Benjamin Shwartz wants to apologize for his English.
The 38-year-old Mexico City-based composer and founder of the Latin-infused klezmer band Klezmerson can certainly be forgiven for his rusty skills, as he has never played a concert in the United States before. But now the popular band that has sold out concerts across Mexico and traveled as far away as Denmark to perform for thrilled audiences is set to make its U.S. debut at the Skirball Cultural Center on Oct. 5, and Shwartz is keen to make a good impression.
“I studied music in Los Angeles in ’93 or ’94, and it’s the first time that I’m going back,” Shwartz said happily during an interview via Skype.
The last time he was in Los Angeles, Shwartz couldn’t have imagined where his career path would take him. He was still several years away from founding Klezmerson, and his tastes were more rock ’n ’ roll than Ashkenazic. But things changed for Shwartz when he began looking through old family photos, several of which showed people holding instruments.
“My grandparents came from Poland and Lithuania,” he said. “I was studying music, and I tried to find a way to converge the Jewish identity with the Mexican identity.”
When Shwartz began his quest to revive the klezmer sound of his grandparents’ generation, he had no clue how big the scene in the United States had become. The Grammy Award-winning Klezmatics were totally off his radar. When he discovered the jazz-infused klezmer of the United States, he was inspired.
“I was blown away by that, and I wanted to do my own version ... my own Latin American version.”
It may not be widely known in the United States, but Jews have been in Mexico since it was colonized by the Spanish. Many Conversos — Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition — and Crypto-Jews who converted in name only, sought refuge in the New World and established themselves there. These original Jewish Mexicans were Sephardi and eventually assimilated into Mexican society, disappearing due to religious persecution.
Mexican independence, however, brought freedom of religion with it, and the 1880s saw a large immigration of Eastern European Jews to Mexico. This new, Ashkenazi community has remained in Mexico ever since, and today close to 50,000 Jews call Mexico home. Most modern Mexican Jews, like Shwartz, live in Mexico City.
“It’s an amazing city to live in, and so many types of sounds and music are everywhere,” Shwartz said.
Still, when Shwartz first put Klezmerson together, he had a bit of a dilemma on his hands. He and his bandmates were Latin American musical pioneers.
“When we started, it was a little bit hard to try to explain what the music was and where it came from,” Shwartz said. “At the beginning we didn’t know where to play. We started playing at jazz clubs.”
It turned out that the jazz club patrons were big fans of Klezmerson’s music, but the band didn’t really fit into the scene. It was too loud, too rock-influenced. It took time to find an audience, but as Klezmerson played around town, it began to develop a following, and now its shows draw crowds.
“We played with [klezmer band] Golem from New York in a big show in Mexico,” he said. “[The attendance] was, like, 5,000 people.”
Still, things can sometimes be tough for a klezmer band in Mexico, despite the overwhelming support of the mostly non-Jewish crowds.
“Some people have not good ideas about the Jews, so when they hear the music there are a lot of interesting reactions around here,” said Shwartz, declining to elaborate. But he hopes that Klezmerson can be an ambassador of Judaism through its music.
After its gig at the Skirball, Klezmerson has a show lined up at one of Mexico City’s premier cultural venues.
“We’re playing in a big place here called Bellas Artes, which is a huge sort of palace in Mexico City,” Shwartz said.
They also have to start work on a new album — they’re signed to John Zorn’s record label. For now, though, Shwartz is firmly focused on the band’s upcoming U.S. debut and is excited to be back in Los Angeles.
“People there, I think, will understand more what we’re doing,” he said. “Rock ’n’ roll bands, and jazz, and the klezmer that I hear come mainly from the U.S.”
And Shwartz hopes that, above all, people will have a good time.
“It’s like a trip to see the whole show, because the songs go so many places,” Shwartz said. “I hope they feel joy. I hope they enjoy themselves.”
Klezmerson will perform Oct. 5 at the Skirball Cultural Center. For tickets or more information, visit skirball.org/programs/music/klezmerson