At first glance, electro jams and klezmer songs don't seem to have much in common. Electro sprang from funk musicians' fascination with programmable drum machines in the 1980s. Klezmer, on the other hand, sprang from the synagogues of southeastern Europe in the 1380s or thereabouts.
Thanks to folks like Afrika Bambaataa and Hashim, electro boogied its way into New York and Detroit clubs. Klezmer, meanwhile, found its way onto another type of dance floor, that of Jewish weddings. Now the two have come together in Madison, of all places, thanks to The Shtetlblasters, a five-piece ensemble that got acquainted at Middleton High School a few years ago.
What's more, the band's new song "Tantz Tantz Allemin," from the just-released debut Tantz Mit The Shtetlblasters, is a testament to what electro and klezmer share: dance appeal. The song's title is Yiddish for "dance, dance, everyone," and dancing is exactly what the tune inspires, especially when the Shtetlblasters play it live.
The tune kicks off with two syncopated notes that sound a bit like feet stomping, then slithers into a groovy, minor-key synth melody that gets even more '80s-riffic as the song unfolds. About halfway through, the band goes into retro overdrive as the beats from their TR-808 drum machine get even funkier and the synths dive into Talking Heads territory. Throughout it all, voices intrude through a vocoder, like stern robot-rabbis, instructing the crowd to dance -- in Yiddish.
Or, as Sam Harmet, the band's mandolin man and one of its many synth players, explains, the song's about exploring electro through an old-world party.
"The middle section was built up around a big '80s-sounding TR-808 beat we programmed and then layered with a bunch of synth lines, and the vocals are sung through a vocoder and harmonized on the keyboard, which give them a certain robotic chorus quality," he says.
It's a combination of elements you probably haven't heard before, even if you're a fan of other local klezmer groups such as the Reptile Palace Orchestra and the Yid Vicious Klezmer Ensemble. Though Reptile Palace's Biff Blumfumgagnge makes an appearance on Tantz Mit The Shtetlblasters, the band has a sound all its own, one that's descended from "Planet Rock" as much as it is the hora.
It doesn't seem like this would be an easy task, but Harmet says combining electro and klezmer works because klezmer is such an adaptable genre.
"Klezmer music has always been a bit of a chameleon whether absorbing local Balkan sounds in the old world or swing sounds in New York City in the 1930s," he says. "For us, the challenge has been making the syncopations of funk and synthy tones of electro music mesh with klezmer in a way that feels natural and appropriately reverent -- and irreverent -- toward the klezmer inspirations."
An MP3 of "Tantz Tantz Allemin" is available in the related files section at right. More music by The Shtetlblasters can be found on its MySpace page.
MadTracks highlights and provides MP3s of songs performed by local musicians. All tracks here are provided with permission of the artist. If you are a musician based in the Madison metro area and are interested in sharing your work as a MadTrack, please send a message.