To paraphrase an old joke, you don't have to be Jewish to play klezmer music at the highest level, but in Frank London's case it certainly helps.
The Jewish New Yorker Grammy-winning trumpeter will be on hand at next week’s Klezmer Festival in Safed to present workshops for budding performers of the musical genre.
And he is delighted to be returning to the Galilee.
“I presented workshops at the festival last year, and it was really inspirational," he says. "It was amazing. There were people of all ages. I was doing classes with adults and their children and, from a professional level, to really young players. The spirit is so strong. That is what is so wonderful about it all – the spirit. Being in Safed certainly helps in that regard," he says.
Having 56-year-old London on board is testament to the international standing of the Klezmer Festival, which is now in its 27th year. The New Yorker is one of the world's foremost purveyors of the genre, and he maintains a packed year-round globetrotting schedule as a trumpeter and band leader, as well as composer, in klezmer acts as well as in a wide range of ethnic projects. He plays a wide range of wind instruments and keyboards and occasionally sings backup vocals.
London is one of the busiest stars in the global klezmer firmament. He heads the Klezmer Brass All Stars ensemble, frequently blows up a storm with the world-famous highenergy Klezmatics outfit – with whom he won a Grammy and with whom he will appear at this year's Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival in early September – and plays with the acclaimed Boston-based Klezmer Conservatory Band.
Further to the aforementioned oldie but goodie Jewish joke, does it necessarily follow that you don't have to have come from a home steeped in klezmer music to be able to make the grade as a professional in the field? If London is anything to go by, it appears that one can make great strides in the genre without the genetic backdrop.
“The first three LPs I remember buying were the soundtrack to the [late 1960s] musical Hair, [early 1960s British pop band] Herman's Hermits and, shortly thereafter, [legendary American rock guitarist's best-selling 1967 album] Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced?” None of the above triumvirate has anything in common with London’s eventual line of musical pursuit. So how did the trumpeter’s long and winding road eventually lead to where he is today? London began breaking out in every which cultural-musical way in his late teens.
“I basically grew up with nothing but popular American culture, and it was when I got to college that I started exploring other types of music,” he recalls.
Once London strayed outside the confines of Western commercial music, there was no stopping him.
“When I say ‘other types of music,’ it is too huge to even talk about it,” he declares. “It includes jazz and free improvisation and classical music and avant-garde and music from around the world, which you can call ethnic or world music." London still has the free-roaming bug.
“I was voraciously open to anything, and I still am,” he states.
That open-ended ethos naturally led him up the klezmer garden path.
Like so many initiatives by Jews, it was basically down to family connections.
“Among the many things that came across my plate at that time was klezmer. I was invited to play in a group that was looking to play klezmer through a gentleman who knew about it because his grandparents had had a klezmer band in America,” London explains.
“Basically, I started with that group, and I've never stopped.”
The ensemble in question is the Klezmer Conservatory Band, which started life in 1980 when London was 22 years old.
So, what was it about klezmer that grabbed London at the time and has refused to let go? London opts for something of a rambling, but highly enlightening, approach to the basic question.
“Klezmer is a very specific work.
Klezmer literally means instrumental music, so vocal music is not ‘klezmer.’ Klezmer music is the instrumental music of the Eastern European, Yiddishspeaking Ashkenazi Jews. Of course, the Hassidic vocal music and Yiddish songs are all very closely related genres, and all klezmer bands and musicians can float between these different genres; but to be specific, klezmer is that [above-defined genre]," he says.
Once he joyously got into klezmer, London soon began embracing sounds from a diverse range of cultures, some of which clearly adjoin klezmer, while others come from much farther afield.
“I got into Yiddish vocal music, Hassidic nigunim [tunes] and zemirot [Shabbat songs]. I am a huge fan of hazanut (cantorial song), and from there spreading out into piyutim [Jewish liturgical song] and other non-Jewish sacred music, like Arabic music to maqams [Arabic improvisation], Indian and Pakistani music, qawwali [Sufi devotional] music. It is part of a very big fabric," he says.
London will clearly be offering his workshop participants a rich palette of sounds and colors at this year's Klezmer Festival.
And, just to clarify the opening point, London does not believe you have to be Jewish to be a klezmer musician.
In addition to London, the Klezmer Festival lineup includes the likes of Ehud Banai, Yonatan Razael, internationally acclaimed jazz reedman Daniel Zamir, festival artistic director and violinist Eyal Shiloah, as well as a number of stars from abroad, including New Yorker Joel Rubin.
With the high-quality roster and that unique Safed ambience, this year’s Klezmer Festival should pack 'em in again.For more information: http://www.klezmerf.com/