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Toss a rock out your window these days, and it seems very likely to bonk the noggin of someone who leads a folk-punk group straight out of a Balkan or Ukrainian bazaar. Perhaps Gogol Bordello madman Eugene Hütz. Or dapper DeVotchKa frontman Nick Urata. Or Beirut wunderkind Zach Condon. Or maybe even Annette Ezekiel, the diminutive yet feisty thirtysomething singer-accordionist and founder of the klezmer-with-attitude New York sextet Golem.
While such ensembles are plentiful these days, few artists like being so neatly categorized. Fewer still enjoy being lumped into some kind of scene with a bunch of other bands. But, says Ezekiel, it's actually made life a lot easier for Golem, which got its start well before its sound became so trendy.
"When we were first trying to get gigs, we had to be like, 'Ummm, yeah, it's an Eastern European kinda Jewish/gypsy/Slavic mix,' and we'd get some blank looks, and now we just say, 'Gogol Bordello, you know 'em? Yeah, it's the same kinda thing,'" she says, laughing. "I'm not worried about it. Whatever helps get our music out there is fine with me. I mean, we sing in Yiddish, so it's pretty unique, and there's no way we can be pigeonholed. And it's definitely not mainstream music."
Maybe not, but nearly seven years since the band's founding, Golem's appeal is steadily widening. Making the right style of music at the right time certainly helps, but credit the band's singular, inventive vibe for garnering an increasingly large and rabid following around the nation. Picture an irreverent Yiddish theater troupe or cabaret act or wedding band crossed with a rowdy, edgy punk-rock band, or even a Jewish version of the Pogues.
The band's handful of albums, from its 2002 full-length debut, Libeshmertzn (Love Hurts), to the most recent, Fresh off Boat in 2006, are wholly engaging, but it's in the live setting where the band really sets itself apart. There it's a dizzying whirlwind of accordion, tight dresses, belted-out Yiddish phrases, violin, ruffled shirts, trombone bleats, sweat, campy humor, and irrepressible grooves. There are immigrant songs packed with Old World melodies, twisted and shoved and body-slammed into a crowd that's often moshing and doing the hora at the same time.
"There is some sort of exoticism in there that people maybe find fresh or interesting — it's, like, world music-y to some people," Ezekiel notes, "but I think people really respond to the rhythm of the music. It's really danceable, and everyone loves that about it."
She is a classically trained pianist and self-taught accordionist — as well as an Ivy League-educated linguist who's fluent in five languages — but her main creative outlet was actually dance, ballet specifically, when she decided to form Golem. It was 2001, and she had just attended a weekly klezmer brunch curated by renowned clarinetist David Krakauer.
"I just went to him and went, 'I would like my band to play,'" Ezekiel recalls. "'Okay,' he said. 'How about November?' 'Okay,' I went, 'the band's called Golem.' 'Okay, good. Here's your gig.' And then I thought to myself: Okay, I guess I have to form a band now!"
First she recruited an old high school buddy, singer Aaron Diskin. A few other players came and went before Golem settled into its current configuration a couple of years ago, a lineup that includes violinist Alicia Jo Rabins, jazz-informed trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, upright bassist Taylor Bergren-Chrisman, and percussionist Tim Monaghan. And though the starting point was the old-timey klezmer music that had captivated her since childhood, her main creative inspiration wasn't a particular musical artist or group, but ballet legend George Balanchine.
"He was always my idol because he worked with whatever he had. He wasn't a prima donna. And he had a sense of pure art, and at the same time he was always thinking about entertaining the audience, and I feel like that's influenced the way I do things," Ezekiel says. "And he was also from Russia and totally steeped in that tradition, and yet so thrilled with America — he really mixed American energy and Russian tradition, and I feel like that's exactly what we're doing."
As Golem's primary songwriter, Ezekiel admits with a chuckle that her contributions mostly come from the traditional side. She researches the old melodies, arrangements, words, and themes; comes up with the songs (to this point, mainly standards and lost gems, with a few originals thrown in); and then has her bandmates dive in and put a modern spin on things. "Everyone's always making fun of me because I don't have the American music references, but I kinda shut out all of that stuff when I fell in love with this music," she says. "So I really rely on the rest of the band to give me the other stuff that I'm missing."
That job often falls to Diskin, who, prior to joining Golem, spent a number of years fronting the experimental punk outfit Challenge of the Future, which also featured current Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner. Largely by Diskin's influence, the six bandmates create music that sometimes sounds like Fiddler on the Roof as interpreted by Pere Ubu. It's unconventional stuff that might have puzzled some attendees of the band's early gigs at Jewish-centric events, but Ezekiel hopes it is more likely to be understood these days.
"I think that we're so obviously not trying to be purists that for people to be offended by us would be like, what are you doing here? Although I don't feel like we could ever offend people in that way, because it's really obvious that we have a deep reverence for the traditions. I'm always telling stories and talking about the sources and stuff, so we're not giving Jewish heritage the finger. It's very clearly the opposite," she states.
And based on that heritage — as well as the fact that Golem is signed to JDub Records, the nonprofit label that's been home to a multitude of Jewish artists, including, at one point, platinum-selling Orthodox reggae star Matisyahu — many want to know the nature and extent of Golem members' faith.
"A lot of people come up and go, 'So, who in the band is Jewish?'" says Ezekiel. "And that's kind of annoying in a way, but in a way it's not — it's Jewish music, so why not ask that? And then people ask, 'Are you religious?' People are really interested in that, especially Jewish members of the audience," she says. "Some girl came up to me last night and was like, 'Oh you were great. Are you Jewishly involved?' And I'm thinking, Well, you just saw me play two hours of Jewish music, how can I not be 'Jewishly involved'? And then I realized she meant observant, you know? They're curious. Our violinist is fairly observant, but there's definitely different backgrounds and experiences and levels of religiousness within the band."
Ezekiel's own background and experience can certainly be heard in the batch of new songs — most of them originals — that Golem is road-testing in advance of the band's return to the studio this summer to record a followup to Fresh off Boat.
"There's a song about becoming an American citizen, which is based on some Russian-American friends' stories about passing the test, and my grandfather's stories about it, and just watching the movie Moscow on the Hudson. And then another song is based on these taped interviews I have of this relative of mine who died before I was born, and her stories are really cool.
"I think in every family there's the kid who's really interested in where their grandparents came from and stuff — that was me. I always felt like kind of a weird person obsessed with my roots and doing this weird mix of music, and then it turns out that a lot of people have really responded to my weirdness! I guess I always hoped for that. I don't think I ever consciously thought it would happen, but that was always the idea behind this band."