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New Age Klezmer

It's turning into a week full of klezmer at the New Times office. The folks at Rough Guide sent over their latest disc, The Rough Guide to Klezmer Revival, for review, with 18 tracks of fresh new klezmer music compiled in one kick-ass disc. It's hard to imagine anything being kick-ass about klezmer, but no sooner had I popped that disc in and started listening to jams like "Flatbush Waltz" and "Café Jew Zoo" (both solid jams full of sexy clarinet playing and deft accordion work) than a press release showed up from the self-professed Klezmer King of South Florida, Al Matos.

At age 68, Matos is perceived as a klezmer pioneer, by those in the know, for helping to keep the genre alive during its stages of unpopularity. Not that klezmer was ever all that popular across the U.S., but its fortunes have ebbed and flowed.

If you've never heard of it before, klezmer originated in medieval Europe around the 15th century and was predominantly played by traveling Jewish musicians who — according to Matos — lived like gypsies and played like demons. "There's a lot of history to this music," says Matos, who lives in Plantation. "Klezmers (musicians) used to travel from village to village and play on rooftops... like Fiddler on the Roof."

The compositions are full of alluring instruments such as tuba, violin, and accordion, giving it an Eastern European feel. By the time klezmer hit America in the 20th century, the culture was kept alive by immigrant musicians (jazz great Benny Goodman got his start playing it), but klezmer eventually lost steam. For the most part, (minus a decent revival in the '80s) it's been relegated to weddings and cultural celebrations.

That's something Matos is trying to change. He wants young folks here in South Florida to give the music a chance, and for his upcoming show this weekend, he's promising to unleash some new age avant-garde klezmer.

"New age klezmer is basically taking the traditional music and putting a new sound to it," Matos says. "We can give it a rock sound, a jazz sound, even a hip-hop or swing sound... we just go and have fun."

Hip-hop klezmer? Is that possible? I ask if he can play Jay-Z or Rihanna klezmer-style but he has no idea what I'm talking about. "Who?... What?"

Matos is a touch hard of hearing.

But what Matos lacks in 21st-century hipness he makes up for big time in his recordings and playing style, all high energy and full of passion. He's been making this music since he was a kid and hopes that other young folks will still be able to say the same thing. "Music is music," he says. "Once people hear it, they're going to have fun, I guarantee it."

The Al Matos Klezmer band performs on Sunday, April 6, at the Broward County Main Public Library, 100 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $15, and the show starts at 2 p.m. For more info, call 954-472-8852, or visit

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Jonathan Cunningham

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