Mazel tov! Klezmer band wins Grammy for world music


By Julie Shapiro

It takes a lot to get Frank London excited. The Klezmatics member and East Village resident recently played at Carnegie Hall and didn’t even get nervous. So, London didn’t expect to have sweaty palms when the Klezmatics album “Wonder Wheel” was up for a Grammy last Sunday night.

However, “A couple categories before ours, I started feeling my heart rush,” London said. Minutes later, the Klezmatics won Best Contemporary World Music Album for “Wonder Wheel.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” London said.

He calls it a “‘Zoolander’ moment” — referring to the scene in which Ben Stiller’s character races down the aisle to accept an award, only to find that he didn’t win. London thought, “What if I hallucinated?” he said. “What if they called another band?”

But then he saw the other members of his band alongside him — Matt Darriau, Lisa Gutkin, Paul Morrissett and Lorin Sklamberg — and he knew that it was real.

“It was thrilling,” London said.

“Wonder Wheel” showcases Woody Guthrie’s lyrics set to klezmer music, and is the first album by a Yiddish group ever to win a Grammy. The competition included “Tiki” by Richard Bona, “M’Bemba” by Salif Keita, “Long Walk to Freedom” by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and “Savane” by Ali Farka Toure.

London doesn’t see the win just as a success for the Klezmatics, but also for the klezmer world as a whole.

“We don’t stand on our own — we’re part of a scene,” London said. He hopes that the Grammy win will increase bookings for all klezmer groups.

Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, approached the Klezmatics seven years ago about setting Guthrie’s words to music. She had found boxes filled with Guthrie’s lyrics, but didn’t know the melodies, London said. In addition to “Wonder Wheel,” these lyrics led the Klezmatics to release an album called “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah” in 2006.

Guthrie lived in Brooklyn with his Jewish wife, and was also influenced by his mother-in-law, who was a Yiddish poet, London said. These traits, combined with Guthrie’s social consciousness, made his lyrics appealing to the Klezmatics.

“Wonder Wheel” is a good album, London said, but “If something made it stand out, it was Woody’s words, his persona, and Nora Guthrie’s tireless efforts.”

The win is even more exciting because there is no niche award category for Jewish music.

“There will be one eventually,” London said. “But it’s more fun to have won before that.”

London was pleased to see many New York musicians at this year’s Grammys. The other Klezmatics also all live in and around the city.

“What unites the Downtown New York music scene is not the music we play but way we play it — rigorous but also freewheeling and crazy,” London said. “It really felt like an acknowledgment of our scene.”

London saw a movement toward political music at the Grammys, including the presence of Joan Baez and wins by the Dixie Chicks and Ludacris.

“Political and socially conscious music is really important now and it’s being seen that way,” London said. “Making fluff music is not in at the moment. Music about making change is really being acknowledged.”

Human-rights messages have long been a part of the Klezmatics’ music.

“We’re going to do it anyway, but it’s nice to get the acknowledgment,” London said.

The Klezmatics’ first album, released in 1988, was called “Shvaygn = Toyt,” which is Yiddish for “Silence = Death.” On one level, the album title states the importance of speaking Yiddish, to keep the language from dying, London said. On another level, the album showed the need to fight the AIDS crisis, and spoke to the danger of silence on issues of human dignity.

Nearly 20 years later, London credits the Klezmatics’ longevity to the group’s adaptability.

“We’re not stuck in one way of doing things,” London said. “We’re always reinventing ourselves. Basically, we never get bored.”

That isn’t to say that the klezmer business is easy.

“One album from Beyoncé will sell more than anything from our entire genre put together,” London said. In the klezmer world, albums selling 20,000 copies break records.

“You can’t really sell out in the klezmer business, so you might as well keep trying to make interesting music,” London said. “We’re only driven by artistic or political goals.”

The Grammys brought the Klezmatics a lot of excitement, but London sees the win as more of a public success than a personal one.

“For me personally, just playing a really great concert and finding a new way of interpreting a song, being in the moment — that’s the highlight,” he said.

Frank London of the Klezmatics