Mames Babegenush: Where Eastern European Ecstacy Meets Nordic Funk

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The members of Mames Babegenush. Photo by Tobias Wilner.

On its surface, it would appear to be a rather unlikely musical mash up. But Mames Babegenush, a six-piece Danish klezmer band, has actually gained quite a reputation among a diverse range of fans since forming in Copenhagen in 2004.

When asked to describe the breadth of its audience, in a recent interview the band’s saxophone player, Lukas Rande, said that the youngest fan he knows of is age 7, while the oldest (and biggest) fan was a woman in Copenhagen who recently died at the age of 102.

“She was always the first on the dance floor,” he said, “encouraging other dancers and flirting.”
Billed as “Eastern European ecstasy bumps up against Nordic funk,” Mames Babegenush (which pretty much translates to “mom’s eggplant salad”) brings its unique high energy show to East Hampton on Thursday, August 29, where klezmer will meet Scandinavia at Guild Hall.

“You could say klezmer is instrumental Jewish party music from Eastern Europe,” explained Rande, when asked to describe the genre in its simplest terms. “Historically, it was used for weddings and big celebrations. A klezmer is actually a musician in Yiddish.”

Originally these klezmorim, as they are called in plural form, were composed of families in small villages who lived off the land and taught their songs to successive generations. The music itself has always been extremely local and strongly influenced by the surrounding folk traditions.

“It’s the same with our band,” said Rande. “With our group originating from Denmark, we’re super inspired by our Nordic kinds of harmonic inspiration from our tradition, though historically speaking, klezmer was influenced by Romanian music.”

Still, klezmer seems an unlikely choice for a group of young Danish musicians, and Rande, who is 35, explained how Mames Babegenush came to be.

“All of us are old friends … we go back to age 8 when we started playing music together at Tivoli Gardens in the center of Copenhagen. It’s a kind of elite music school where kids are trained in classical music and we were all there as kids.”

Those friends included Rand’s brother, Bo Rande, who plays flugelhorn, and Emil Goldschmidt, a clarinet player. Their first foray into klezmer came 16 years ago when Goldschmidt was asked to provide music for a Chanukah party inside Tivoli Gardens, which is also an amusement park.

“Emil is the only one of us brought up with this music. He’s from a Jewish background and his dad is a professional classical musician,” Rande said. “He asked us, we rehearsed a couple times and we had three traditional songs put together.”

Their performance at the party was a success and Rande found that he was quickly drawn in by the klezmer genre.

“I was amazed at this kind of energy. It was so unique and so direct at communicating raw energy and melancholy as well,” he said. “All of us were super drawn to get to know the roots of the music. After this party we decided to start the group and all of us, individually and collectively, began studying the first recorded klezmer music.”

That recorded music is now a century old, and though technically born in Eastern Europe, Rande notes that New York City is where klezmer grew up. That’s because the music was brought here by Eastern European Jews who settled in New York after fleeing their homeland, and New York is where most of the recordings were made in the early part of the 20th century.

Mames Babegenush on stage.

Like jazz, once it arrived on these shores, klezmer morphed into a genre that found new life in the New World, ironically, just as it was being extinguished in the Old World through pogroms and war.

“Klezmer was the melting pot of cultures where people met up and exchanged the music from their tiny villages,” said Rande. “The tradition was so important with its continuation, which is also why it came to a stop in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s — there were no musicians around.”

He explained that a klezmer revival began in the 1970s and ’80s, though added it is those early recordings from the 1910s and ’20s that truly inspired the members of Mames Babegenush. And though Rande readily admits that thought he didn’t initially have thoughts of making a career from klezmer, he always knew that he wanted to earn his living as a musician.

“And we all do that today. At first, we started out just having a blast learning the tradition and the shows made themselves,” he said. “Every time we were out playing, someone heard us and asked about new gigs.”

The weddings, Chanukah parties and bar mitzvahs soon shifted to small, non-Jewish venues and festivals followed by bigger festivals. Then, Mames Babegenush began traveling, and Rande notes klezmer makes for an easy transition to international audiences.

“Even though we’re a Danish band, we play instrumental music and it’s super easy to perform for different audiences around the world,” he said. “It communicates very simply.”

In 2008, the band was invited to participate in a workshop in New York conducted by contemporary klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer. During their visit they also performed at Carnegie Hall in a young artists concert presented by Krakauer, who is now a friend.

Mames Babegenush with Lukas Rande on sax. Dennis Lehmann photo.

“David told us the klezmer tradition is dead,” recalled Rande. “He said you can’t talk about playing traditional klezmer. If you do, you’re grasping at straws because it exists only in old recordings.
“This was super inspiring. We were into traditional klezmer, but he spoke to us as a band and wanted us to bring our take on the music.”

In 2009, the members of Mames Babegenush did just that when they released their first album, “Klezmer Killed The Radiostar.” That notion of klezmer as living tradition explains how a music form originally played on violin and piano in Europe could morph into one that welcomed clarinets and saxophones in the United States. And it explains how six young musicians from Copenhagen could latch onto the genre and, in the end, make it their own by embracing distinctly northern Scandinavian influences in the music, which is something Rande feels he and his Mames Babegenush bandmates have done in recent years.

“One of the big things for me is harmonics which we have used. At the moment, we more or less perform 50% traditional songs and 50% our own compositions,” he said. “It’s mostly our own arrangements of old songs where I think it makes sense to talk about Nordic or folk traditions.”

When asked to expound on how those traditions are reflected in their music, Rande said, “It’s an overall feeling — like Copenhagen is great in the summer and horrible in the winter. Since we’re up north, it’s very dark in winter. This is always present here. I hope people can hear it.”

Mames Babegenush performs on Thursday, August 29, at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Tickets are $27 to $75 ($25 to $70 members) at guildhall.org or (631) 324-4050. In addition to Lukas Rande on saxophone, the band includes Andreas Møllerhøj on double bass, Morten Ærø on drums, Nicolai Kornerup on accordion, Bo Rande on flugelhorn and Emil Goldschmidt on clarinet. 

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