By Anastasia Pantsios
People come because
the music's lively.
When music legends from Cleveland are listed, Mickey Katz is
seldom mentioned. The Cleveland-based klezmer ensemble Yiddishe Cup
aims to change that with its latest CD, Meshugeneh Mambo .
“He is to klezmer comedy what Louis [Armstrong] is to the birth
of jazz,” says Yiddishe Cup singer-clarinetist Bert Stratton. “He's
90 percent of it.”
Thursday, July 1
Alma Theater, Cain Park
and Lee Rds.
Since forming in 1988, the group, which also includes
singer-multi-instrumentalist Irwin Weinberger, singer-keyboardist
Alan Douglass, drummer Don Friedman, trombonist Steve Ostrow and
“dance leader” Daniel Ducoff, has played its Eastern European Jewish
folk music at JCCs, nursing homes, weddings, colleges and arts
programs, places where, Stratton says, “they might have us one week,
and have the Irish group the next week and the African dancers the
Its previous two CDs, Klezmerized and Yiddfellas
, have featured straightforward renderings of the spirited
clarinet-lead music with a mournful undertone. But the group's also
done comedy numbers in its sets for years, so it decided to make
them the basis of a disc.
“Frankly, the world does not need another klezmer instrumental
record,” says Stratton. “The market is so small — it's probably the
Irish market divided by a thousand. Everybody's got their one
klezmer record. Maybe they have two. But here was a void that needed
to be filled. I wanted to hear a funny Jewish album, a new one.
There wasn't any.”
The result was a 15-track disc featuring a half dozen Katz
parodies and other old humor tracks to which the band has added new
material, and a handful of instrumentals. Katz, a former big-band
clarinetist, turned '50s and '60s pop hits into parodies based on
Yiddish/English wordplay and Catskills resort humor. Yiddishe Cup
covers “K'nock Around the Clock,” “Knish Doctor” (based on 1958 hit
“Witch Doctor”) and “Nudnik the Flying Shisl,” to which it added
mentions of Beachwood and the Tribe.
“He did about 100 songs like that, parodies like Weird Al
Jankovic but better,” says Stratton. “We threw in our own
contemporary twist on these old songs.”
Though much of the humor is specifically Jewish — “Cheder Days”
describes Hebrew school experiences and “Essen” lists food consumed
during a Catskill resorts stay — most translates to other cultures.
One tale of woe on the track “Tsuris,” which interjects comedy
routines between musical choruses, describes a bar mitzvah whose
“theme was torture.”
“It was this obscure song I took as the foundation; I realized
that real tsuris was going to a bar mitzvah and listening
to a DJ blast crap into your ears while kids are popping balloons,”
Stratton says. “The people with their hands over their ears have
come great distances and would actually like to talk to each other.”
That might make Stratton, who's 53, sound like an old
fuddy-duddy, but he says college audiences seem to enjoy their
“When we play for college kids, we do it as a party,” he says.
“We get them to dance. I had a woman call me yesterday who was in
her mid-20s and she was getting married. She said, ‘I'm calling you
because the best day I ever had at Kenyon College was when you guys
played there.' Most of the kids aren't Jewish at the colleges.
People just come out because it's lively.”
Stratton was a self-described amateur blues and jazz musician
when he took a klezmer workshop in the mid-'80s from Greg Selker,
who started Cleveland Klezmorim in 1983.
“It resonated with me because I liked music I perceived as
authentic,” says Stratton. “I thought the most authentic thing in
the world was hearing Mance Lipscomb. To think that there were
Jewish guys recording old 78s as well as old black guys was a
That experience inspired him to start Yiddishe Cup with Douglass.
“Musically it's satisfying,” he says. “And it's satisfying on a
community/religious level. I contribute something to the
neighborhood. When I define the neighborhood, I define it as greater
Cleveland. We did Parade the Circle a couple of weeks ago. That's my
idea of the neighborhood. Then we do very non-glamorous gigs at
nursing homes, which I love doing. They want to hear what we play. I
see it as vibrant and new because we're just using the old songs as
a foundation on which to create wacky and exciting new