Klezbos songstresses enchant and intrigue

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Klezbos songstresses enchant and intrigue

The Isle of Klezbos band sings Yiddish tunes with ironic and political intent

by Mayukh Sen on Friday, May 18, 2012 - 7:45am

Isle of Klesbos bandThe band, Isle of Klezbos, may or may not be composed entirely of lesbians – they merely hint that this is true without saying anything explicitly. This playful sense of ambiguity helps define the group as artists. An enchanting and soulful klezmer sextet, the group presents modernized takes on Yiddish songs with the occasional nod to pieces of American pop culture. The group, who performed at Stanford Hillel’s Kopa Cafe to a modest but genuinely enthusiastic crowd, has been performing traditional Yiddish folk songs since 1998.

Klezmer, a genre of music that has its roots amongst the Jews of 19th century Eastern Europe, typically occupies the realm of current-day bar-mitzvah celebrations. Isle of Klezbos gives its often entrancing tonalities cadence and charge that aim to sound modern. The gleeful lightness with which the musicians approach these songs bridges these thematically disparate genres.

The group’s artistic philosophy seeks to preserve tradition – tradition in historical, cultural, and social senses – while acknowledging its flexibility and fluidity. Together, the members of the group present these subversive takes on songs with a relaxed, lounge-like intimacy. Infusing the klezmer pieces with Latin jazz and tango rhythms universalizes them. These stylistic flourishes give these songs more quirky, offbeat appeal.

A playful spin on traditional folk songs

Klezmer band Many of the group’s performances illuminate queer subtexts of these folk songs. Take, for example, “Goldene Khasene,” which translates directly as “Golden Wedding” – this song is a traditional Yiddish folk number about the bride’s transition to adulthood. Isle prefaces their performance of the song by questioning the bride’s sexuality, throwing the historic conception of the song into flux. The listener is invited to ask, “What are these lyrics supposedly detailing the bride’s happiness regarding her marriage really about?”  Through methods such as these, the group questions how history has depicted Yiddish femininity. Similar to Barbara Streisand’s 1983 gender-bender Yentl, Isle of Klezbos’ cover versions of these songs blur the lines between what was once perceived as a neatly-pronounced difference between masculinity and femininity. 

Isle of Klezbos interrupts these Yiddish stylings with the occasional dip into pockets of American pop culture – one of their most popular songs of the night was a cover of Billie Holiday’s “Comes Love.” In keeping with their irreverent style, Isle of Klezbos injects a gleeful play into the song’s dark overtones. The lyrics about a woman warning that, when in love, “nothing can be done” are offset by the group’s merry and joyous approach. The performance opens Holiday’s song to new meanings and interpretations.

Singing as a politicized act

It may be tempting to reduce Isle of Klezbos’ musical activity to the pleasantly lightweight and to question whether their work has political heft to subvert longstanding historical paradigms. That said, the group’s members, and bandleader Eve Sicular in particular, insist that their work is inherently politicized. They seek to question longstanding, culturally-defined sexual paradigms. The manner in which Isle of Klezbos goes about communicating its political message is subtle. They cloak their questioning of the state of femininity beneath a seemingly benign veneer of gaiety.


Isle of Klezbos is the brainchild of part-time film historian Eve Sicular, who serves as the group’s bandleader and drummer. She is joined by trumpeter Pam Fleming, clarinetist-saxophonist Debra Kreisberg, bassist Saskia Lane, and accordionist-pianist Shoko Nagai. The group’s vocalist is Melissa Fogarty. The band was hosted by Hillel at Stanford as part of the Ms. at 40 and the Future of Feminism Winter Quarter Symposium.

Author Mayukh Sen is a sophomore at Stanford majoring in History (History, Literature, and the Arts track) with a minor in Science, Technology, and Society.  He is also a member of the Clayman Institute's student writing team.