Mama’s Baba Ghanoush: Homemade mashed eggplant appetizer of Middle Eastern origin best served with pita? Or a klezmer fusion band from Denmark?
The version styled Mames Babegenush is the name of the klezmer band founded in Copenhagen by childhood friends Emil Goldschmidt, Lukas Rande and his brother, Bo (flugelhorn and trumpet). Goldschmidt got “really into Jewish music” around 13 or 14 when, as he recalled, his rabbi in Copenhagen asked him to put together a simcha band for Chanukah. He called his friends, the brothers Rande — all of them had played together in a select marching band called Tivoli, like the gardens.
“We just had so much fun playing together,” Goldschmidt said. “We spent a lot of time really digging into klezmer music — old 78s and stuff like that. Dave Karras (the Russian clarinetist), Abe Schwartz (a Romanian klezmer bandleader famous in the 20s) and the Epstein Brothers (the American klezmer group from New York City) — we grew up on all of them.”
Today, they call themselves Europe’s premier jazz fusionists, but they’re happy to let Philadelphia-area residents judge that claim for themselves when, as part of an 11-city United States tour, they play the Sellersville Theater on Jan. 15 at 8 p.m. The historic 325-seat theater is about an hour’s drive from Center City.
The commute from Copenhagen is significantly longer, but that doesn’t deter the multifaceted Nordic sextet from leaving Europe, where they’re much more well known, to play gigs in the United States. After all, jazz is a big part of Mames Babegenush’s musical identity, and jazz is known around the world to be America’s classical music.
“We love jazz; jazz is a big part of what we do,” said Lukas Rande, one of the band’s founding members and its saxophonist. “Traditional klezmer music doesn’t have a lot of soloing, but little by little we’ve incorporated our own styles of improvisation.”
Goldschmidt, this klezmer group’s clarinetist and lone Jewish member, describes the band as a group of musicians who are always listening to new styles of music, always learning and, accordingly, always experimenting.
“We started out with doinas,” (a style of tune commonly associated with Romanian, klezmer and eastern European musical traditions), he said. “And over time, we expanded into typical American-style jazz.”
That klezmer, a music born out of eastern European Yiddishkeit, should coalesce with jazz makes this music far from exotic, though it may sound slightly different.
Klezmer-jazz fusion, from an anthropological standpoint, makes sense. Much of jazz’s most recognizable repertoire was written by the Jewish composers of Tin Pan Alley.
One might argue that Mames Babegenush is simply moving that tradition forward or, at least, branching out from its roots.
But not so intact that they don’t strive to funk things up a little. In any given Mames Babegenush tune, expect the klezmer and jazz DNA to be identifiable.
Don’t discount that, ultimately, these musicians are Danish. As much pride as Goldschmidt and his bandmates take in introducing Denmark, where the Jewish population is not large, to klezmer, they also take care to infuse their sound with an undeniably Nordic flavor.
“We have a lot of Nordic influence in our playing,” said Goldschmidt, also the group’s resident poet. “Nordic music has a very lyrical flavor; there’s also a pureness to it. It’s like looking into a forest with lots of space and lots of trees and no people.”
Bande laughed at his friend’s lyrical metaphor. “Emil, I don’t think he understands what that means!”
“Well, it’s like, we’ve been super into the acoustic, organic sound and the harmonics of Scandinavian folk music,” Goldschmidt continued, attempting to elucidate. “Danish folk music is all about just having a party and everyone being together, which is basically what klezmer music is all about, too.”
It then might not come as too great a shock to learn that some of the more ardent klezmer enthusiasts the band knows in Denmark aren’t Jewish. Interestingly, Danish gentiles have taken to making Jewish music part of their most sacred occasions and celebrations.
“When we were starting out, we played a lot of Jewish weddings and some bar mitzvahs,” Bande said, “but it’s also really, really popular to have Jewish music at Danish weddings. The people love it.”