Like so many other aspects of modern life, klezmer, that centuries-old Yiddish art form, is undergoing a makeover, fusing Jewish folk songs with Caribbean, Spanish and African influences. Yet Extreme Klezmer Makeover, a quartet that will be performing on March 31 at Club Tropical, a Salvadoran restaurant in Culver City known for presenting world music, bears a name that is more than a little ironic, for klezmer, as band leader Joellen Lapidus says, has always been "a melting pot music." Since its origins, as far back as the 1600s, klezmer has been "world music assimilating other cultures yet retaining a cantorial core," she says.
Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Transylvanian, Greek and Turkish strains all found their way into the old klezmer, for "the nature of klezmer is the nature of Jews in the Diaspora," she said.
Lapidus points out that klezmer, which has famously experienced a revival since the late 1970s, has never been performed exclusively at Jewish functions, and the bands have often included non-Jewish musicians. Likewise, Extreme Klezmer Makeover is not comprised solely of Jews. Nor are Lapidus' students at McCabe's Guitar shop all Jewish. In fact, she chose to teach at McCabe's, rather than at a synagogue, to ensure that non-Jews would also get to "experience the kind of exuberance, vitality and joyfulness" that marks this traditional wedding music.
The great makeover, in fact, may be the presence of a woman -- Lapidus, herself -- fronting the band. Historically, women were not allowed to be in klezmer bands. Orthodox congregations today do not allow mixed-gender klezmer bands in the synagogue.
Even if her band is not allowed inside certain shuls, anyone can buy Makeover's debut CD, "Under Construction." Tango beats and African percussions highlight a number of the songs. The band performs covers not only of Jewish folk tunes like "Tumbalalaika," but also patriotic songs like "God Bless America," a version of which is played in "Ellis Island Rag," composed by band member, Dan Radlauer.
Lapidus' interest in American popular and traditional music goes back to the '60s, when she played folk music in Greenwich Village. For years her instrument of choice was the mountain dulcimer; she not only played it but composed Appalachian songs and even made the fretted instruments.
While studying for her doctorate, she met Itamar Yahalom, a professor at the L.A. Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies. He had been in the Haganah, the underground military organization in Israel prior to the nation's founding.
"It got me in touch with my heritage and with my own grandparents' journey," Lapidus said.
Her earliest musical memories are of her grandfather playing "Hatikvah" on the mandolin.
Lapidus plays dulcimer, accordion and clarinet, that staple of klezmer, and it's only been in the past three or four years that she's rediscovered her roots in Jewish music. She recently composed a new song, "Grandpa Bennie's Chicken Market," which captures the essence of the shtetl environment in Brooklyn through instrumentals and vocals. The vocals, however, are in English, not only because Lapidus doesn't know Yiddish well, but also because of her emphasis on the multicultural tradition of klezmer.
"I want everyone to understand the images," she said.
Extreme Klezmer Makeover performs on Friday, March 31, at 9 p.m., at Club Tropical, 8641 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 287-1918. $10.