French quintet ties Yiddish lyrics to hip-hop, reggae, klezmer

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Which musical genre pairs best with Yiddish lyrics? Klezmer? Folk? Perhaps hip-hop?

For the Marseilles-based band Kabbalah, the answer is all of the above and more. The French quintet is funky, exotic and polished, weaving European folk rhythms, screaming rock ’n’ roll, jazzy klezmer, reggae beats or hip-hop into songs sung in Yiddish with occasional raps in English.

The band will present its modern Yiddish musical mix to Northern California next week during its first American tour. Kabbalah performs June 8 at the Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center in Berkeley, and June 10 at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz.

With two albums and a concert schedule that includes festivals and clubs throughout Europe, Kabbalah is ready to perform in Berkeley, Los Angeles and New York — American cities with diverse, progressive Jewish music scenes.

Kabbalah, on its first U.S. tour, is performing in Berkeley and Santa Cruz.

“It’s going to be a huge opportunity for them,” said tour manager Olivia Gardet in a recent phone interview from Marseilles as the band was preparing to perform at a festival in Darmstadt, Germany.

The band formed in 2004 and has maintained its roster: Luigi El Gatto on drums, Anakin Startseva on strings, Stef Galeski on guitars, Pat2bass (Patrick) on upright bass, and Uliphant2000 (Uli) on horns and synthesizers. Galeski is lead singer and Uliphant the rapper.

“They’re all from very different cultures,” Gardet explained, “but all found themselves connected by Jewish tradition.” El Gatto is French, Galeski is Polish, Startseva is Russian, Patrick is Cameroonian and Uli is German and American.

“Stef, Uli and Ana grew up in a Jewish background and have tradition from their fathers, actually,” Gardet said. El Gatto and Patrick “always played klezmer music, so that’s why they’re connected.”

Galeski writes the band’s lyrics. “All the Yiddish is his part because he’s the one that knows that language,” Gardet said. “Uli will add the slam, the spoken word, which is usually in English, sometimes with a bit of German. Ana sometimes adds a few lyrics in Russian. And then concerning the music, Stef will find a melody, for example, on guitar, all of the band will start jamming, the music kind of coming naturally.”

While the musicians are not religious, “they chose ‘Kabbalah’ as a name because it means transmission, and they thought transmission can come from their music,” Gardet said. Still, the name has deeper meaning for Galeski, who has studied Jewish mysticism and folklore, the manager added.

Kabbalah’s website (www. describes the band’s music as Yiddish dada, a combination of eclectic songs, Yiddish lyrics and absurd situations. Gardet said the band also calls it “new klezmer music, but they won’t tell you it’s Jewish music, because that would maybe sound a bit too religious. It’s more the culture, the folklore added to the very modern side.”

Kabbalah released the bouncy, groove-filled album “Boxes, Bagels and Elephants” in 2011. Its selections include the old Yiddish tune “Paper Is White” featuring Galeski’s plaintive vocal and sensitive acoustic guitar. “Love Shnorer” puts new, soulful Yiddish lyrics to a dance club beat, accented with a series of ya-ba-byes. “Sugarpie (The Synopsis)” is built upon a funky rap in praise of universalism: “This is what it’s all about/you can scream, you can shout/ this is what we never say/ you and me, we are the same.”

The band’s first album, “Shlomo” (2008), featured the same crisp musicianship and a bigger emphasis on Jewish topics. The three-section song “Shlomo Hamelech” (King Solomon) offers folk melodies, hip-hop rhythms and Yiddish sung over a jazzy flamenco groove. In the klezmer tune “Fun Tashlich,” Kabbalah faithfully plays the traditional melody to a North African beat.

Kabbalah’s stage show is high-energy and “very, very festive,” Gardet said. “The music is so upbeat and with a profound mixture … You can totally listen to it without moving at all if you want to stay concentrating, but the music’s so good you also can dance to it.”


Kabbalah, 8:30 p.m. June 8, Ashkenaz, 1317 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. $12-$15. Also 8:30 p.m. June 10, Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $10-$15.