Frank London: The Jew with the Horn
“ Our producer, Christoph Borkowsky Akbar, challenged us: 'I want to hear you guys, but put more of your lives, New York, an urban young sound in Klezmer.' ”
Frank London is one of the most interesting and colorful figures in the current revival of Jewish musicmistakenly identified only as Klezmer musicof the last two decades. London seeks consciously and constantly to expand the terminology and vocabulary of Jewish music with groups including Hasidic New Wave, Shekinah Big Band and Klezmer Brass All-Stars. The Klezmatics won a 2006 best World Music Grammy Award for its versions of Woody Guthrie songs on Wonder Wheel (Jewish Music Group, 2006). "It was a very important milestone for Jewish music, acknowledging Jewish music in a very official way as part of the canon of World music, said London. But London is also known for injecting a healthy dose of free jazz aesthetic and energy while addressing current political agendas, controversial issues and speaking openly about his left-of-center politics.
This interview with London was conducted in Jerusalem, where he performed with the Israeli AndraLaMoussia Ensemble at the Jewish Music Days festival in early September, 2007. London reflects on his growing interest in Jewish music, culture and many traditions, as well his politics.
London begins with two of his many endeavors that combine music and politics. In 1999 London led the fusion-meets-Klezmer ("Sun Ra meets Jimi Hendrix at a Jewish wedding, as they called it) Hasidic New Wave, rewriting an updated version of the Dead Kennedys' punk anthem "California Ãœber Alles. That Dead Kennedys song referenced the anthem of Nazi Germany, and mocked Jerry Brown, the new-agey governor of California. London's version, "Giuliani Ãœber Alles, dedicated to the former mayor of New York, was written after he personally experienced the brutality of New York policemen. That version appeared on Hasidic New Wave's Kabalogy (Knitting Factory, 1999), and London still thinks that the song and the message are relevant, especially in the current presidential campaign.
All About Jazz: Will Hassidic New Wave perform this song during the presidential campaign?
FL: We played several times last year, but nothing is planned. Now that we have YouTube and wholesome computer animation, I'm looking for an animator. If you hear or read me now out there, take my recording, take this important anti-Guiliani song so relevant to this campaign, and put it out there. I'm sure many will see it.
Likewise, three years ago I had an idea about the infamous and horrible US prison in Guantánamo that represents a violation of international law and the Geneva Convention by imprisoning and torturing people there. People forget that the beautiful, gorgeous song "Guantanamera is about people coming from Guantánamo. So I talked to my colleagues, who have a Latin-hip-hop-Jewish band, the Hip Hop Hoodios , and said, "Let's do a hip-hop remake of the song as an anti-Guantánamo protest song, 'Viva la Guantanamera,' and use it as a fund-raiser for Amnesty International, and they did it with a lot of rappers. I did the arrangement and the trumpet solo, and Lorin Sklamberg from the Klezmatics sang a verse.
AAJ: How did you begin playing Jewish Music?
FL: I'm almost fifty now. Now my background feels like I was in my twenties and thirties. I grew up in a very suburban area near New York in a very typical American reform Jewish household, so musically there was nothing interesting at all. There was a tiny little drop of Jewish music, Mickey Katz, but it was one of his jokes on American pop songs. I did not realize that it was Jewish. The music in the synagogues was horriblenothing interesting musically.
I did not encounter anything of interest about Jewish music until my twenties, but the same is true of everything else. I was into rock, Frank Zappa forever. In my late teens I began to discover jazz and improvisation, and in my first year in college where there was a music department, I met a guy who was jazz saxophonist, Gary Shore, who was obsessed with jazz. We spent hours and hours listening and playing. I started listening obsessively to Lee Morgan and Booker Little, and later to Don Cherry, Mongezi Feza and Lester Bowie, all the history of jazz trumpet and all the bebop and avant-garde. Cherry, Feza, and Bowie are my strongest influences and models. Each is related to his own traditions. Feza took South African folk songs and played them as free jazz, like I did with the Hasidic New Wave.