Chris Carter: Hey, everybody, this is Chris Carter, executive director at Livermore Valley Arts at The Bankhead Theater. And today I am talking to Mostly Kosher. They will be here at The Bankhead on April 23rd at 3 p.m.. Looking forward to having them here. And you can find out more about tickets online at LivermoreArts.org. So here we go.
Were you at APAP in New York?
Leeav Sofer: Yeah.
Chris Carter: I feel like I saw you at some point, kind of at a distance, and I didn’t get a chance to come say hi. Yeah, I was there.
Great! What did you think?
Chris Carter: How did it go for you guys?
Leeav Sofer: Oh, man. Well, first of all, I don’t know if you heard the news, but we’re officially signed with not only are we signed, which is a big deal after 11 years of being a self-represented artist, but with our target agency, FLi Artists, and Matt Greenhill.
Chris Carter: Okay.
Leeav Sofer: Representation is The Klezmatics a flagship klezmer group, or Yasmin Levy, one of the most famous Ladino singers. And they are just carrying the same kind of artists that we’ve always seen as role models. So.
Chris Carter: Oh, congratulations. That’s really good news. I will start by saying I went to Ranker.com this morning and I looked up top klezmer bands. Do you know which one was number one?
Leeav Sofer: No.
Chris Carter: Mostly Kosher number one.
Leeav Sofer: Ranker.com
Chris Carter: That’s what I saw. Maybe it was because I was googling Mostly Kosher beforehand, but…
Leeav Sofer: Wait. I’m going to look this up.
Chris Carter: Look it up.
Janice Mautner Markham: I can’t say I’ve ever Googled that.
Chris Carter: But The Klezmatics was number two.
Leeav Sofer: Oh my God, you’re right.
Janice Mautner Markham: We’re friends with The Klezmatics. I think I should write to them and let them know that we’ve pushed them down in ranking.
Leeav Sofer: We beat Daniel Kahn, David Krakauer and Golem.
And Giora Feidman, these are all, like, role models of ours.
Chris Carter: Well, you’ve made it to the top.
Leeav Sofer: Oh, my God. Jesus Christ. This is interesting. We beat Andy Statman, and we …I don’t know why, Itzhak Perlman is on this list, but we Itzhak Perlman.
Janice Mautner Markham: Its because Itzhak Perlman did “In the Fiddler’s House”. That’s why.
Leeav Sofer: Wow. Maxwell Street Band. We have, I’m sorry. This is a complete new news, by the way, like complete
Chris Carter: Breaking news.
Leeav Sofer: I am like..what?!. Oh my God, that’s so funny.
Chris Carter: Yeah, but by the way, so I will just introduce this is Leeav. Leeav Sofer and Janice Markham from Mostly Kosher. And y’all are coming to The Bankhead Theater on Sunday, April 23rd at 3:00. The matinee show. And you were here a couple of years ago pre-pandemic, and I think I told you this before, but this funny story. I had a patron that like afterwards he went to the concert and afterwards he told me he didn’t know what to expect.
He thought it was like a comedy show or something just from the title. But he loved it and he said it was better than what he expected. He had such a good time and it was a real testament to the performance. So can you just give me kind of a brief history of klezmer music and the genre and kind of, you know, what are what are the roots of klezmer music and where can people hear it nowadays?
And kind of what you what’s your take on that?
Leeav Sofer: Janice, go ahead.
Janice Mautner Markham: Well, the roots of klezmer music. You know, it’s funny because of the type of genre that it is, Jewish cultural music and Jews being a diasporic people. We’ve been sort of shuffled around from country to country, region to region. It’s not a linear line back. It curves. But the genesis of it is, is in Eastern Europe, in Poland, in Russia and even Croatia.
I mean, all of these these regions have also changed name and structure over the years. But the klezmorim were not the classically trained musicians. These were the nomadic musicians, the street musicians. This is the folk tradition of the music. And as often is with folk traditions, it’s of the oral tradition. It’s it’s the playing in the street, not with the music stand and music.
