The Cleveland Free Times

Preview : Klezmer Comedy : Yiddishe Cup pays tribute to Mickey Katz

Articles / Music
Date: Jun 30, 2004 - 12:33 PM
By Anastasia Pantsios

Yiddishe Cup
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.”

7:30 p.m., Thursday, July 1
Alma Theater, Cain Park
Superior and Lee Rds.
Tickets: $14-$16

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 next week.”

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 music.

“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 revelation.”

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 pieces.” 

This article comes from The Cleveland Free Times

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