Music and revolution take stage at Old St Paul’s

Klezmer Rebs (David Moskovitz – lead vocals, trumpet; Heather Elder – violin; Sue Esterman – accordion, vocals; Jonathan Dunn – trombone, vocals; Rose OHara – piano, vocals; David Weinstein – guitar, mandolin, vocals; Rainer Thiel – bass)

Old St Paul’s

Tuesday 6 August, 12:15 pm

This hybrid group, roughly descended from the Yiddish culture of eastern European Jewry and early jazz band traditions broke the usual pattern of (relatively) sober classical lunchtime concerts at Old St Paul’s.

Their frequent style and subject matter, congruent with their name, is revolution, booze, sex and most things in between. For example there’s the title song of their latest CD, Anarchia Total, which could well become one of the most alarming projects under the most urgently needed revision of state security measures in the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill.

Lyrics and music for it were said to have been written by ‘Freedomfighters across the globe and Urs Signer’ (the group’s clarinetist who did not play this concert: I heard the word gaol in an obscure reference to his whereabouts). Anyway, I was offered the following background note to Anarchia Total: partially written in Schwyzerdütsch (Swiss German).

“Schwyzerdütsch? Even if you can’t speak it, the message is clear: For love and justice, against fascism and the police state. To the barricades everyone! Against racism and the patriarchy!  Reb Urs’s music and lyrics spread Spanish, Māori, English and Yiddish onto a Schwyzerdütsch substrate, cemented together with energetic, mad craziness.  There’s only one thing for us – Total Anarchy … Anarchia Total.”

It was a rousing performance which will doubtless swell the numbers at their training camps.

The quasi-military character of the squad was emphasized by the expropriation of elements of Royal New Zealand Navy uniform by the trumpeter/vocalist David Moskovitz, viz an officer’s hat. But to regain a military/civilian balance, there were other cultural insignia, such as the embroidered skull-cap worn by guitarist David Weinstein and the dresses worn by the women that might have suggested, variously, the hippie era or Bukovinian/Ruthenian peasant dress.

The music was in keeping: happy, irreverent, using a variety of boisterously played instruments. The trumpet and Sue Esterman’s accordion were always prominent, emphatic and feet-tapping. For several items Moskovitz took the trumpet from his lips and sang, in which pianist Rose O’Hara joined.

Guitarist Weinstein also played mandolin, which at times suggested the Greek bouzouki (to which I’m a bit addicted), as when they played the charmingly nostalgic, American-composed Flatbush Waltz. The violin of Heather Elder was rather masked during the first pieces but emerged later; I wondered whether it depended more on amplification than I would have expected.

Then there was Jonathan Dunn’s trombone which led the way into Yoshka, enjoining us: ‘Drinken Bronfen Nichten Vine’ (‘drinking whisky not wine’), an injunction supported in varying aspects by trumpet, mandolin, violin, good bass lines and some nice scooping on the accordion, with clapping in which some of the audience joined. Its character was Balkan, though to Yiddish words.

A departure from the usual Klezmer style, at least it seemed so to me, came with Moonlight, a song in Ladino (don’t confuse with the Romance language, Ladin, spoken in parts of north Italy: South Tyrol, Trentino and Belluno) the Spanish-derived language of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain under the benign reign of King Ferdinand at the end of the 15th century. With the arrival of a guest singer, Manny Garcia, and Rose O’Hara singing again, this attractive song began in Ladino but their linguistic talents were soon obvious, as I later recognized English.

Yet another example of the Jewish culture in the Latin world came with Gedenk, a tango from Argentina.

Rose sang a couple of further songs, some using pretty hand movements, Odessa Bulgar and Bublichki, before there was another urging to debauchery, a striking drinking song composed by Moskovitz and clarinetist Signer, Kumt, kumt, khaverim (Come, come friends).

Finally they checked whether there were Russian speakers in the audience; when no hands were raised, “That’s good; this is a filthy Russian song”; it was called Zvezda (Star) and when no translation was offered I had to assume that here was the compulsory hymn to sexual licentiousness. At least, the music was pretty risqué.