Not all of it was written down. Most of it was learned by ear and was passed from village to village. So there’s a very sort of sacred connection with this music because it has deep roots in our in our culture with these melodies. Leeav often talks about this. Maybe you can speak to this more, the storytelling nature of it and, and the, the extreme joy and tragedy.
Do you want to pick it up from there? Leeav.
Leeav Sofer: Well, klezmer. So, klei is an instrument. The word klei means instrument. Zemer means melody. And so it’s a Hebrew and Yiddish actually put together. And for context, Yiddish is a Hebrew hybrid language in Eastern Europe with the countries Janice mentioned. And so klezmer as a word we used to be about general like instrumental music. And it started that way.
And instrumental music outside of the synagogue because as we know, Jewish culture and religion is an interesting, nuanced, fine line as a religious people who also have a culture rather than it being separated. So, you know, these instruments would try to capture the voice of the cantor, the hazzan. And the cantor is like, if you don’t know, it’s like the Minister of Music.
Song leader in in the context of, like, a synagogues and prayer. And so these, like, synagogues, voice vocals were always very sometimes they could be mournful, depending on the prayer. They could be yearning, in earnest I mean and they were calling out to God, there is the days of atonement holidays. There’s days of of, you know, just praising whatever.
I mean, if I want to respect all religions here, but, you know, for the Jews, it would be respect, you know, praising their divine power of their God and our God. And so this human voice was calling out and it was leading a large group of people. These instruments are doing a lot to try to mimic that human voice.
The violin would, instead of being very accurate, like in classical music, have a lot of slides so that it can emulate the voice sliding up to the note and having a heavy vibrato. The clarinet. Another very common klezmer instrument would have also an element of yearning in it and would would do even…there’s techniques you could do in the clarinet that makes it sound like that guttural cry or small whining of the voice, even that you can mimic in the way that you play the clarinet.
So, klei zemer, Klezmer, this instrumental music was birthed also by mimicking that sound that we’re familiar with in prayer, but then taking it out of a and into a secular context. And it was used for weddings and celebrations most a lot. So it’s ironic because in the synagogue you hear a kind of minor melodies and minor keys, and it was this prayer and mournful and serious sound.
And then klezmer are the first ones to make it joyful without changing the key and the musical mode. So they’d have this very sad musical mode. That’s the birth of of the origin of the sound and the tone. And yet they’re doing it like upbeat, really fast, clap your hands. So now all of a sudden, this prayerful sound, is now a party sound.
And that’s a lot of why klezmer music is so evocative. It’s so of so much of the human voice in instrumental sound, and it is so unique in the way that it’s combining this up and down the sadness, white and black dichotomy of energies and bringing them together. That’s one of the things that a lot of cultures don’t even have that nuanced marriage between religion and secular culture in the music.
So specifically like this. And I just wanted to add to that the Jewish diaspora is huge and you know to clarify diaspora, meaning how we’ve spread out across the world. So we’re speaking klezmer speaks to Eastern Europe, but there’s Ladino music from the Mediterranean and Spain. There’s Mizrahi music, which is Middle Eastern, like Yemenite music and Iranian Jewish music.
And we’ve we’ve Mostly Kosher doesn’t even just do specifically only klezmer, although klezmer is a lot of the core of what we do. But a lot of these similar patterns happened even in Ladino music, even in Mizrahi music, and from the Jewish diaspora across the world. But klezmer is definitely what came. There’s a huge emigration of these Jews to America, to New York back in mid-to-late, you know, late 19th century and early 20th century.
And it started being really well known as and not stereotyped that being characteristic of Jews, the Ashkenazi, which is the European Jews and in America. And then klezmer started to shape even American music like Gershwin, Irving Berlin, even Leonard Bernstein, the way they would start composing American music would actually well, “Rhapsody in Blue”, Gershwin’s opening clarinet line is actually taken specifically from klezmer clarinet.
So in that yearning, human sound that that Gershwin is trying to capture as far as the city of New York is then inherently Jewish, influenced, so anyways, that kind of gives a background of not only klezmer and where the roots are and the vibes of it, but then even how it’s affecting what we think of as American music today, for us Americans and been influential from across the global spectrum here to an American spectrum as well.
