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Pickle-loving musician takes klezmer underground

All musician Mike Perlmutter wanted to do was screen an obscure film about a popular Romanian band.

He originally planned to show it in his living room back in January 2010, but when word got out, he needed a bigger space. A friend knew a founder of the new nonprofit Berkeley music venue Subterranean Arthouse, and the screening was moved there.

Since the screening had grown into an actual event, Perlmutter, who is connected to many klezmer musicians in the Bay Area, decided he might as well have a band come play, too — enter local Bulgarian act Orkestar Sali.

Mike Perlmutter (center, with saxophone) and Zoyres play the Subterranean Arthouse earlier this month. photo/emunah hauser

The rest fell into place. The show was a success. The two founders of the volunteer-run arthouse asked Perlmutter to start booking shows regularly, and he’s hosted monthly Eastern European, Jewish folk and klezmer shows ever since.

“Every show is exciting, but we’ve had a couple that have been really packed to the gills,” says Perlmutter, 35. “There’s a certain energy when everyone’s crammed in there.”

Subterranean Arthouse itself began just as inconspicuously in 2009, when founders Claire Duplantier and Nicole Rodriguez were simply looking for a space where they could teach dance classes. Now the venue, which looks like a cool, modern art gallery with high ceilings and dim mood lighting, is host to weekly events including yoga classes, art exhibits and folk, indie and klezmer shows.

Over the past year Perlmutter has brought in genre-mixing European-inspired acts such as Eliyahu & Qadim, Veretski Pass and Janam. Coming up are Toronto’s klezmer fusion act Beyond the Pale on Saturday, March 26 and Brooklyn-based JDub band Girls in Trouble with songstress Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn on April 15.

Perlmutter’s own band, Zoyres Eastern European Wild Ferment, in which he plays saxophone, has played on several occasions, including a Chanukah show with Kugelplex. At that show a friend brought homemade knishes and the crowd danced in overlapping circles all night, Permlutter recalls.

While knishes were made for that particular show, Perlmutter often brings fermented vegetables to share with the crowd at Zoyres concerts. While pickles at concerts may seem incongruous, there’s a good explanation for their inclusion: “Zoyres” is an interpretation of the Yiddish word for “pickles.” And Perlmutter is interested in both the process of fermenting — putting cucumbers in salt brine and allowing bacteria to activate — and what the term implies.

The Skinny opens for Janam at Subterranean Arthouse on March 19. photo/emily savage

“We took [fermenting] as a model for what we’re doing musically,” he says. “We’re like that cucumber — we’re stuck in a brine of all the music in our own culture, but we’re transforming it.”

The group, which formed in 2003, incorporates klezmer, Balkan and Bulgarian sounds into its songs but does so using experimental, unexpected arrangements.

Perlmutter has long been interested in experimental music, the kind that parents (including his own) often dismiss as “noise” — though it should be noted that noise is also an actual genre.

Growing up in a suburb of Boston, Perlmutter got his first taste of music when he picked up the saxophone in fourth-grade music education class. He quit formal music training by sixth grade but continued to play and later joined some avant-garde bands in high school.

In college at Tufts University, where he majored in environmental studies and psychology, Perlmutter played in an

experimental band with a musician who doubled as a player in klezmer act Naftali’s Dream. When Perlmutter first heard the music, it struck an emotional chord in him.

“It’s got this exuberance and, at times, extreme sorrow. It brought a wide range of feelings for me, [having] grown up Jewish, now hearing music in a similar liturgical sense — it really hit me. It led me to a lot of the music I listen to now,” Perlmutter says.

Perlmutter moved to San Francisco in 1998 after college and studied klezmer with local musician Sheldon Brown of Klezmorim. He later traveled back to the East Coast for graduate school, then returned to the Bay Area — this time the East Bay — in 2007. He now lives in Berkeley, working during the day as an ecologist for the Bay Area Early Detection Network and at night booking shows for the Subterranean Arthouse.

“It’s important to have noncommercial spaces, where it’s OK to stretch out and try experimental things — it presents opportunities for the community,” he says, adding, “Hopefully it will be around for a very long time.”

For information on upcoming shows at Subterranean Arthouse, visit www.subterraneanarthouse.org.