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Klezmer’s Mexican Accent

June 18, 2014 By:
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It’s not often you hear a musician name-check his grandmother during a live performance, but that is just what Benjamin Shwartz did during his June 15 concert with his seven-piece band, Klezmerson, at the Painted Bride in Old City. 

Before ripping into the feedback-drenched opening of “No Es Por Nada” (“It’s No Big Deal”), the 39-year-old pianist/violinist/leader of the Mexico City-based group talked about how his bubbe inspired him to write the song. 

“She was a wonderful cook,” he related to the enthusiastic audience of around 150 people. “She would bring out these dishes and say, ‘No es por nada.’ ” 

Obviously, it was: The song is part of Klezmerson’s sophomore effort, 2008’s Klezmerol, a collection of compositions Shwartz wrote in homage to his grandmother’s cooking and the lasting impact that tangible expression of love made on him.

Klezmerson’s two hour-plus set included selections from all three of the band’s studio albums (they released a live CD/DVD, Klezmerson Live, in 2012). A rousing, whirling version of “Tatar Tantz,” with Shwartz’s violin and clarinetist Daniel Zlotnik’s frenetic pacing proved an irresistible lure to many in the audience who made their way to the front of the stage to dance. 

Other standouts included a stately, elegiac version of “Misirlou,” the 1927 Greek composition made famous by surf rock legend Dick Dale and its inclusion in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction, and the title track from the group’s third album, Siete (“Seven”), which incorporated darkly intricate influences from both Eastern Europe and Latin America.

That type of musical meshing is exactly what Shwartz had in mind when he formed Klez­merson in his hometown of Mexico City in 2003, he said in an interview a few days before the Philadelphia concert.

Part of his desire to try some­thing so foreign both to him and to Mexican audiences — according to him, there was virtually no klezmer in the country prior to Klezmerson’s founding — was the desire to stretch his musical boundaries. And part was simple bashert: Shwartz’s grandparents, who came from Poland and Lithuania to escape the Nazis, played musical instruments. His paternal grandfather even accompanied silent films on his violin and inspired Shwartz to pick up the instrument as a 5-year-old.

“I grew up watching him play, I was given the name of his brother who was killed in the Holocaust; it was like I had no choice” but to explore those Jewish and musical roots, Shwartz said. “Eventually, I wanted to dig more into the Jewish heritage. It was a shock for me to see how wonderful it was and to make a connection between all of the things that I live and breathe here..”

The result of these convergences between his Jewish and Mexican identities combines clarinet- and violin-based klezmer and Roma from Eastern Europe with traditional ­Latin American rhythmic styles like charanga, cha cha and norteño — brought to tympanic life by Daniel Sadownick’s percussion. 

When fused with electronica, classic funk courtesy of chunky bass lines from Marco Rentería and rock-inflected shredding from guitarist Juan Manuel Ledezma, the result is a genre-busting, crowd-pleasing style that has gained the band fans across the world. One such admirer, the legendary musician John Zorn, not only signed Klemzerson to his label, Tzadik Records, but also commissioned the band to record an upcoming installment of his massive — 22 volumes and counting — Book of Angels CD series.

“The funny thing about this is that the Jewish community here didn’t take it very well,” he said about the band’s success in Mexico. “They wanted to hear traditional klezmer. The real openness was from the outside. We have been playing in rock clubs, jazz clubs, everywhere” throughout the country. 

Today, Shwartz said, not only has the Mexican Jewish community opened its arms to his de facto role as a musical ambassador, but he has reciprocated. While he didn’t initially want to be seen as a cultural emissary of Jewish Mexico, now he feels differently. 

“I love being a representative of the Mexican Jewish community,” he said. “It’s like we are carrying something very different — a Mexican klezmer band that isn’t playing klez­mer.”

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