Chris Carter: Well, that’s got to be the best explanation of klezmer music I’ve ever heard and the interviews over now. No, I’m just kidding not done yet. That was really great.
Janice Mautner Markham: You’ve been doing this for a while and we’re still students of all of this.
Chris Carter: Yeah.
Janice Mautner Markham: It’s like for me, you know, I’ve been playing music now for 50 years. I’ve been playing the violin. I just had my half century anniversary of that. But klezmer music really intensively doesn’t.
Leeav Sofer: She doesn’t look it, does she.
Chris Carter: No.
Janice Mautner Markham: Only since, you know, mostly kosher started just a little over a decade ago. So. So it’s it’s been a great journey of scholarship and learning and interviewing and, you know, meeting people and listening to YouTubes. It’s it’s been a wonderful elongated.
Chris Carter: Yeah.
Janice Mautner Markham: College course.
Chris Carter: Well, how did you all kind of come together and form this group? And where does the name come from, by the way? Just who came up with that idea?
Leeav Sofer: Yeah, I’ll give some credit to one of our founders, Mike King, our trombone player, who is like always about the silly. He always personified the joy and silliness in Jewish culture. And we were in university when it started. Janice is an exception to that. I met Janice through synagogue. She played for my mom, who was a cantor in Pasadena.
And so Janice and I would play for synagogue gigs and Shabbat Shoal performances and things as I was even a high schooler. But we started because when I was in university, I was at the music department. I was doing clarinet, classical performance, and I was doing opera. And as my double performance majors, I would play piano, though I was multi-instrumentalist and I’d play piano to get myself through school to pay for a lot of gigs.
I played for a wedding in Temple Beth Sholom and in Santa Ana, and I did it as every good Jew and musician should be doing,I schmoozed. If you’re not familiar with the word, it means you go and you network and you talk.
Chris Carter: Yeah.
Leeav Sofer: Anyway, so we I talked after the gig and I was talking to a nice elderly woman who was asking about me and found out I’m Jewish and a clarinet player.
So she says, You’re Jewish, you’re clarinet player. You must play klezmer, which I’ve never played klezmer at that point in my life as a 19 year old. And so I said, as every good young budding musician should respond with, of course, I play klezmer. And so you must have a klezmer band. And I’m like of course I have a klezmer band. And then she’s like, Perfect.
I’m Beverly August. I’m the head of the sisterhood here at the synagogue. We have a big gala next year. We want your band to play. And I was like, Oh, great.
Chris Carter: You better put it together.
Leeav Sofer: Yeah, I literally jumped in the car, called all my university friends that were Jewish, that were in the music department. Hey, you want to be in my klezmer band? Klezmer band called Janice, I knew was a violinist. She hadn’t played a lot of klezmer before, but she was excited and I ran out of Jewish people fast, so I started calling my non-Jewish friends who want to be in a klezmer band?
What’s klezmer? We’re going to find out together. But we were university students, most of us, and even. And even though Janice was another generation above me, she she was still so hungry to learn new genres and new music. She’s done a lot of violin classical and rock and roll scenes and like singer songwriter stuff around L.A. and she just was starting to get into Shabbat stuff again because her kids were going to synagogue now and my mom dragged her in.
And so so we all kind of prepared it like a recital. We studied the pieces, we studied the Yiddish, and like any good university creative, we were like, these aren’t great enough arrangements. Let’s make them better. So we like made our own versions of them. And I was like we were studying world music. My drummer loved new Latin music and Brazilian partido alto samba.
So he’s like, Let’s put this over this Yiddish theater song. And we were starting to have fun messing with the music. And when we performed, we didn’t even have a band name. We were just we call it the Yiddish Radio Hour because we thought we would build it off of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion a little bit.
Because, you know, Yiddish theater, we thought vintage old, right? Very stereotypical. But as we continued to screw with the melodies, even in the first concert, we would have people being like, This isn’t klezmer.
