Mazel Tov Cocktail Party: Take an ounce of hip hop, dash of polka, then square dance
Clarinetist David Krakauer and pianist Kathleen Tagg were thrilled when they were invited to a chamber music retreat in rural upstate New York during the early months of the pandemic. It was an opportunity to flee their cramped Manhattan apartment and live for two weeks on a farm in the Adirondack Mountains near the Canadian border.
The couple arrived in early June 2020 but ended up staying three months, prompting their host Angela Brown to jokingly refer to them as "the squatters." Brown is the director of Hill and Hollow Music and, it turns out, an avid folk dancer. Little did she know that by introducing Krakauer and Tagg to the local folk dance scene, she had a major influence on their new musical project, pointing it in an unexpected direction.
"One of the things that I was missing and that I complained about was that the dances had all been canceled," Brown recalled. "I think they were kind of fascinated that a thriving dance culture exists here in the Adirondacks."
"When we were up in the north country in that atmosphere the seeds got planted in our head," said Krakauer. "This is very interesting. There is this little doorway here."
Brown does English Country Dancing to hornpipe, which is both a dance and music form that originated in the British Isles and dates back to the 16th Century. She played CDs of hornpipe music for Krakauer and Tagg.
During their stay in the north country, Krakauer and Tagg started writing music based on recognizable dance forms, including a square dance, a polka, a Jewish hora, a calypso and, of course, hornpipe. That music comprises the debut album of Mazel Tov Cocktail Party, their new band. It's his hope, Krakauer said, that the music itself conveys the need for "empathy and a deeper understanding of the other."
Tagg describes Mazel Tov Cocktail Party as a very diverse band, and she and Krakauer "invite people to come as they are."
"We're not asking them to be something they're not," she said. "We're not going to try and make a square dance that sounds like we are inside a square dance ourselves because we're not."
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The standout track on the new album is "North Country Square Dance," whose lyrics are rapped and manage to sound like instructions for an actual square dance. Much of the music video is old black and white archival film of people clogging.
"We hope that people will grab that track and make up some new square dances," said Krakauer, who is considered a virtuoso in klezmer, jazz and classical music.
He first burst onto the klezmer scene as a member of the Grammy Award-winning band The Klezmatics. His former bandmate Frank London, who has combined klezmer with numerous forms of world music, considers Krakauer one of the greatest clarinet players on the planet.
"When you hear David, you know it's him pretty quickly," London told NPR.
Mazel Tov Cocktail Party is reminiscent of another multi-racial band Krakauer founded, Abraham, Inc., which mixes klezmer, funk and hip-hop. Mazel Tov Cocktail Party's bassist, Jerome Harris, has performed with Abraham, Inc., as has its vocalist, Sarah MK, a Black French-Canadian soul singer and rapper. She wrote the lyrics for the band's c alypso track, an homage to Harry Belafonte. In addition to Krakauer and Tagg, the band includes percussionist Martin Shamoonpour, an Iranian immigrant, and Yoshie Fruchter, an Orthodox Jew who plays a mean funk guitar.
Krakauer's klezmer-infused clarinet playing is the musical thread that runs through these dance-inspired tunes. Combining klezmer with other ethnic dance music has a long history, says London of The Klezmatics.
"Klezmer musicians have always played a mixture of so-called Jewish particular dances like the bulgar or the sher, and co-territorial dances, the polka-mazurkas and waltzes and all these other dances of our neighbors. That's part of the tradition," London said.
After several months of working remotely, the band members met one another in the flesh and performed together for the first time in the Adirondacks last summer. Harris was eager to rehearse with Shamoonpour, who plays a Middle Eastern frame drum known as a daf.
"As a rhythm section player, you want to get a feel for your rhythm section colleagues and you do that by playing together and hearing how each of you is approaching the music and responding to each other," Harris explained. "When we finally all got together, it was really quite a rich musical homecoming."
The first performance took place at a marina parking lot in Plattsburgh, NY with much of the audience in their cars. The following day the band played at Hill and Hollow Music's farm, where Angela Brown reports, "Even the chickens were dancing!"
In late March the band's New York City debut took place in a boxing gym a day before leaving on its European tour. The band gelled in Europe, according to Tagg, where it played large auditoriums as well as small clubs. Audiences were up on their feet and dancing "from the first note," said Tagg.
The band returns to Europe for a second tour in August.
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