The following guest post is by Jim Hale. Jim lives in Juneau, Alaska, with his wife, Michelle, and their two dogs, Murphy and Molly. Under the nom de guerre Johnny Negotiable, he hosts a music show he calls “episodes in the history of noise,” on Friday mornings from 10 to noon on 102.7 FM, KRNN Juneau and streaming live at ktoo.org/krnn.
After getting drenched in a downpour as I walked to an American ex-pat’s restaurant for a bland, overpriced Thanksgiving dinner, I took the Metro across town and am now on the rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud in Paris’s 11th arrondissement. The rain has let up a little. Two blocks away is the Bataclan Club, where two years before, in 2015 around this same time of year, three terrorists entered the busy nightclub at the start of a set by a band named Eagles of Death Metal and murdered ninety people and wounded hundreds more. That’s on the Boulevard Voltaire, a broad, trendy avenue that bisects the 11th arrondissement diagonally and gives neighborhoods such as the Bataclan’s an airy brightness you won’t find on the rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud.
Narrow and close, the rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud was once site of the Paris factory of the musical instrument manufacturer Couesnon and remains distinctly working-class. With its auto mechanic garage next to the hair salon, next to the laundromat, next to the mom-and-pop ethnic restaurant, next to the corner store, it could be a street in Elizabeth, New Jersey. All the shops are closed now, their storefronts a row of graffitied roll-down metal shutters. And blending in with these gray mechanical surroundings is the drab black façade of one of Paris’s finer establishments, l’Alimentation Generale, a punk club where the beer is cheap, the floor is sticky, and the music is loud and raw.
I’m here at l’Alimentation for tonight’s show, part of Paris’s 2017 Jazz & Klezmer Festival, with two bands that grow out of Yiddish traditions but push the klezmer character of their music almost beyond recognition. The opening act, Bekar et Les Imposteurs, bill their act as “pop songs with Yiddish accents.” Much of their playlist, typically upbeat and celebratory such as “Lechayim,” comes from a traditional Yiddish repertoire but is given a contemporary pop sound. The flavors are vaguely Klezmer, in a Phrygian dominant scale—the “Jewish” scale—but the dish is pure pop.
The other band is Klunk, and again the songs are all in some Eastern European scale and drawn from Yiddish traditions, but generally ones of protest and rebellion. Two of the band members, Jean-Gabriel Davis (keyboards and lead vocals) and Béné (violin), studied together with the great Klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer. But Klunk’s sound is a mix of punk and metal covers of Yiddish protest songs such as Arbetlozer Marsch (“The March of the Unemployed”) and Daloy Poliziei, (“Down with the Police”). Even the more lyrical songs that don’t come out of a protest tradition, such as Sha Shtil (“Hush, Quiet”), get the Klunk treatment. The song may be a satire of rabbinical culture or a celebration of the power of music and dance. Either way, Klunk makes the song sound as punk and defiant as the rest of their songs.
I get to the bar early, about an hour before the show. I have a ticket for the show, but no one is taking tickets yet, so I slip in and get a beer at the bar and begin to dry out. Inside, the décor is as drab as outside: dim lighting, gray concrete floors with cracks running through the concrete; nondescript gray walls that used to be white; behind the bar, a large poster with a cartoonish woman’s portrait; and a garish blue-and-white neon sign pointing the way to the “Baby Foot Flippers,” i.e., the foosball and pinball tables downstairs. Tonight, there’s a bright Bekar et les Imposteurs poster taped on a wall near the entrance. When the box office opens, the people taking tickets see me at the bar and ask me to wait in line outside, but by this time I already have a beer and hold up my glass in protest. So they shrug their shoulders, take my ticket, and let me stay.
Bekar shows up early, too, and I like this guy immediately. Coming in the backdoor dressed in jeans and a hoodie, he brings with him what looks like the whole family—I mean, the whole family: fathers and mothers, grandparents in wheelchairs, aunts and uncles, neighbors, two kids, a dog. Not too interested in the music, the kids lie on the floor playing with the dog. I help Bekar and a bald guy with a big mustache move benches to the front to give the family a place to sit. On stage, Bekar has an entertainingly maniacal persona, as if the vibrations of the music loosen a few screws. But offstage, he’s just a son, a grandson, a husband, a nephew, a father—a family man extraordinaire, from the looks of it.
By the time the show starts, the place has filled up with as many gray and balding heads as younger, which strikes me as odd at first, but, of course, it was this older generation, my generation, that made this raucus episode in the history of noise into the social force it became—rock and roll and, then, when rock became too anodyne, punk music and beyond. Or maybe it was the noise that made us. In any event, bands like Klunk and Bekar et les Imposteurs are simply the latest incarnations of that spirit. It occurs to me that I’ve been listening to this music for fifty years. I’m surprised my ears aren’t shot by now.
Bekar puts on quite a show, gesticulating like a mad wizard casting spells. And his act seems to amuse his fellow band members at least as much as he amuses the audience—or most of us, at least: drifting through the audience like plankton is one amorous couple who seem oblivious to the music; a couple of thirty-somethings acting like teenagers, they never stop making out. On some level the music must be fueling their passion, I’m sure, but it’s not like they need any help. I wonder if their affair isn’t illicit and this is one place where they can safely get lost in each other. Wherever I move in the room, they seem to end up in front of me.
Les Imposteurs have replaced the violin on their recordings with a clarinet, which irked me at first, since I’m obsessed with punk violin—from Vicki Aspinall in her days with the Raincoats to today’s Elijah Oberman with the Shondes. But the clarinetist, Thibauld Roche, quickly dispels my chagrin. At one point, Bekar leaves the stage for the clarinet solo—he has to, because he’s too distracting a presence when he’s anywhere near the stage. Once he’s gone, Roche and the bassist Jean-Philippe Cazenove lean into it, and what begins as a clarinet solo quickly becomes a duet, the clarinet and bass bouncing riffs off one another, each in turn pushing and pulling, taunting and teasing, flirting and finally diving in like, well, like the pair of face-sucking lovers there in front of me yet again. I’m surprised these two, the lovers, aren’t down on the floor going at it, foreplay be damned.
When Bekar et les Imposteurs finish their set, the family and most of the older crowd clear out. A younger crowd surges in as the stage gets set up for Klunk. A few of us oldies stay for Klunk’s show, and we seem to gravitate together in a clump on the right side of the stage. Between sets I strike up a conversation with a woman around my age named Monique; like me, she hosts a music show as a volunteer on her local public radio, except my local public is the 30,000 people of Juneau, Alaska. Monique’s public is a city of two million.
Klunk: KLezmer + pUNK: Loud, and raw and defiant, more overtly political than Bekar, and with a violinist, Béné, whose violin takes the lead over the two electric guitars. On the first number you can hardly hear Béné, but then they crank up her volume—really crank it up. Now the violin is screaming over the electric guitars, the way it should be, in my mind.
About the third or fourth number, Klunk is about to launch into a song of rebellion from the 1920s, “Barikadn,” by Communist party activist and partisan fighter Shmerke Kaczerginski. Occasioned by a Polish workers’ strike, the song describes children building barricades in the house while their parents build barricades in the street. Before the song starts in earnest with a screaming metal riff from Julien, the band’s heavy metal guitarist, the band stands silent as Jean Gabriel pulls out a shofar, a ram’s horn, and starts playing it solo.
The sound of the shofar seems to mesmerize everyone, the other-worldly sound of this ram’s horn filling the space over the heads of the hushed crowd. It’s surprising to see this punk crowd so entranced. Klunk claims Jewish culture as its tradition, but emphatically not the Jewish religion. Interviewed by American writer Michael Croland, Jean-Gabriel Davis talks about Klunk’s tradition:
It’s the Jewish culture that we claim and not the Jewish religion. . . . Institutionalized religion, politicized religion, is a kind of oppression as strong and fatal as other ideologies. Punk is anti-religious in its essence.
But the use of the shofar, a ram’s-horn trumpet used in religious celebrations for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, seems to belie that claim. Like all punk music Klunk rejects institutionalism of all sorts as dogmatic and inherently illiberal. But liberal movements such as Reform Judaism struggle against institutionalism too by encouraging the free exploration of meaning in religious rituals. Jean-Gabriel’s playing the shofar in this punk context seems driven by that same imperative: Find the meaning in it.
And he does. The shofar sounds an almost mystical, ritualistic preface to a song of rousing defiance. The room is as quiet as a synagogue.
Then the rest of the band pounces. The sudden shift is jarring: Julien’s slashing guitar riff, and Béné with a wailing violin, amplified, electronic—but so earthy I imagine I can hear the sound of her fingers tapping the wood of the fingerboard, the sound of scuffling with an angel. This is the music I came for. Loud, raw, unrelenting. The crowd is dancing now, pulsing, vibrating. Defiant and fun, there’s nothing romantic about this music. The lovers have disappeared.
When the show’s over, I steal the Bekar poster off the wall on my way out—a necessary commemoration of a night of great music here in the belly of Paris. The Metro has closed by the time the show gets out, so Monique, ignoring my venial theft, offers to show me the way to the stop for the night bus. Chatting as we walk down the rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, we talk politics, and she asks if I voted for Trump. I hide my indignation at the question and worry aloud that Trump is ruining my country; Monique touches my arm in sympathy and says that he already has. The conversation shifts to the street’s restaurants, and Monique extols the cuisine at a nearby African restaurant, now closed. Then back on politics, we talk about racism in both our countries, and, a touchy subject, racism in Israel. Monique, a Jew, has lived there and uses that authority to cut off any discussion of Israeli racism against Palestinians. “You don’t know . . . .” She’s right; I don’t.
The rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud: as I said, it could be a street in Elizabeth, New Jersey, except that it’s saturated with time. Across the street from the bus stop is the Maison des Metallurgistes, the House of Steelworkers, which before 1937 was the site of the Paris factory of Couesnon, France’s great musical instrument manufacturer. In the 1930s, Couesnon sold the property to the Steelworkers Union, the union many of its workers belonged to, after which it became the Maison des Metallos and the “haut lieu” or center of the union’s political activities—its clandestine work with the Resistance in World War II and, in later years, its coordinating protests and strikes against France’s wars in Algeria and Vietnam. Formerly the rue d’Angoulême, the street was renamed for Jean-Pierre Timbaud, the Secretary for the Steelworkers Union and a World War II Resistance fighter, who was executed by the Nazis in 1941, along with 26 other hostages in retribution for the Resistance’s assassination of a German officer. Music, metal, politics, a stand against fascism: they converge in this street, in its past and present—and are projected forward in the music of Klunk at l’Alimentation Generale.
The bus comes, and Monique rides with me to her stop. I thank her for the hospitality, and she leaves me with a peck on each cheek. Continuing on the bus, I am addressed by an old man carrying a lunchbox; he has been listening to Monique and me and is fascinated that I’m from Alaska. He asks me about polar bears (“bers” as he pronounces it). He has watched many TV shows about Alaska and wants to talk about polar bers. I’ve never seen one, I tell him; there are no polar bears in Southeast Alaska, where I’m from. So he tells me all about them.
Having gotten soaked earlier this evening, I spent most of the night drying out, but now the clouds are lifting, and the late November night feels soft and spacious as I walk from the bus stop at Église Saint-Paul back to the apartment. A bright slick of autumn leaves covers the backstreets of the Marais. A few smokers dawdle outside the bars still open. Paris is alive and happy.