Janice Mautner Markham: We’re a bunch of jazz musicians getting together to play klezmer music. So of course we’re like, Oh, well, we have to have an instrumental solo that basically was in like a jazz format. We were already, you know, taking our the klezmer music that we found that was beautiful roots music, traditional, and we were already starting to kind of take it in a direction that we were familiar with and that we wanted to start creating this sort of mash up kind of thing.
Chris Carter: And that sounds like, that’s kind of what your natural instinct was to do.
Leeav Sofer: Absolutely.
Chris Carter: You needed to do that.
Leeav Sofer: I almost want to use the word bastardized. But I will say that once we… Put our own spin on it.
Chris Carter: Yeah.
Leeav Sofer: Once we did our first concert, we got six more calls for gigs after that because there’s just not a lot of not only is there not a lot of klezmer bands in L.A., there’s not a lot of bands doing it made up of a young, new, fresh group of blood and doing new arrangements.
So it was quite new for L.A. and we had to name the band, and we have some like kind of 60-70% Jews in the band and 30-40% non-Jews. We’re doing nontraditional klezmer music that we’ve already screwed around with. And so we also have this funny joke when you’re Jewish, when non-Jews sometimes meet you, they’re like, Oh, you’re Jewish, you must be kosher.
And these days, secular Jews are like, Well, mostly, I don’t know. So we just thought it’s perfect to consider ourselves Mostly Kosher as it defines us in more ways than one.
Chris Carter: Well, that’s a great name. Janice, I saw you play the violin left handed, is that right? You’re like the Jimi Hendrix of the band. Is it?
Janice Mautner Markham: I would love to claim that, but in some videos, it looks flipped.
Chris Carter: It was that what it is? Okay.
Janice Mautner Markham: Yeah, yeah.
Chris Carter: Oh.
Janice Mautner Markham: I should, I should really start this whole, you know, persona as being the ambidextrous violinist or something, but, no.
Leeav Sofer: Oh, my God.
Chris Carter: You should try it.
Leeav Sofer: You have to show him the picture on your home screen, on your phone. Her and her daughter just has this, like, funny thing they do where they go find those, like stock, stock images all over the Internet, like for graphic design users. And it’s.
Janice Mautner Markham: Like you can see this.
Leeav Sofer: They look up stock violinists and they’re just playing it so wrong.
Janice Mautner Markham: I don’t know if you could see that. But yeah.
Chris Carter: It’s all models.
Leeav Sofer: Yeah
Janice Mautner Markham: Models going….yeah.
Chris Carter: Oh, that’s funny.
Leeav Sofer:But that being said, Janice is one of, you know, one of the rock stars of the band because not only is she a great player in her sound, but we pride ourselves on not just being good musicians, which I think we are as we all have high standards of musicianship, but also entertainer performers. And we recognize that is two separate skill sets.
You know, we’re individuals that we ourselves get bored when we go see a show. And it’s just musicians sitting on the chairs and just playing straight. And it’s not we don’t disrespect it, but we know that for us, we crave connection with audience. We crave the live experience because first of all, so much of our music, we’re trying to pull people into this.
We know it. Secondly, that this is new for so many people and even Jews, Jews don’t American secular Jews don’t actually are not that familiar with klezmer music. They don’t go to these shows very much. It’s kind of.
Janice Mautner Markham: Actually a historical reason why, to be honest. You know, it’s it’s interesting because I know my Jewish education and my kids, my kids and this is not unusual. They learned music within the temple and they learned Israeli music. Israeli folk music. But there is little to no Yiddish music now that we’re playing klezmer music from Eastern Europe, I think that really stems from, in my view, this sort of post-World War Two.
There was obviously a destruction of culture, not just people during that time. And it’s apt to mention right now because this week in many cultural centers and museums and temples, we are commemorating Holocaust Remembrance and a lot of that music was just disappeared and there was needing to really be a dependance on these particular musicians in this late seventies, early eighties wave of the clubs Madix and Andy Statman and all of these sort of luminaries to bring this music back into the fore.
