Klezmer-gospel combo pumps up Pesach

There you were at the Berkeley Jewish Music Festival’s Klezmatics concert with Joshua Nelson earlier this month. And even though you’re more the type to generally stay seated, you found yourself unable to resist — yes, you know who you are. You were on your feet clapping and swaying and smiling and shouting and raising your hands, because the fusion of klezmer and gospel was just too infectious and lively to stay in your seat. Then, when it was over, you left Wheeler Auditorium thinking, “Damn. I wish I could play that kind of music again and again at home.”

Great news. You can.

The German label Piranha Records has released a live recording of the Klezmatics, joined by Nelson and jazz pianist Kathryn Farmer, in a live concert taped in Berlin. Called “Brother Moses Smote the Water,” it’s been released just in time for Passover.

The Klezmatics are widely considered some of the best klezmer musicians on the planet. The band is pretty much responsible for sparking the renewed interest in klezmer that began in the early 1980s. Yet, the band tends to often focus on material of a political-activist nature, which differentiates them from other bands playing in the klezmer revival.

Their collaboration with Holly Near on “Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf!” was one recent example. Near is known for her political anthems about 1970s America. Blending her songs with klezmer was an easy fit.

But while klezmer and gospel may both be soul music or roots music, they are not exactly an obvious pair, especially since gospel is almost exclusively spiritual in nature while Yiddish lyrics run the gamut.

The Klezmatics were putting together a collection about slavery and liberation as experienced by both Jews and African Americans to be sung for Passover.

And around that same time, someone saw a film about Nelson. Called “Keep on Walking,” the documentary showed what Nelson was capable of doing.

Nelson’s lineage goes back to West Africa. He’s an African American Orthodox Jew who grew up on gospel music, falling in love with it as soon as he heard his first Mahalia Jackson record. The band felt that he had to be part of this project, especially since so many gospel spirituals are about the Exodus.

Nelson first joined the Klezmatics on stage around this time last year, at a concert at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Later, they took the act to Berlin, where they were joined by jazz organist and singer Kathryn Farmer.

“Spirituals and Yiddish Socialist anthems — why, they go together like whitefish and grits,” according to the liner notes in “Brother Moses Smote the Water.”

Besides, where else are you going to hear “Eliyohu HaNavi,” mournfully sung in Yiddish by Klezmatics lead singer Lorin Sklamberg, segueing into the joyous “Elijah Rock” by Nelson (a cover of Jackson’s version).

“Brother Moses Smote the Water” intersperses the gospel with the klezmer, rather than trying to mix the two in one song. After all, while Nelson might be many things, a Yiddish speaker he is not, though he has learned some of the Klezmatics’ repertoire. And gospel was never really known for its horns, which are essential in klezmer. In fact, on the gospel numbers, Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London mostly takes to the organ. But the result is a wonderful combination of the two sounds.

Admittedly, there’s no logical reason why klezmer and gospel music should go together. But sometimes these things just defy explanation

“Brother Moses Smote the Water” by The Klezmatics with Joshua Nelson and Kathryn Farmer (Piranha Records). Information: www.piranha.de.

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."