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Published: 2001/08/20
by Ben Williamson

Diving to the Bottom of the Delta: The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars Set Up Camp on the Fringe

The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars (NOKAS) are a joke. A funny one. Just ask them

“When we first started playing, we laughed for two years. We couldn’t believe anybody was actually coming to see us, there would never be a Klezmer band from New Orleans,” said sleepy-eyed guitarist Jonathan Freilich, sipping coffee on a downtown Asheville sidewalk, quickly rising back from the depths of road funk, having only moments before rolled out of the NOKAS tourmobile, a beaten but very respectable red-and-white Ford-ish deal. With the help of the caffeine kick supported by an absurdly generous afternoon offering of devastatingly beautiful Appalachian summer sky spiced with random urban bustling, Freilich was quick to come around.

“Our members come from everywhere, all different kinds of music, traditional jazz, punk rock, brass bands. We got together, and everyone liked it,” he said. NOKAS found themselves first playing together over 10 years ago, surfacing out of innumerable Crescent City jam sessions, only later to musically gravitate toward the Klezmer vibe. “We’ve been able to maintain, trying to learn Yiddish music while not restricting ourselves away from other forms,” Freilich said.

Now let me pause a minute right here before we get too deep into this thing. I’d heard of these guys but had not ever actually heard a note they’d played before their set that night (7.13) at Asheville’s Stella Blue. For some odd reason, the pieces of the NOKAS puzzle I already had in my brain marked “Klezmer,” “Yiddish,” “Traditional,” and “Eastern European” didn’t seem to fit flush against, or anywhere near the vicinity of, the other pieces dangling absently in my thoughts marked “New Orleans,” “funk,” “groove,” and of course, “jamband.” What’s the deal? Why are there scantily-clad gypsies, dready hippies and stylish coffeehouse swingers all waiting to get in the bar? How could Klez be this cool?

“It’s all a connotation people hold in their head. The last time Klez was big was in the 50’s, you know, a high Jewish cheese period,” Freilich laughed, “it reminds them of Vegas or something. It’s like Big Band, you think in your head a lot of that stuff is cheesy, with all the zoot suits and such, but it's not, it’s great music. It’s not the music, it’s whatever scenario you put the music in that affects people’s interpretations of it.” he said. .

About a minute into their second song, my personal puzzle pieces slammed quickly into each other and bled into the middle of the circle now formed by the dizzy-eyed dancing strangers in the middle of the Stella Blue floor as I had suddenly moved toward a high level of audio and visual attention, into a study of hip. Because really, that’s what these guys are. Straight up hip. How can you breathe the word original into an established form of traditional music that’s been passed down for centuries? Well that’s easy, I think, looking back. Nuke anything on high in the New Orleans musical microwave for 10 years and don’t be surprised if it comes out heavenly disoriented.

NOKAS doesn’t disguise Klez music, pulling it out now and then as a novelty between groove-laden songs meant to propel dance-deranged fans. Each and every song is drenched with traditional Eastern-European influence, only to be heavily drugged with the full spectrum of New Orleans’ box of goodies after the fact. That’s got to be it, I think, there’s no way I would be smiling this big if these guys weren’t from New Orleans. .

“We’re definitely from a time and place, there’s no doubt. The New Orleans scene forms you, there’s no way around it,” Freilich said, quickly dusting off his coffee. “There’s no showcase scene there, so everyone works with everyone else. The guys that we’ve played with have been important to us, they’ve formed our sound.” Who have they played with? Do you have an hour to spare? Let’s see. Willie Green (of the Neville Brothers) was an early drummer, Stanton Moore has played with NOKAS, Freilich used to play with Michael Ray and the Kosmic Krewe, saxophonist Ben Ellman played with Galactic. NOKAS member Robert Wagner played with Iris May Tango; many members are also involved with numerous side projects. The list goes on for a good while

“A lot of it has to do with how people see New Orleans too,” Freilich continued. “They see it as an exotic place and it’s certainly a part of us, the Caribbean and African roots. Everyone wants a piece of the New Orleans action, everyone wants to see what’s at the bottom of the Mississippi Delta,” he said. .

