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INTERVIEW: ISLE OF KLEZBOS All- Female Klezmer Sextet Talks New Show At City Winery

ISLE of KLEZBOS, the swinging all-women’s klezmer sextet, will celebrate Women’s History Month with a special concert at City Winery Loft on Saturday, March 16 at 9:00 PM. The fun-loving powerhouse group – dubbed a “paradigm-shifting, brilliantly tuneful klezmer group” by New York Music Daily – recently returned from a 20th anniversary West Coast tour. chatted with Founder/bandleader Eve Sicular from the all-female sextet ahead of their show at City Winery. 


 The ISLE OF KLEZBOS Sextet members

Where did the idea come from?

I was already leading the group Metropolitan Klezmer, by then a sextet featuring four great guys and two of us women. We had just released our first CD - "Yiddish For Travelers" - in late 1997, which also included trumpeter Pam Fleming as a guest on several tracks. So this debut album was one dream come true, and I had also always wanted to form an all-gal ensemble. So bringing along these three as well as women like accordionist Rachelle Garniez whom I knew from prior projects, and bassist Catherine Popper whom I found through the grapevine, our 'sister spin-off' came together for rehearsals the following spring.

Our debut gig came in Summer 1998 at CB's Gallery at 313 Bowery, the folkier club next to CBGB's, also owned by the late great music impresario Hilly Kristal. He was always a big supporter for Isle of Klezbos; we drew a crowd so they let us pick our dates, and both our bands could go into the club off-hours to take our promo photos. (I only found out many years later that his name was short for Hillel, and that renowned Yiddish recording artist Sidor Belarsky was Hilly's uncle, so I guess Hilly always had an extra affinity for klezmer.) I was also by then really comfortable about the queer tip combined with Yiddish cultural explorations, since in addition to my musical pursuits I was a professional film archivist and researcher presenting the "Yiddish Celluloid Closet" at venues internationally, including both Jewish and LGBT festivals.

Vito Russo, the instigator of the original Celluloid Closet as well as later a co-founder of ACT-UP! was a tremendous inspiration and even a bit of a mentor for me. So I wanted to create a musical experience that would be fun for people who could appreciate all these aspects, and I knew audiences and presenters who would welcome that even if it might seem risque -- and risky -- to some others. Nobody I knew was using the word 'intersectional' back then, but it just seemed like a natural synergistic next step. The main thing was that we also brought great players and some unique repertoire, fresh interpretations and a refined yet powerhouse artistic approach.

How did you come with the name?

Already in our progressive Yiddish culture scenes of NYC and the West Coast, the term 'klezbian' had become cliche, a well-worn affectionate jest by the mid-1990s at, say, the old Knitting Factory back on Houston Street. I'm always investigating etymology -- so one afternoon as I mused over what to call this incipient band, drifting almost into a nap, suddenly the phrase was obvious, right from the source: Isle of Klezbos. 

How special does it feel to bring this back to the city during Women’s History Month?

We love to highlight Women's History every March (and each June we find new ways to celebrate KlezBiGay Pride; one year we played Manhattan's Dixon Place followed by our European debut in Vienna). In our current era, it's a pleasure and even a kind of mission to bring a galvanizing female force with our critical mass together onstage as a visible, audible expression of resistance, persistence and creative uplift everywhere we play. This is also a really special return to NYC because we've been bringing Isle of Klezbos so many places around the country lately -- 2018 was our 20th band anniversary and we toured twice in the same year to the West Coast for the first time, and just played a string of Florida debuts last month too, which were (as Lily Tomlin used to say) jam-packed and fun-filled. So we get to bring all that energy back home again. 

What can we expect to see at City Winery Loft performance?

We're so excited whenever all six of our talented and globe-trotting bandmates can take the stage together, and this will be one of those very special shows! The gals include alumnae of Juilliard, Eastman, Berklee and Manhattan Schools of Music -- and everyone has superb soloing chops but also a really beautiful chemistry together. Our vocalist Melissa Fogarty, who was a child singer at the Met, can scat up a storm on Yiddish swing, deliver stratospheric tango finales, and then sing the tenderest melodic turns for a poignant lullaby or a spellbinding disaster ballad. Her conservatory classmate Debra Kreisberg is now our reedplayer for two decades, with gorgeous sensitive clarinet ornamentation and great angular bop-infused sax lines on some of her original compositions which we play (the latest, "Mosholu Barbecue," is klezmer boogaloo also reflecting her ongoing devotion to Latin jazz).

