What happens when Eastern European Jewish music meets Nordic folk tunes? A rollicking, bumptious toe-tapping, handclapping concert that fuses klezmer riffs with equally traditional Danish folk music. The Copenhagen-based band calls itself Mames Babegenush because they decided on a name over a delicious bowl of babaganoush – the Middle Eastern eggplant dip – prepared by clarinet-player Emil Goldschmidt’s mother.
Together since 2004, the Danish-band makes its Washington, D.C., area debut Wednesday, August 28 at North Bethesda’s AMP by Strathmore playing a program of traditional klezmer tunes and innovative pieces that draw on Nordic chords and melodies.
Though Goldschmidt is the six-member band’s only Jewish member, noted saxophone player Lukas Rande, that hasn’t stopped the group from its deep investigation into the klezmer form. Over the past 16 years, Mames Babegenush has toured extensively at home in Denmark, throughout Europe, North and South America, including invitations to perform at major klezmer festivals, synagogues, Jewish community events – and even Carnegie Hall in New York.
“We started the band 16 years ago mostly because we were all old friends,” noted Rande, who met Emil Goldschmidt when the two were eight year olds. An invitation to play a community Chanukah party in Copenhagen jump started the buddies’ explorations into klezmer. “I was just so into the raw energy that klezmer music presented and the directness of it,” said Rande, who is the band’s manager. “It really felt super impactful both to me and to the people we were playing for. It was an instant, ‘Wow.’”
Rande said that the friends didn’t really think through what it meant to create a klezmer band in Denmark. It’s a small country, with an even tinier Jewish population – just 6,000 according to the Virtual Jewish Library. “We evolved really organically,” Rande said of the band. That meant playing weddings and other Jewish celebrations. But it also meant doing a deep dive into the roots of the musical form. They sought out recordings of early- and mid-20th-century klezmer masters — Naftule Brandwein, Dave Tarras, Abe Schwartz, to name a few – and focused on the music’s traditional sound. The band’s first album, 2009’s “Klezmer Killed the Radio Star” features a doina – a somber Romanian style; a Bessarabian scher – a quick-stepping dance tune; “Opshpiel For Di Makhetonim” – a prelude for the mothers-in-law wedding dance; and “Bulgar Ala Naftule” – Brandwein’s version of an upbeat 2/4 dance tune.
The band’s most recent album, “Mames Babegenush on Strings,” experiments by bringing together classic folk tunes from the klezmer and Nordic traditions. Alas, the strings won’t tour with the group, so at AMP by Strathmore Rande said the band plans to cover both classic klezmer tunes and try out new material, which will appear on next year’s new album, to be recorded later this year.
Rande finds crossover in instrumentation that both cultures – Eastern European Jews and Northern Europeans of Nordic descent — favor: fiddle and accordion. Rande loves klezmer for its oppositional shades of dark and light, celebratory dances and mournful dirges.
“For me,” Rande said, “Klezmer has always been interesting due to abrupt changes — at one point it’s super manic and then a minor part comes in and it gets super gloomy and melancholic.”
And klezmer and Nordic music share that minor key with its evocative sorrowful notes. He explained why, “In Denmark and Scandinavia it is super, super dark and cold during the winter so that is a big part of our music tradition. While the melancholic tendencies are similar [to klezmer], the basis of klezmer music can be considered more heartbreaking, more catastrophic than the Nordic’s folk traditions.”
Rande continued, “In klezmer, the melancholic parts can feel a bit more heartbreaking and directly speaking to the challenges of [living in the] diaspora. It’s a deeper, more catastrophic thing than the Nordic folk traditions, but to my ears there are a lot of similarities.”
And that babaganoush? Rande swears it’s the best he’s ever had.
Mames Babegenush, Wednesday, Aug. 28 at 8:00 p.m. (doors open 90 minutes before) AMP by Strathmore, 11810 Grand Park Avenue, North Bethesda, Md., Tickets $26-$46. Call (301) 581-5100 or visit https://www.ampbystrathmore.com/.