In Berkeley, klezmer musician to play a Feast for the ears

In the mid-1980s, fiddler Alicia Svigals helped bring back klezmer.

Along with her band the Klezmatics and a handful of other revival groups, Svigals thrust the dying music genre to the center of Jewish life once again.

“[Klezmer] music had been the party music of American Jews through the 1940s,” Svigals says. “Now it’s back at weddings and b’nai mitzvah. It’s become a concert hall genre, but it’s also back in the community.”

This year Svigals will perform during “Pomegranates and Figs: A Feast of Jewish Music,” set for Dec. 16 and 17 at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley.

The fact that Svigals has never performed at the decade-old festival is not for lack of trying on the part of its organizers.

“I’ve tried to book her since 1989, but she was always either touring or having a baby,” says Kaila Flexer, a musician who organized and will perform at the event. “I’ve admired her for years and years. She’s one of my favorite violinists — and we violinists are picky.”

At the celebratory Jewish music concert, Svigals, backed by the Klezmer Fiddle Express: West Coast Edition, will perform a variety of traditional and original party klezmer songs.

“What I like about [Svigals] is that she’s an incredible player and very grounded in tradition, but at the same time she writes her own material,” Flexer says.

Svigals was given her first violin at age 5, a tradition started by her ancestors in Odessa.

As a teen in Manhattan, Svigals attended chamber music camp every summer and in college at Brown University she majored in ethnomusicology.

In the late 1970s, she reached a turning point when she attended an Andy Statman concert at Town Hall in New York City. Statman was an early participant in the klezmer revival, and the music immediately grabbed Svigals.

“This was traditional Yiddish music I had grown up with, but also virtuoso music, so it spoke to that musician side of me. It was exciting and deep and euphoric and poignant — I felt it was my music,” she says.

Her band, the Klezmatics, began in 1986 when a clarinetist placed an ad in the Village Voice weekly newspaper. A handful of musicians, including Svigals, answered the ad and came together to play, but a few weeks later the clarinetist disappeared and left no forwarding address. The rest of the musicians had hit it off, however, and decided to remain a band.

“He’s was our ‘klezmer angel’,” Svigals says.

She says the Klezmatics never thought their “weird, nerdy” music would go anywhere. But the band gained steam while touring Europe, then brought their klezmer-meets-rock-fusion sound back to the U.S.

The band eventually won a Grammy and appeared on a host of television and radio shows, including “Good Morning America,” MTV News and “A Prairie Home Companion.”

“We traveled to South America, Israel, Europe — the mission through all of this has been to keep that particular tradition alive, of Jewish violin playing,” she says. “In the last century [klezmer] survived as an idea via ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ but the actual tradition had started to die out, so we picked it up.”

Svigals remained with the Klezmatics through 2001, then moved on to teaching klezmer, accompanying musicians such as Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in concert and composing music for documentary films.

Today, she’s carrying on the musical traditions of her family — her grandfather was a professional accompanist for Sid Caesar and Judy Garland, her great-uncle a trumpet player for a classical klezmer band and her mother a pianist.

She currently lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her two sons, ages 8 and 10, and her partner, an amateur flutist. Their older son plays cello and piano, with the younger son on drums.

“It sounds like a music school here!” she says, laughing. “The violin and my singing, drums, flute — it’s great. It’s what I’d always imagined.” “Pomegranates and Figs: A Feast of Jewish Music” takes place Dec. 16 and 17 at Freight and Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley.

$22.50 to $23.50. Information: www.freightandsalvage.org/tickets.html.