezmer ensembles — Metropolitan Klezmer and the all-female Isle of Klezbos. In a rare performance next week, all the members of both bands will come together on a double bill to celebrate the synchronized release of Metropolitan Klezmer’s “Surprise Finds” and “Greetings From the Isle of Klezbos.”
Sicular laughed easily on Saturday as she talked to the Forward from her East Village apartment about the twists and turns her life has taken, weaving its way around yidishkayt. A summer studying Yiddish at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and her Russian-language skills made easy the six months she spent working with immigrants at the Jewish Family Services and, later, as a program assistant for the Museum of Modern Art’s Yiddish film retrospective in late 1990. That led to a stint, from 1992 to 1994, as film and photo curator at YIVO, where “The Celluloid Closet” by Vito Russo, who died a few years earlier of AIDS, inspired a critical study of her own, “The Celluloid Closet in Yiddish Film,” upon which she lectures widely and which appears as an essay in the 2002 anthology “Queer Jews” (Routledge).
In 1994 Metropolitan Klezmer was born, branching out in 1998 to Isle of Klezbos. Sicular was quick to emphasize that while she might tend to “bring the music in… we really are a collaborative process.” Whether Sicular or one of her fellow musicians has uncovered a particular song, members of the band in question all come together to arrange and transform it anew. Sicular’s multitalented bandmates come from — and are active in — musical projects and genres across the board, encompassing everything from Afro-Caribbean to zydeco, including, but certainly not limited to, ska, salsa, jazz, opera, calypso, R & B, bluegrass and merengue. Most of these influences crop up on the two new albums.
Metropolitan Klezmer’s “Surprising Finds,” the band’s third album, features Ismail Butera on accordion; Rick Faulkner on trombone; Pam Fleming on trumpet and flugelhorn; Michael Hess on violin, ney flute and kanun (a 78-sting zither); Dave Hofstra on bass and tuba; Deborah Karpel on vocals; Debra Kreisberg on clarinet and alto sax, and Sicular on drums. The Isle of Klezbos’s first full-length album, “Greetings From,” features the women of Metropolitan Klezmer, as well as Rachelle Garniez on accordion and vocals, and Catherine Popper on bass.
“Surprising Finds” traverses a great deal of ground, musically and historically. In addition to Metropolitan Klezmer originals, there are revamped songs from the Yiddish stage and Soviet theater and long-forgotten Yiddish favorites, as well as snippets of song from Karpel’s grandfather, settings of 19th-century Yiddish poetry and even a tune from “Oliver.” Its liner notes alone provide a veritable yidishkayt survey, lovingly and literately recounting the provenance of each of the songs while bringing to life a half-dozen different worlds, often including original Yiddish lyrics printed side-by-side their transliterations and English translations.
“The challenge” in finding old treasures and transforming them into something new and wonderful, said Sicular, is “to go beyond the mainstream.”
“Surprising Finds” and “Greetings From the Isle of Klezbos” can be purchased from the Web site www.cdbaby.com or by calling 800-BUY-MY-CD.
The bands perform in Brooklyn at 8:30 p.m. on May 13 at Galapagos, the Williamsburg art and performance space housed in a former mayonnaise factory at 70 N. 6th St.; 21 and older, free (718-782-5188 or www.galapagosartspace.org).