But it’s it’s taking a while for it to really become pervasive of within these institutions that a lot of people are raising their kids and, you know, experiencing Jewish life. So as as we’ve sort of realized this, it’s become, I will say, A. more important I’ll speak for myself. But also I think it definitely can connect to the band to Mostly Kosher important for us as Jews to recognize this music.
But the other aspect of it that is so important to us we’ve been able to experience in spaces like Disney is for this music to really be accessible to everyone, to Jews. It’s part of the world music vocabulary. And the fact that, you know, Jews have lived everywhere, obviously it makes the music so rich because Jewish cultural music in Iran is different from that in Argentina is different from that in Budapest is different than the music that’s in Louisiana.
Chris Carter: Well, and you had, Leeav you made an interesting point, Leeav. Something I notice as a presenter all the time is the really good artists. It’s not just about what they do while they’re performing their music. It’s like what they do between the songs that really makes a huge difference and how, like you said, how they connect with the audience, how they tell their story.
You know, those are the ones that people really remember. And I think it particularly, you know, it sounds like you’ve paid a lot of attention to that. And I’m glad to hear that because more artists need to really focus on on that piece of their performance.
Leeav Sofer: I thank you, for that. Thank you.
Chris Carter: Yeah and it’s interesting something that we’re doing in the next few weeks I think I might have told you this Janice, we have the Violins of Hope exhibit is coming to our theater at the end of next week. And or coming up this week, I think it it’ll be here for a few weeks and then we will have a series of performances.
But I believe there’s over 20 violins coming. We’re doing this actually, it’s being done by the East Bay Holocaust Education Center, and we’re just we’re a sponsor for it. So they’re doing all the legwork here and making sure that it happens and that they’re bringing over 20 instruments. There’ll be eight in our lobby, and they’ll be also taking some of the instruments to every single school in the region here to do a program.
And then they’ll have the three concerts at the end. And Janice, you told me that you’ve performed with, Leeav I don’t know if you performed with them either, but you performed with these violins in the past. And what was that like and what should we be expecting?
Janice Mautner Markham: We’ll actually mostly kosher did have the honor of playing at the opening and closing reception at the Soraya Performing Arts Center for the start of the Violins of Hope with Itzhak Perlman. So that was that was a great, great honor. Yeah, it was very overwhelming and unexpected to be one of three violinists that were in the L.A. area asked to play these instruments, these violins that were all rescued from different places throughout, mostly Eastern Europe.
Yeah, it’s very hard to describe a walking onto the stage and seeing these instruments that had all been restored. Yeah, it was, it was remarkable. The instrument that I played was actually one of the klezmer instruments as opposed to one of the classical instruments. And it just had an incredible resonance to it. And it felt like it just felt like history.
It felt like ancestry. It it really was I mean, it it sounds so cliche, but it really felt like there were voices speaking to me that when I when I picked up the instrument. So it was it was quite, quite overwhelming. And it’s it’s really amazing that this legacy has being taken to, you know, different regions throughout the world.
And it’s part of the Holocaust education that I think prior to the Violins of Hope wasn’t really discussed as much because, you know, number one, there was loss of life and that was great tragedy. But along with that, you know, there was the music and the instruments and the artists lives and work. You know, there was just one super quick note on that.
A colleague of us of ours, Eric Stein, a wonderful musician and presenter in the Toronto area, he’s involved in the Ger Mandolin Orchestra. Mandolin orchestras. We don’t speak of them. It was an actual genre that was very pervasive, especially in Poland. So to recognize these various art forms and to recognize them, yes, I was felt very fortunate to be involved in Violins of Hope and the work that they’re doing with that project.
So I think. Aren’t you having Lindsay Deutsch with you?
Chris Carter: Yeah, I believe so.
Janice Mautner Markham: Wonderful colleague.
Chris Carter: Yeah.
Janice Mautner Markham: And ambassador for the violin. So, yeah, that’s wonderful that you’re having that project.
Chris Carter: Yeah, we’re really looking forward to doing it. And happy to host it. Well, let me get back to your show coming up on the 23rd of April. What can people expect? What are you what are your plans for this performance? Anything you’d like to share?
