A PINCH OF KLEZMER AND A DASH OF JAZZ
Sunday, December 5, 2004
In a musical sense, Bay Area quartet Davka re-creates the deeds ascribed in
legend to the mystic Jewish masters of medieval Europe, who, through
incantations gleaned from the ancient Hebrew texts, moved at will through
time and space.
Davka's four musicians whirl their spells with a supple interplay of
violin, cello, bassoon and percussion. Their compositions and
improvisations, swirling around a center of enlivened klezmer melodies and
pulsing Middle Eastern rhythms, weave a dancing, winding path through the
diversity of Jewish cultural and historic experience, blending the ages-old
music of Eastern Europe, Arabia, North Africa, Spain, Turkey and India with
muscular strains of contemporary classical music and jazz improvisation.
The group's concerts are celebrations of multicultural melody, harmony and
drive. Along with frequent Bay Area appearances, they've played across
North America, Europe and Israel. They perform a Hanukkah concert, compete
with menorah lighting, at the cozy Noe Valley Ministry on Saturday night.
It's been a dozen years since Davka grew from a collaboration between
violinist Daniel Hoffman and dumbeg (a hand-held Middle Eastern drum)
player Adam Levenson. A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, Hoffman
had been performing klezmer, the centuries-old traditional music of Eastern
and Central European Jews, for five years when he first teamed with
Calling from Jerusalem, where he's a frequent visitor, Hoffman ascribes
that first collaboration to his desire to expand the boundaries of his work.
"I found Jewish melodic ideas to be wonderful," says the violinist, who
also leads the Bay Area group Klez-X. "The whole Jewish experience seems to
be in those melodies, in their ability to express incredible joy and
sadness all at once. But at the same time, I didn't think the rhythmic
aspect of klezmer was that interesting. I had also been studying both
Arabic music and Mizrachi, the music of the Jews from Arab countries.
Middle Eastern music is a lot more about the rhythm, so I had this idea of
combining Middle Eastern rhythms with Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish
Hoffman and Levenson performed as a duo for a year, with the violinist
playing klezmer tunes and improvisations over the percussionist's Arabic
and Turkish rhythms. When the pair decided finally to record, they added
cellist Moses Sedler, whose improvisations evoke not only his extensive
Indian music and jazz background but also a strong modern classical
sensibility. Levenson moved from the Bay Area and bowed out of Davka in the
late 1990s. The band's current percussionist, Kevin Mummey, lends the group
a sophisticated rhythmic virtuosity and a versatility to match his
bandmates, including backgrounds in jazz, pop, Indian and flamenco
Three years ago, the group decided to add a woodwind voice, and brought in
bassoonist Paul Hanson, who has performed with artists from Wayne Shorter
to Bela Fleck to the St. Joseph Ballet Company.
Hanson's horn adds a low, flowing harmony to the music, but he's also given
plenty of room to run, adding fiery solos conjuring images as diverse as
the streets of Lublin or Istanbul to "A Love Supreme." Having that fourth
voice has made a conspicuous difference for another reason, Hoffman says.
"As a trio, you're really a band made up of three soloists, and you never
get a break," he says. "When one person is playing melody, the others have
to be comping. Having Paul really opens things up in a way that gives us
all kinds of harmonic possibilities."
There are four Davka CDs; only the most recent, 2003's "The Golem,"
features Davka's current lineup. It's a fascinating project reflecting
Davka's themes of multidimensional Jewish identity reinventing itself
through time and location. The music is culled from a contemporary
soundtrack Hoffman composed for a German silent movie of the 1920s that
re-created a Jewish legend of 16th century Prague.
In the legend, the 16th century kabbalah scholar Rabbi Loew (a historical
figure whose grave can be visited today in Prague's Old Jewish Cemetery)
uses his mystical knowledge to create the Golem, a huge, manlike creature
made out of clay, to protect the Jewish ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks.
In most versions of the legend, as in the movie, the Golem succeeds in
protecting the ghetto but is destroyed by Loew himself after running amok
within the ghetto walls. Ultimately, there arose no Golem to protect
Prague's Jewish Quarter, whose inhabitants were wiped out barely 20 years
after the filming of the movie.
While Hoffman is preparing a 10-minute Golem suite for the group's upcoming
performances, he says Davka is concentrating on new compositions and
readying a live CD to be released soon.
"At the Hanukkah show, people will be hearing at least three or four songs
that they've never heard before," he says.
Looking back over the history of klezmer, Hoffman notes the shift from
violin to clarinet and trumpet as the music's lead voice.
"The violin style seemed to disappear sometime in the early '30s, being
overtaken by horns," he says. "For me, the Yiddish violin style is the
closest style there is to the sound and nuances of the Yiddish language,
upon which all klezmer is based."
DAVKA performs at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in a Hanukkah celebration at the Noe
Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez St., San Francisco. Tickets: $14-$16. (415)
454- 5238, www.noevalleymusicseries.com, www.davkamusic.com.