Klezmer is traditional Jewish folk music performed at weddings and festivals. It's played on clarinets, trumpets, saxes, banjos, and violins. And Bert Stratton, leader of the Cleveland-based klezmer group Yiddishe Cup, swears that it translates well to contemporary audiences. "It's come back in the last 20 years," he claims. "It's had a renaissance.
"I've done this in the upper peninsula of Michigan and in the Ozarks in Missouri, and it goes over. And there aren't any Jews in those two places."
The sextet just released its third album, Meshugeneh Mambo, a mix of traditional and original tunes that dip into Borscht Belt comedy ("Gentile on My Mind"), tweak some traditional pieces ("I Am a Man of Constant Blessings"), and offer variations on cultural signposts ("K'nock Around the Clock"). The 15-year-old group goes for the yuks, but there's obvious affection for the songs at the center of the shtick. "It's always been dance music," Stratton says. "It's gotta have a strong underpinning rhythm. The drums have to play a polyrhythm that makes people want to dance."
Stratton says that Meshugeneh Mambo is "an ethnic humor album for people who aren't ethnic anymore." And while there's plenty of genre-mingling going on (the title tune unites Jewish and Latin themes), Stratton is obviously nostalgic for his own heritage. "After the book Roots, people got interested in their roots and roots music," he says. "People started exploring their own personal backgrounds, which they had been somewhat intimidated by before that."
It's a tough sell to modern, non-Jewish listeners, Stratton admits. But he thinks there's plenty of universal humor in their music (2000's Yiddfellas contained a rewrite of "That's Amore" called "That's Morris"). "We're a niche within a niche," he laughs. "I didn't grow up with this music. But when I heard it, it spoke to me. It struck a chord with me that I could do this kind of music a lot easier than I could the blues."