Denmark has an extremely small Jewish population of under 10,000—in a country just shy of 6 million in total. Thanks to the enterprising musical group Mames Babagenush (which means “mom’s aubergine salad” in Yiddish), the traditional, uptempo “klezmer” music of Eastern Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews is finding a more worldwide audience—even if all but one of the members of the group are Gentiles.
“When we began with the band, I didn’t know anything about klezmer music,” said Lukas Rande, the group’s saxophonist. “I thought that it was really just a tradition, and our band would focus on the earliest recordings of klezmer, which were American [songs] recorded during the 1910s and twenties.”
Rande spoke from his home in Copenhagen, six hours ahead of Washington, D.C. Though it was verging on 10:30 p.m. in Denmark, a hint of sunshine continued to hold in the sky outside his window during our Zoom chat. I had last spoken to Rande in 2019 ahead of Mames Babaganush’s last trip to D.C.—in the “before times.”
“We had a lot of canceled shows and…two U.S. tours,” Rande said of the group’s pandemic woes. “We were lucky we got some [funding] help from the government, so financially we didn’t feel the effects as much as the U.S. did. But yeah, it was a weird period.”
He and his bandmates made the most of lockdowns by meeting for socially distant rehearsals in very large rooms. This also helped them conjure with fresh material to play when the clubs eventually reopened.
“Coming up with new material [and] arranging it, trying new arrangements that seem right—all of that of course you cannot do by yourself,” Rande said, adding that much of such klezmer “composing” happens as the happy accidental result of improvising.
Rande is now a father, so the pandemic did allow him to spend more time at home with his family, even as the group’s touring schedule evaporated. However, Mames Babagenush is embarking on a summer tour, which brings them to the District’s Bossa Bistro & Lounge in Adams Morgan on July 27.
It will be the first time Rande has been away from his young daughter for such a lengthy stretch.
“I’m going to FaceTime, and it’s going to work,” he said of the miracle of technology closing such distances with his daughter. “We sing a lot together [which] is one of the things I really love. So we can listen and communicate” that way over video chats from overseas, he said.
Rande and his bandmates have a new song out called “George’s Romani Cocek.” A “cocek” is a traditional Romanian song that gained popularity in the 19th century. That composition, and others the group is working on, allowed percussionist Morten Ærø to start playing stringed instruments known as the zither and the cimbalom.
“He started [studying] with a very good Romanian player in Copenhagen,” Rande said of Ærø’s learning curve. “This guy was actually a wonder to play the songs for.”
Rounding out the ensemble are clarinetist Emil Goldschmidt, Andreas Møllerhøj on double bass, Nicolai Kornerup on accordion, and Lukas’s brother Bo Rande on flügelhorn and trumpet.
“It’s just a beautiful tradition which is still alive,” Rande said of klezmer’s unique sonic landscape. “It has so many layers. I love the music being instrumental as well. It’s so easy to communicate with everybody from small kids to old people.”
The summer tour will see Mames Babagenush playing a dozen U.S. dates, stretching from New York all the way out to Cody, Wyoming. (Rande says he will bring along a decent pair of running shoes so he can get out and exercise in the tour cities.) Rande says they look forward to playing Bossa Bistro & Lounge, the intimate venue located in Adams Morgan.
“I think it’s going to be the biggest one in terms of the venues we are playing,” Rande said of the group’s seventh tour, which will hop from enclosed rooms such as Bossa Bistro to larger outdoor festivals. The group will also head into Canada for a few summer dates as well before returning to Denmark to work on a forthcoming album.
“For me this is going to be amazing,” Rande said. “Just the feeling where I get to play for live people. I love that.”
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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