It’s still a weird combination, I think, which is probably why I’m liking it so much. But I can see how some people might find themselves flat-footed, momentarily, as the mental fingers are running through their emotional filing cabinet trying to frantically figure out how they are supposed to react to this bastard child of functional folk and back-alley Bourbon Street boogie. As Freilich relates a story of a feedback freakout he’d endured during the previous night’s set in Atlanta, I began to come around. As he spoke, I stared off into the street and pictured a sonic wall of Klezmer feedback (two words I’d never dreamt of marrying before that moment). I saw the bar mitzvah from the seventh layer of hell. The shaggy-haired guitarist violently attacking his amp, the ear-bleeding feedback imploding champagne glasses, young children unleashing throat-severing screams and diving under tables as their grandparents trip over each other hobbling for the exits, the incredible noise peeling the country club wallpaper and inducing orgasmic mayhem across the ballroom floor before I suddenly remembered where I was. As the Asheville streets reclaimed my eyesight and the end of Freilich’s story flushed my twisted vision to hinterlands of my cranium, I calmed down. Klezmer feedback? I can’t wait for the show, I say to myself.

Staring numbly across the stage that night, the breeding of tradition and free-form uncertainty merge without any sense of uncomfort. You don’t how it works, how feedback can flirt with an accordion, how a Klezmer band can sound like cosmic carriers of cool or how you can boogie to anything remotely Bulgarian, but it does, and while you’re sweating out last night’s six pack shaking your butt on the floor, I bet you really won’t care how they do it. .

“People still have that need for a direct, communal music,” Freilich answers in response to the connection NOKAS and Klezmer music holds with its fans. “Our music (Klezmer) still had that form, an actual function in funerals and weddings. People feel life in it. We’re a part of that, a mixture of the functional aspects as well as with as aspects of art, and still rocking out,” he said.

Freilich then related the unquestionable attraction and power held by the form in its homeland. “In Eastern Europe, thousands and thousands of people would travel to see the (Klezmer) wedding bands. They really hold the spirit of the people, you know, who were often living with immense oppression. Maybe that’s why this scene is developing so well,” he continued. “ There seems to be this queer kind of oppression in contemporary American society. Perhaps unconscious, it’s so confusing. We’ve got this corrupt version of being free, but you’re really locked down to what’s available to you. People want to break out of that,” Freilich said. Sounds good, I think, mentally pinching myself to see if I could remember the last time somebody said something that made that much sense. Searching for my next question, I wonder if that might finally explain the constant, if not expanding, flood waters of the jamband scene, giving answer to its popularity and/or purity having not been born of the social rebellion of the 60’s, but of an underground cultural rejection of the 21st century. Freilich’s band straddles this river between old and new, between established and unknown, using the foundation of tradition to wander into alien territory. Good stuff.

NOKAS, even at nearly 11 years old, is still just getting started and there is a lot to come from these guys. While Freilich attributes much of the growing fanbase throughout traditional and world music circles (NOKAS, by the way, just finished a short but extremely well-received set at the ground zero of Americana music, North Carolina’s MerleFest in April) to the fine-tuned marketing machine of the music business, he is quick to deny the spirit of making and playing music is anything but holy. “ I’m still very idealistic. I still tell people all the time, music is not a business, it’s more close to a religion, something more resembling spirituality,” he said. “It still draws from the desire for a certain experience. It’s still personal, internal.”

Music’s purpose, for me, is to serve as a steady and constant reminder that I am, in fact, alive, a tangible, pulsating mass of energy that is interacting and breathing in and out, moving around and such. NOKAS, by this or any definition, are great musicians and hold with them a completely original, boundary-crossing musical exploration unit. They’re camped on the musical fringe. They’re not really anything, but incorporate everything. It’s definitely Klez, but it’s definitely funky, which is definitely not Klez. You’ll listen with parts of your ear you didn’t know were there, you’ll waltz with a stranger, you’ll flail about alone, you won’t really know why, you won’t really think about it, you’ll just be, then, wiping the sweat from your eyes, you’ll walk home under the crescent-shaped moon, suddenly reminded how Klez got to be this cool.

Updated tour info and the like can be found at www.klezmers.com

Ben Williamson is riding his friend Cynthia’s bike somewhere around Asheville, looking for music, work and funky people.

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