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Talking Frank

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2004-05-06

Frank London

Frank London

Frank London is quite possibly one of the busiest musicians around. Not only is he one of the founder members of The Klezmatics – who formed in New York 18 years ago and have since released a string of albums, including Jews With Horns and Rise Up! – but he’s also found the time to appear on over 100 CDs over the past three decades, collaborating with the likes of violinist Itzhak Perlman, indie-rockers They Might Be Giants and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.

Here, London talks about how the band got together, the rise in popularity of klezmer, and whether there is anybody left in the music industry he hasn’t worked with.


How did you come to form The Klezmatics?

The Klezmatics have been together 18 years with more or less the same personnel, which is amazing – and we came together in New York, just as a group of people that were really really interested in klezmer and Yiddish music, with no idea at all that it would lead to where it has led, and no idea that we would go musically or politically or spiritually or career-wise this deep into it. We were just a bunch of people – most of whom had just moved to New York at that point – who either liked playing this music, or had just started listening to the music, and we just got together and started playing in pubs. In fact, a good friend of mine from London, Ben Mandelson, got us our first gig in Europe in 1988, and that kind of led to our whole career, because we made our first album when we were in Europe on that first trip, so I have to give all credit to Ben Mandelson, who produced our third CD, Jews With Horns. So that’s ! how the Klezmatics got started.


What’s your involvement with Jewish music and how did you become interested in it?

Well, my one-line answer is that I’m a trumpeter and a composer and I enjoy the totally, almost limitless ways that I can deal with this East European Jewish music both on its own terms and in combination with either other music that I’ve worked with or other art forms other than music, and it just seems like a bottomless, endless well that I’ve been able to dive on into, keep getting replenished. For example, while I was sitting here waiting for your call I got a commission to write a piece for a klezmer soloist with Latin jazz big band, here in New York, as one of five composers – there’s an Arabic musician, a Chinese musician, an African American musician and a Latin musician – and we are writing a piece for a Latin jazz big band. So that’s something I never would have expected. And I’m writing another musical now, and I’m working on a project with my klezmer brass band, which is mixing klezmer and carnival cultu! res – I was just down in North Brazil researching carnival culture down there. Oh, and the Klezmatics’ newest project, the one we’re working on now is very similar to the sort of thing Billy Bragg’s been doing over the past couple of years. We’ve been working with the archives of Woody Guthrie, the great American songwriter, and he had a whole Jewish family life that we didn’t know about, and he wrote all these Jewish lyrics that we’ve set to music, and that’ll be our next big project.


How do you think attitudes towards klezmer have changed in recent years?

Well first of all, let’s look at it honestly, the poor people all have the best music. I mean, how much of the really rocking party music in the world comes out of the bourgeousie? Whether it’s urban funk, or hip-hop, or rock n’roll, or klezmer, it is the poor people’s dance music. So that’s a good thing. We wear that badge with distinction.


Do you think it’s become more mainstream in recent years?

I think it has gone up and down, it’s certainly become much more known. Now at least I would venture to say many more people have heard of it – whatever their opinion of it is at least they’ve heard of it, so in that sense it’s mainstream. And it’s gotten pretty much as mainstream as a non-English language ethnic music is going to get. It’s not mainstream like Madonna or something like that, but it’s interesting with the Woody Guthrie material that it’s a new step for the Klezmatics in that we’re dealing with English language because up to now 98 per cent of what we’ve done has been in Yiddish, which certainly keeps things out of the mainstream quite nicely.


Who would you like to collaborate with who you haven’t worked with already?

Oh, that’s such a great question. Sure, but you’ve put me on the spot – so without thinking, I just got one last week that I can cross off the list, the Klezmatics played with the great jazz organist Amina Claudine Myers, who just blew our mind – we did a gospel klezmer freedom show for Passover. I’d like to work with Tricky, I think he would be a lot of fun to work with.


Have you got any more film scores in the pipeline?

Right now I’m working on a documentary – it’s about cantorial music, which is another new obsession of mine over the past couple of years, and it’s a documentary both about cantorial music in general and a great middle-aged cantor here in America named Jack Mendelsohn, so I’m working on that and trying to think about different transformations of different cantorial music.


The Klezmatics Party and Jam is on May 2 at Yiddish Hoyz, WC1, at 8pm. The Klezmatics workshop takes place on Monday May 3 from 11am-3pm, at SOAS University of London, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG. For further information on both events call the box office on 020 8909 2445 or visit the Jewish Music Institute website website:


The Klezmatics will also be playing at The Spitz, 109 Commercial Street, Old Spitalfields Market, London E1, on Monday May 3, doors 8pm. For Further information call the box office on 020 7392 9032 or visit their website: