By Web Behrens
Get ready: Ravinia is about to experience a klezmer attack! To prepare, all you need to do is put on a pair good dancing shoes.
The playfulness of the phrase “klezmer attack” gives an excellent sense of the musicians who conceived it: the Copenhagen-based sextet Mames Babegenush. A tight-knit group, the six men built on bonds that reach back to their youth. With 15 years of concerts and five studio albums under their collective belt, Mames has developed passionate fans on several continents, thanks to their unique, joyful take on klezmer, the Eastern European Jewish folk-music tradition.
Currently, the Danish band is on a tour of the United States, covering more geography in this country than ever before. They’re performing in California, Arizona, and New England before arriving in Illinois to wrap things up. The band plays twice at Ravinia on Labor Day: a Kids Concert matinee, then a longer evening concert in Bennett Gordon Hall. In advance of their appearances, two Mames members, clarinetist Emil Goldschmidt and saxophonist Lukas Rande, spoke with Ravinia Backstage from Copenhagen.
“Basically we like to have fun,” Goldschmidt says when asked about the origin of their “klezmer attack.” In the band’s earliest days, they had a philosophy, he recounts: “We said, ‘We’ll play wherever we can.’ We’d go to a bar to hang out [after a concert], so we said, ‘Why don’t we play here too?’ It kind of exploded because the people in the bars were just so ecstatic and filled with joy. We kind of got a name in Copenhagen that we were those kinds of kids.”
In other words, they became a klezmer flash mob—which led to some surprising results. “One time, in the middle of the summer, we went to hang out after a gig at one of the very hip bars in Copenhagen, but it was also kind of rough because it was the same area where there are a lot of sex shops and drug dealing,” Goldschmidt continues. “Suddenly, we had two or three hundred people dancing in the street, at 1 or 2 in the morning. It was a Tuesday, so nobody expected it. But after 45 minutes, the police came and shut it down. There were almost riots because they killed the music! They killed the vibe, right?”
Rande takes up the anecdote. “We had started something we couldn’t control. And then we were the first ones to leave,” he says with a chuckle. “We figured, ‘Let’s just get out of here.’ ”
This story burnishes the sort of DIY cred that any good rock band ought to have—but of course there’s much more to Mames than liquor and a street party.
Billing themselves as “the East meets the North,” the band blends the sounds of traditional klezmer with Scandinavian ambience, thereby pushing an ancient folk genre into the 21st century. As a result, they’ve toured as far from their home as Argentina. The festivals they’ve participated in include the Chicago World Music Festival, the New York Gypsy Festival, and Festival Classique in The Hague. As for recordings, their most recent album, Mames Babegenush with Strings, came out in 2017; it’s a collaboration with the Danish string quartet LiveStrings. The musicians performed for two nights with an audience in the studio, in order to preserve the immediacy and authenticity of their live shows for the recording.
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Goldschmidt and Rande trace not only their careers but also their friendship back to childhood. Although Mames formed when they were in their 20s, the pair met when they were both 8 years old. (Currently the band members range in age from mid-30s to early 40s.)
“My dad is a classical musician, an oboe player. I had heard a lot of music already when I was inside my mother’s womb,” Goldschmidt says. (The senior Goldschmidt once performed with the Berlin Philharmonic; he’s now part of the Royal Danish Orchestra.) “The first thing I remember about music was my father testing reeds. He had to practice every day, and he had to warm up his reeds. Every morning, I would wake up to this sound—”
“If I may cut in,” Rande interjects with a chuckle, “I really remember that sound as well, from when I visited Emil back when we were kids.”
Indeed, you could call the two men brothers in harmony. They began making music together at an early age. “My first real experience with live music was at the same time with Emil,” Rande says. “He started with me in the Tivoli Boys’ Guard in Copenhagen when we were 8.”
It’s no stretch to call Mames Babegenush a brotherhood. In fact, the band includes Rande’s actual sibling: his elder brother Bo, who plays flugelhorn.
The Rande children’s mother is an actor and musician who clearly passed her love of performing down to her sons. “Our family was always listening to a lot of music,” Rande recalls. “My earliest memory of music is from this small stereo blaster in our kitchen.”
Fast forward to the year 2003 for the actual origin of Mames, when a rabbi asked Goldschmidt to play for a Hanukkah party. The gig meant becoming familiar with some beloved klezmer jams. “I asked my good friends to join me. Some were from high school and some, like Lukas, from my childhood,” he says. “We kind of just hit it off at the beginning. Everyone thought it was such cool music, so we thought, ‘We need to make this happen. We need to form a band and explore this.’ ”
Interestingly, Goldschmidt is the only Jewish member of the band. But a lack of heritage didn’t deter the young musicians. “It was just so intense,” Rande remembers. “I hadn’t heard that type of music before, this raw music. … It was hardcore to the audience as well. It really speaks directly to people. I feel this music is so universal. We can easily play for an old audience or we can play for a young one.”
Given their music’s all-ages appeal, Mames has done many kids’ shows in Denmark. The matinee concert at Ravinia will naturally be shorter in duration, but Rande promises it will be no less fun. Amid the dancing, he notes, “We’re going to introduce each instrument, talk about the different sounds they can make. You know, try to give them a little bit of knowledge.”
Naturally, having developed their relationship to klezmer melodies for the past decade and a half, the band members have become experts in their field. When prompted, they expound on its history, explaining that American audiences actually have a greater familiarity than European ones, even though klezmer grew out of Eastern Europe.
“We can attribute what we call ‘the klezmer revival’ to American musicians in the ’70s,” Goldschmidt says. “I guess it’s because a lot of Jews moved to the US, and they kind of slowly disconnected from their past. They assimilated. But then with the folk revival in the ’60s and into the ’70s, when roots music and soul music became popular, a lot of Jews started to wonder, ‘What’s my folk music? What are my roots?’
“So Americans really started to dig into klezmer music. In Europe, a lot of what we know about klezmer music today is because of American scholars and musicians, who did a lot of research.”
After these US shows, Mames will return home for a bit, but they’ve already got big plans next year. There’s a tour being planned for January, one that will take them east to Ukraine and perhaps even further; Asia is on the table, they say. Also on the agenda in 2020: a new album. It’s a lot, given that the members all have additional professional aspirations, not to mention lives of their own—all of them have significant others or wives, and some are parents now. Still, Mames Babegenush is their priority.
“We all have projects besides this band, but I’m quite sure I can say for all of us, this is our main band. It’s our child,” Goldschmidt says. “It’s not only about our music; it’s about us being all six together.”
“We’re a big family,” Rande notes.
Goldschmidt echoes that sentiment: “It feels like home.” ▪
Native Chicagoan Web Behrens writes a weekly feature for the Chicago Tribune about family-friendly things to do. Over the past 25 years, he’s covered arts and culture for Time Out Chicago, Crain’s Chicago Business, The Reader, and Advocate magazine.