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First-Class Klezmer

Get your ya-ya's out for the Allstars



The wait is over. For years, the hip crowd in Colorado Springs has kvetched about the absence of an accordion and clarinet based Yiddish jam band scene in El Paso County. With the arrival of the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars (NOKA) on the Colorado College campus Thursday, the Colorado Klezmer revolution is in full swing.

"If someone had told me ten years ago, 'Oh, you're going to be an accordion player in a Klezmer band,' I would have told them they were out of their mind," Glenn Hartman told the Indy last week, while walking to the baggage claim area of the New Orleans airport, admittedly buzzed after flying first class.

When asked if his band turned to Klezmer for the obvious temptation of commercial riches, Hartman laughed. "Yeah, we said there's money in bar mitzvahs!"

Klezmer music is traditional folk music from eastern Europe, but the Allstars add some distinguishing elements from their varied backgrounds and their mostly transplanted home in the Big Easy. The band formed in 1991, and they got a big boost a few years later when Willie Green, the drummer from the Neville Brothers, joined the band, giving them the credibility to be accepted as part of the New Orleans scene. According to Hartman, "the reality that I could get him in my Yiddish band was kind of like fairy-tale crap."

There's a definite New Orleans groove as a carpet beneath their music, but they came to Klezmer without an awareness of any contemporary models. "I grew up Jewish, but not playing Klezmer music," Hartman recalled. "I had a sense of what was proper stylistically, but I didn't have any kind of in-depth understanding of what the music is."

The freedom from tradition let NOKA infuse their sound with plenty of disparate influence from their musical crossroads. "If you like jam bands, la Phish and Widespread Panic, we definitely have that kind of improvisational edge," Hartman assured. "If you like folk music, la the Chieftains and that kind of real World Music, we have that thing. But if you like Fela and intense African pop, we have that kind of edge going too. It's an energy thing. That's where we sit."

Hartman's list of influences are far from complete. Don't be surprised to hear flashes of Chuck Berry and Three Stooges surfacing in the songs, and it isn't unusual to hear Hartman's accordion or Robert Wagner's clarinet launch into extended Hendrix-type solos. Their musicianship is unsurpassed, and it's worth a longer listen to grasp the complexity and variety in their music.

"It's really easy for someone on the outside to just laugh at Klezmer or hear the simplest thing about it," Hartman said, noting that first-time listeners often think his band has three tunes, "that fast song, that really fast song, and then that really, really, really fast song." The band's Klezmer repertoire has about 60 tunes to draw from, including last year's album Fresh Out of the Past (Shanachie), featuring all original material. "Once you get to understand and hear those intricacies, it becomes pretty intriguing."

But intricacies aside, NOKA's music has an irresistible chutzpah driving it, and it's impossible to imagine resisting the urge to kick up your feet and dance when they take the stage. "The audience is as big a participant in the show as we are," Hartman admitted. "If they want to sit on their asses, they're going to sit on their asses. If we have the energy to coax them out of their seats, we'll coax them out of their seats and then it'll end up being a lot more fun for everybody. But see, the band created its personality in New Orleans where people don't sit down and listen to music, they dance. That's where we come from."

Though they know where they come from, there's no telling where they're going. Hartman is adamant about making no plans other than playing for people ready to have fun to good music. They've played to kindergarten classes and senior citizen groups, from the Berlin Jazz Festival to the H.O.R.D.E. Tour, and everything in between.

"It's shocking to me," Hartman confided. "One of the funnest things about this band is that the potential for crossover is just huge. You can't play punk rock at a picnic for senior citizens, but we can."

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