New Orleans klez fusion band to jam at Klezmer Mania!

In Missouri people of all ages were "going bananas and loving it."

In Iowa a large group of "hippie college kids joined hands and danced in circles."

And in Louisiana men and women "were taking off their clothes and standing on the tables."

When it comes to the power of klezmer, especially that of the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars (NOKAS), "anything is possible."

"It's wild, wild music," said Glenn Hartman, NOKAS accordionist. "It can whip you into a frenzy."

NOKAS will venture to whip Bay Area audiences into a frenzy during Klezmer Mania!, tomorrow at U.C. Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall.

The 9-year-old klezmer, jazz, funk, rock fusion band will headline the 11th annual event, which includes other performers such as Kaila Flexer's Fieldharmonik, klezmer clarinetist Margot Leverett and juggler Sara Felder.

"Klezmer exists to help people achieve an ecstatic state of celebration," said Hartman, noting the band writes most its music but also draws from traditional klezmer instrumental pieces.

"That's why at a bar mitzvah party or wedding, you can't explain why, but you want to throw your hands in the air and scream."

It's a "spiritual energy" said NOKAS violinist, David Rebeck.

"Musical is a circular thing," he explained. "When we're performing, what we're putting out is being taken in by the audience. And if the audience is turned on and reacts enthusiastically, it comes back to us."

NOKAS, which formed in 1991, is well aware of audience enthusiasm. Although the musicians were by no means polished klezmer performers when they first came together, they improved by performing before audiences.

"We learned to play klezmer in live venues — not in, let's say, my living room," said Hartman. "That's one reason the band sounds and behaves the way it does. We learned with a live audience responding to us."

Rebeck, for example, came from a classical background and turned to klezmer on a whim.

"I wanted something with a little more individuality than an orchestra," he said, adding that he tried to master the klezmer sound by listening to old recordings of it.

Other band members are Robert Wagner (saxophone and clarinet), Jonathan Freilich (guitar), David Sobel (drums) and Arthur Kastler (electric bass).

Not all of the musicians are Jewish, but Hartman says that does not affect their sound.

"Klezmer is really challenging to play, so we all have fun playing our instruments," said Hartman. "There's nothing religious about it.

"Besides, not everyone in a reggae band is Jamaican."

NOKAS' first venue was Kaldis, a coffee shop in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where the group played for tips. From there they moved on to larger venues, cut four records, gained media attention, made a Southwest Airlines commercial and won several awards (not necessarily in that order).

NOKAS' success story, said Rebeck, is due to its wide appeal. From punk clubs and jazz bars to retirement homes and fancy dinners, the audience — whether dancing the hora or clapping along — generally has high energy.

"We are able to get these reactions from people of all different age groups," he said. "We go over well with people who just want to have that raw rock and roll energy as well as with people who want to hear the traditional, artistic product."

Despite the band's popularity, klezmer is still by no means mainstream, said Hartman. However, increased awareness of world music, primarily because of the Internet, has provided access to a much broader audience.

"Klezmer is hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old," said Hartman, "but now people are, in general, becoming more aware of klezmer and finding ways to use it."

Hartman believes most people flock to NOKAS' shows with the intention of having a good time. And even if they've never heard of klezmer, they end up letting loose.

Of course there will always be the party poopers…

"Worst-case scenario," said Hartman, recalling some gig in some town, "Three drunk guys sitting at a bar asking, 'Do you know any Patsy Cline?"