Wearing un-tucked shirts, sunglasses and blue jeans, the collective onstage jiggles knees to melodies played by musicians as far back as the 16th century. Juxtaposed with jam bands and hip-hop artists, Klezmer Local 42 brought the age-old music of Eastern Europe to the Athfest music festival of Athens, Ga.
That’s just one example of how, in its mere four years performing, this Athens-based band has already shone a spotlight on its genre for many an unaware listener. The group pays homage to their heritage while exploring and expanding upon convention.
“We’re not a traditional klezmer band in every sense with our material or the line-up. We stretch out a lot,” said vocalist/bassist and band founder Dan Horowitz. “We’ve stretched out in other ways. I mean, me and Joel [Ellison, Local 42 drummer] are starting to play some subtle funky back-beats that I really like.”
Local 42 has also incorporated movie themes, tango, classic rock riffs and the occasional sea-shanty into their varied set. Always in keeping with a wry sense of humor, Horowitz also penned the original piece “Hanukah in Dahlonega,” using the city’s name solely because it rhymed.
As part of this quest to add to the traditional klezmer formula, the band most recently added hand-drummer Eddie Glicken to their line-up. All it took was a single gig, and the rest of the band was convinced.
“This is off the beaten path for your average klezmer band, to have someone just wailing on congas, but he’s just so good,” said Horowitz with a smile.
The term klezmer originally derives from from the Hebrew term literally meaning “vessels of song,” referring to the instruments. The genre first emerged hundreds of years ago among European traveling musicians, who frequently associated with gypsies.
Then, after a period of relative dormancy, klezmer experienced a revival in the 1970s. It was then that folk music was becoming popular once more, and a generation of Jews returned to Jewish pride in reaction to the downplaying of their heritage following World War II.
Artists such as the Klezmer Conservatory Band, Kapelye and Giora Feidman began to earn notoriety from the masses. In the case of Horowitz, it was The Klezmorim’s 1977 album “Streets of Gold” which inspired a passion for the style.
The album – released with colorful cover illustrations by comic artist Robert Crumb – was one of many playing in the background of Horowitz’s youth, but certainly stands out among the steady stream of tapes and records filling the rooms of his childhood home.
“[It was] an absolutely fantastic recording,” said Horowitz of “Streets of Gold” before remarking on his general affinity for klezmer.
“I’ve always loved this music. I grew up with these sounds.”
Thus, when Horowitz wanted to honor the tradition at his wedding, he and his soon-to-be wife were shocked to find that no such band existed in music-crazed Athens. Importing musicians from Atlanta was their only option.
“That, for me, was the impetus,” Horowitz said. “I thought right then: In Athens, we can have our own homegrown klezmer band.”
But it wasn’t until a trip back to his hometown of Binghamton, N.Y., that the group’s name, Klezmer Local 42, took shape. While walking down the street, Horowitz happened to look up at a seemingly unassuming union building next to the local Salvation Army labeled “Pipe Fitters: Local 47.”
“I thought, wow, wouldn’t it be cool if klezmer was so popular that we had our own union?” Horowitz jokingly recalled.
Such a whimsy might not be so far off, as pop bands such as Streetlight Manifesto and Hollywood film soundtracks have begun to draw inspiration from the klezmer tradition. Today, klezmer musicians (or klezmorim) can be found in almost every kind of setting on almost any continent.
Horowitz is proud that his band can be part of a movement: With the birth of each new klezmer ensemble – with each violin or clarinet player who harkens back to the traditions of yore, in whatever form it may take – a small piece of Jewish history is carefully preserved.
BY ELIZABETH FRIEDLY / Assistant Editor
Readers can catch Klezmer Local 42 on Wed., Dec. 12 at Steve’s Live Music in Sandy Springs.