Frank London wants to take you to the ghetto.
As a co-founder of the Klezmatics, the Grammy Award–winning band known for boldly extending the creative purview of Eastern European Jewry’s celebratory secular music, the trumpeter has a long track record of bringing Jewish music into unexpected territory (see the group’s 2006 album “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah”).
London’s new solo album “Ghetto Songs” is his most ambitious project yet, musically and conceptually. While born as a commission to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the creation of Venice’s Jewish ghetto in 1516, the album ranges far afield, with stops in Morocco, South Africa and Poland.
London doesn’t ignore the ghetto’s most dire manifestation: violence. One of the project’s particularly moving pieces is an arrangement of “Retsey” from the Amidah, the central prayer in the Jewish liturgy, by Gershon Sirota. The great Odessa-born cantor, who made a classic recording of the prayer in 1908, perished in the Warsaw Ghetto after refusing to leave his family behind. The album’s April 19 release date intentionally coincides with the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, when Jews fought off Nazi troops seeking to deport the holdouts to death camps.
“The Warsaw Ghetto was the most extreme case,” London said in an interview for J. “But the Venice ghetto was actually an opening,” forcing Jews into one place where they learned to live and create together. “Jews weren’t allowed to spend the night in the city. After centuries of expulsions, it was an opportunity, an accommodation.”
What interests London most is the way that ghettos serve to distill and concentrate cultural expression. He noted that Venice was hardly the first polity to confine a particular population in a designated place, and “Ghetto Songs” draws implicit connections among Brazilian favelas, Native American reservations, Palestinian refugee camps, South African townships and U.S. inner cities.
He recruited a powerhouse cast of vocalists to interpret the disparate material, including tenor Karim Sulayman, winner of a 2019 Grammy Award for best classical solo vocal, and two cantors, Sveta Kundish and Yaakov “Yanky” Lemmer.
Born in Ukraine and now based in Germany (by way of Italy and Israel), Kundish studied Yiddish song with the legendary Nechama Lifshitz, but she’s honed a repertoire that encompasses classical, folk, experimental, traditional and sacred music. A hazzan of the old school, Lemmer is widely considered the greatest of the new generation devoted to the Old World cantorial tradition.
But it’s guitarist Brandon Ross who puts a bow on the project with his soul-steeped, 7½-minute rendition of “The World Is a Ghetto,” the 1972 hit by the L.A.-based Latin soul-rock band War.
What interests London most is the way that ghettos serve to distill and concentrate cultural expression.
For London, whose Jewish identity has served as a passport into a global array of sounds, the eclectic program is the point. “The through line is conceptual,” he said. “Each of these musics emerges from a particular ghetto expression. When you enclose a people in one place, one thing that’s going to happen is their culture gets concentrated.”
The provocative concept wouldn’t register as deeply without the exceptional musicianship of the core sextet: London; Ross; Latvian-born Ilya Shneyveys on accordion, piano and organ; bassist Gregg August; Kenny Wollesen on drums and percussion; and cellist Marika Hughes.
The latter two players spent their formative years in the Bay Area. The Santa Cruz–reared Wollesen helped found the New Klezmer Trio, the pioneering East Bay ensemble that paved the way for the radical Jewish music movement exemplified by John Zorn’s Masada. A ubiquitous presence on the New York scene, he is probably best known for his work in Sexmob, the stylistically omnivorous quartet led by Berkeley-raised slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein.
While Wollesen has contributed to myriad London-led projects, “Ghetto Songs” marks the first time Hughes has collaborated with the trumpeter. Originally slated to perform with the “Ghetto Songs” ensemble that premiered on a European tour, she bowed out to work on Broadway with the hit show “Hadestown.”
The granddaughter of Emanuel Feuermann, a cello giant in the first half of the 20th century, Hughes spent a good part of her New York City childhood kibbitzing with Muppets as a regular on “Sesame Street.” The Juilliard-trained cellist arrived in San Francisco in the mid-90s, and by the end of the decade was an essential part of an experimental string scene far afield from the path prepared by the conservatory.
Coaxed to add vocals to her musical arsenal by the late Jewlia Eisenberg, Hughes could be heard in violinist Carla Kihlstedt’s avant-chamber pop trio 2 Foot Yard, Jeremy Cohen’s jazz-infused Quartet San Francisco, and Eisenberg’s rollicking Balkan-funk combo Charming Hostess. She credits her ability to find spaces for the cello in London’s “Ghetto Songs” arrangements to her formative San Francisco years.
“I feel very lucky to have gotten there and grown there the way I did,” Hughes said. “Recording ‘Ghetto Songs’ goes back to Jewlia and me and Carla. The rite of passage was to be able to play and sing any freaking thing they threw at you. The scope was so massive. To be a string player in the Bay Area was to be challenged in a foundational way.”