Leeav Sofer: Well, I think that seeing how it’s kind of post COVID or I don’t know if people can, that’s maybe a polarizing phrase. But I will just say that knowing that we’re coming back to live performance, I think that our energy is really going to be about getting a lot of audience participation through the joy, the personified joy of this music.
So there’s going to be a lot of hand clapping and other forms of engagement that we’ve got planned, if I almost haven’t asked you permission yet, but like working out a way that how do we fit? How do we fit a hora in your theater?
Chris Carter: Okay. Yeah.
Leeav Sofer: It’s gonna be on that level that we’re going to be wanting to really get in with the people.
Chris Carter: Wow. Okay.
Janice Mautner Markham: Playing our new album, right?
Leeav Sofer: Yes. And then also we released a new album back in February ’22. We had a great success and we’re excited to be touring that album with songs that we did a little bit of this the last time we were there, but we’ve gone a little bit deeper into themes of connecting our cultural music to current events and what’s important to us in our values and mission as artists.
And recently, it’s been about mutual understanding, fighting some disinformation, as well as kind of focusing on even some mental health themes of just understanding in a polarized world to different people and finding that equal ground we can through music, which we believe to be such a universal language. And in that sense, there’s so much of our music that though it is cultural in other languages, we’ve translated a lot or we typically love to do that.
We’ve been doing this new thing, whereas before we would take a traditional piece and rearrange it to be in a new genre as you heard us when I mentioned the start of the band. Now we’re taking quotes or pieces of old folk songs and then deconstructing them and recreating a brand new original song that is incorporating the quote.
So it’s no longer just a genre mash up, but it’s a true original voice meets the old voice, the heritage voice. So we’ll either take a lyrical quote or we can take a musical melody, melodic quote of maybe the main line of this klezmer song that then becomes the melody for a new chorus with original even the English words about about a social justice theme that has been meaningful for us.
So here you have a brand new experiment of how we’re creating old and new in that marriage. And we’re also, despite that, will work out some of our expressed themes that are important to us, still be finding the way to celebrate our humanity and joy by the time you get to the end of it. So if we are successful, you’ll be on a ride, a little bit of a roller coaster, and at the end you’ll end up on your feet with a big l’chaim in the air.
Chris Carter: Yeah, well, I was listening to some of your music this morning, and I could hear some of those themes that you’re talking about. It definitely was coming through. And you sing in English and Yiddish, is that right?
Leeav Sofer: And Hebrew.
Chris Carter: And Hebrew.
Leeav Sofer: And even Ladino.
Chris Carter: Okay.
Leeav Sofer: We definitely are ready to expose people to all of the diaspora a little bit. It’s definitely, I want everyone to know we’re not here just to play for the Jews, your local Jewish community although of course they’re so loyal we appreciate loyalty there but this is a show that is directed towards immersifying or that’s my new word, immersing people into the culture and reminding people of the secular roots as well as our spiritual roots as a people and as a global roots sound, as a true world music. Not just a we don’t we don’t consider ourselves in the Grammys under the Christian Rock section.
Chris Carter: Yeah.
Leeav Sofer: We’re…this is a global roots sound that we can’t wait to bring to your community.
Chris Carter: Well, we’re super excited. I really want to thank you for your time. And I enjoyed getting to know you better, and I’m looking forward to seeing you. So if anybody that’s watching this and they want to get tickets April 23rd at 3 p.m., you can go online at LivermoreArts.org and grab your tickets to Mostly Kosher.
Leeav Sofer: I’ll also add that, you know, this show will will be great for adults, but also it’ll be intergenerational friendly even though it’ll maybe be a longer show because we’ll have our two sets with an intermission. It will be at least for older kids. You think if you have a kid, you think you can make it through. It’s going to be a lot of fun for families with there’s enough engagement and audience interaction that they’re going to, whether they even got all the layers of themes they’re going to have at a really fun time. So just encourage people to keep that in mind.
Chris Carter: All right. Thank you.