Put Some Salsa In Your Klezmer!
The other day, Ted Kuster posted to the Jewish Music mailing list, drawing our attention to his band, Meshuggenismo, and the availability of a demo. Well, I certainly thank goodness (or whatever) that he did!
Meshuggenismo is a salsa band playing klezmer tunes, or a klezmer band playing in Afro-Cuban style... depends on your point-of-view, really. Either way, they're a damn fine band, judging from their demo. They're based in San Francisco, and are essentially all Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa veterans playing klezmer tunes and Yiddish songs in various Afro-Cuban styles, including son, guaracha, merengue, cha cha, bolero, and more.
Stop and think about it for a moment or two. What could be a more natural combination? Afro-Cuban music is itself a fusion of (sub-Saharan) African and "Latin" (speak Spanish/North African) elements, and the "Latin" part is after all largely a fusion of Arabic, Sephardic, and Gipsy music. And with Cuba's once fairly substantial Jewish community of (originally mainly) Sephardi refugees (the Caribbean was one of the earliest destinations for them following the expulsion from Spain, and in fact the earliest synagogue built in the Americas was a Sephardi one in Barbados, built around the middle of the 18th century), the Jewish influence on the development of Afro-Cuban music did not just rest with the origins of the music. Jewish musicians also played a part in the development of what eventually came to be called salsa. In the opposite corner, we have klezmer - a fusion of Ashkenazi Jewish, Arabic/Turkish, Gipsy, and Eastern and Central European elements. Thus, the two styles, Afro-Cuban and klezmer, are a natural match for further fusion, with enough commonalities to facilitate a smooth blend and enough differences to make the whole enterprise interesting and even exciting, if done right. (Always a big IF, that - so much world fusion sadly falls flat on its face and becomes an exercise in uninspired musical mathematics.)
No fear here though, Meshuggenismo and their arranger/bassist Ted Kuster hit the right note every time, as it were. This is truly exciting music, and hugely enjoyable. Kuster's arrangements are outstanding on these six tracks, with all the cliche "latin jazz" elements that most people would expect, yet also never losing sight of the klezmer side of things. So, putting some salsa in the klezmer is, in this case, a very good thing indeed. A bit reminiscent of Trinidad soca great, David Rudder, putting some samba in the soca in his 1986 hit, Bahia Girl - no, not just in the phrasing here but in the spirit of the thing.
Bei Mir Bist Du Sheyn kicks off with a typically latin brass opening, leading swiftly into a gutsy vocal, underscored by an unrelenting latin piano and offset with crisp horns. Continuing in a similar vein, Papirosn presents some fine sax soloing, a crisp trumpet solo, and some finely-judged percussion where there must have been a huge temptation to pull out all stops. Hava(na)gila is more than just a neat play on words. The piano feels even more unrelenting than ever, while at the same time the arrangement is overall fairly subdued, almost minimalist in an Afro-Cuban context and a little reminiscent of the Harry Belafonte version, though thankfully lacking the latter's typical inauthenticity. The vocal hits just the right balance between Yiddish and Afro-Cuban styles. Araber Tanz leads off with a fine trumpet solo against a more subdued piano, and fine ensemble playing alternates with excellent solos all round on this more sedate number, which facilitates catching your breath a little. On Tsena Tsena, the pace inevitably picks up again with a lively vocal and and horns, with some nicely understated percussion. Finally, Shver un Shviger offers a bit more respite with its very finely judged, subtle horns.
Meshuggenismo's sound and style, one can't help feeling, would even sit quite comfortably on something like the Cu-Bop label, especially with a few extended improvs thrown in.
I understand that a CD album is in the offing for next year. Next year, in this case, seems like an awful long time to have to wait. However, of this I am sure and can assure the reader - it's certainly going to be well worth waiting for! In the meantime, if you can't wait that long, you can always go to Meshuggenismo's web site and download the demo in MP3 (high quality) format, either to play on your computer or to burn to CD for playing on your hi fi. Please do bear in mind though that this is only a demo, and the mixes tend to be a tad on the rough side here and there. But they're more than good enough to give anybody a pretty good idea and certainly good enough to be enjoyable, very much so indeed. So go grab 'em while they're there and have a party!
If this was an old-fashioned vinyl, I'd have worn out the grooves already! Here's hoping we'll hear a lot more, a whole lot more, from Ted Kuster's Meshuggenismo!
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