Trumpeter Pam Fleming also spent years touring with the likes of Burning Spear, as heard in her klezmer-reggae tune "Mellow Manna." Saskia Lane on the upright bass is a simply exquisite player with stunning arco technique and subtle hilarity; I first heard her with cocktail pop combo The Lascivious Biddies. And on accordion as well as piano, Shoko Nagai takes us along for listening adventures, evoking avant garde thrills within beautiful folkloric dance and trance. And I have the joy of beholding all this from behind the drumset. Also my role involves a measure of translating and describing the origins of so much of our music, including rarities from Yiddish cinema and even TV underscores, Soviet theater and multi-cultural cartoons, among many other unexpected pop culture finds. Fortunately I manage to get my nerd on in ways that spontaneously entertain the audience and even draw out my bemused and thoughtful bandmates. 

How do you decide on the songs and set pieces for the show? 

We always balance a mix of our latest tunes and longtime fan favorites. It's such a delight when we have all six of us, the band's arrangements can all be at their most luscious. When I write the set-list we want to keep our audience's ears fresh. We choose pacing that builds and teases, letting high-voltage songs or medleys set up for segues into a poignant lullaby or lament, or a deep groove piece on a slower burn.  Besides basic juxtapositions of tempo, our rich genre offers a wonderful array of varying textures, rhythmic feels, and modal scales. And of course the range of emotions, tone colors and stories is vast among vintage folkloric pieces, Yiddish swing and tango, and our own original compositions. We always like to set up both vocals and instrumentals for the musicians' optimal energetic arc. And we make sure every instrument is well-featured in the show -- so much to enjoy (even show off!), with everyone interweaving, as well as soloing -- and everyone gets to comment on a draft suggestion for the concert. So we're improvising together even before we get onstage. 

How did you all meet? 

Each bandmate came to Isle of Klezbos in her own way. I'm the connecting link, though some bandmates knew each other before I met them. I first saw Pam in the early/mid-1990's at PS 122 when she played a Great Small Works Spaghetti Dinner slot with my klezmer colleague Frank London and another brass genius, Dave Douglas -- and then she booked me for a Halloween parade contingent, but we really got to know each other a few months later when we played in a St Patrick's Day music protest (since back then they banned gays & lesbians from marching openly in the Fifth Avenue festivities) -- especially afterward when the cops had towed my legally-parked car but not kept track of where it was moved.

Debra was introduced to me by our original Klezbos bassist Catherine Popper [both enrolled at Manhattan School of Music when Debra was studying for her masters degree, and they had played together in an early incarnation of Los Mas Valientes] and though I didn't realize this til later, she was in the audience at our very first show, joining the band the following year. Our first CD, "Greetings from the Isle of Klezbos," came out in 2003. Debra knew Missy meanwhile from back when they met their first year at Eastman School of Music, and she even sings a tiny bit on our debut disc. By 2006 I went to see Saskia when she was with the Biddies at a Mo Pitkin's show (Klezbos had some fun times playing that club too, while it lasted on Avenue A). Finally I was lucky to first hear Shoko on accordion at Barbes in Park Slope with Sanda Weigl a couple of years after that. So then we had the unit that's now together for a decade or more, as heard on our latest album, "Live From Brooklyn."

Where has been your favorite place to play?

We've had so many great audiences -- and lovely festival stages with excellent acoustics indoors and outdoors both, like JAAMM in Colorado, Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, Porgy & Bess nightclub for Austria's KlezMORE. Last summer we culminated a wonderful string of California shows with a finale in Portland OR where I had lived right after college, playing the gorgeous refurbished old Alberta Rose Theatre, such a live space with so much heart and so many old PDX friends in the house, a grand yet intimate room. We also just had a blast with a packed house at Arts Garage in Delray Beach (it didn't hurt that we'd been able to go for a swim that morning). And we were thrilled to be invited by Kiki Smith as her musical choice to "open" the new stained glass windows for The Museum at Eldridge Street; a soaring space -- CBS Sunday Morning aired some of that performance, it looked and sounded mystical.

But over time in NYC, City Winery has really become our second home -- we've built our repertoire and our following through years of the klezmer brunch shows on the mainstage, with room to explore approaches and collaborations with special guests, and welcoming new fans from around the world. Then recently it was a delightful revelation for us, we also loved their Loft upstairs where our double bill with Metropolitan Klezmer sold out the place in January. So we're really looking forward to returning there for our first-ever Isle of Klezbos evening performance on Varick Street. A big Saturday night on the town.

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