If Lukas Rande and the other members of the klezmer band Mames Babegenush wanted to share their compositions exclusively with Denmark’s Jewish community, they would have a very limited audience.
“That would be a very small segment of the Danish population, so that would probably be a bad idea marketwise,” said Rande, the band’s saxophonist, during an interview from the group’s home base in Copenhagen. “It’s not a big thing in Denmark, this kind of music, [but] we’ve built up a name in Scandinavia. And it actually appeals to all cultures here in Denmark.”
Klezmer is the traditional folk music of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, with a heavy emphasis on clarinet, strings and horns. It is profoundly upbeat, and thus often performed at weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and other celebrations.
Among Denmark’s few thousand Jewish natives, Mames Babegenush clarinetist Emil Goldschmidt was exposed to klezmer music from a young age. When he was hired to play at a Hanukkah party in the early-2000s, he invited his old friend Rande to join him. “I met Emil when I was 7. All of us are old friends,” Rande said. “That’s the main reason we got started.”
“He was actually the only one in the band with a prior knowledge of this music,” Rande said of Goldschmidt, whose father was also a musician. “He’s been playing klezmer and Eastern European music as long as he’s been playing music.
Along with Goldschmidt and Rande, their group consists of percussionist Morten Ærø, accordion player Nicolai Kornerup, Bo Rande (Lukas’ brother) on flügelhorn and trumpet, and Andreas Møllerhøj on double bass. “Soon after the first show, all of us were super-fascinated by this pure raw energy that I feel klezmer has,” Rande recalled.
Their name, Mames Babegenush, is Yiddish for “mom’s aubergine (or eggplant) salad.” “We chose it very early on,” Rande said. “After one of our first rehearsals, we were hanging out at Emil’s place (and) talking about finding a name. At the same time, Emil’s mom walked in the room with some babegenush.”
“In the days before the Internet really made its impact, we weren’t thinking about names that were easy to Google,” he added.
Because Denmark’s Jewish population is so small — Goldschmidt is only Jewish member of the group — the Scandinavian country had little exposure to klezmer music. Mames Babegenush essentially became the only game in town.
However, Rande said, the joy of their sound translates across cultures in Denmark and wherever the band travels. “We’ve gotten the opportunity to perform in synagogues, and I’ve never met this question about so-called cultural appropriation,” Rande said. “I’m not sure people [would] feel this way [if they] really checked out the roots of this music. I feel we are super-respectful toward [that history] and what we are trying to do with the music, which is [something] new.”
The band composes its own music that melds the Eastern European folk influence of klezmer while also tossing in what Rande calls “more Scandinavian sounds.” They have been rapturously received throughout Europe as well as in New York, where traditional klezmer music melded in the last century with a new form of American music that would come to be called jazz.
And in the ultimate circle of musical life, Rande says Mames Babegenush filters jazz elements back into its own compositions. “I’ve been [working in] a lot of different genres ranging from pop music over to jazz, rock and all sorts of electronic music,” Rande, 35, said of the work he and his bandmates continue to do when not playing with Mames Babegenush. “Some of us do jazz music and some of us do classical music.
“But this band is special. All of us are super into playing new music and discovering new stuff within the group. We’re so thrilled that after 16 years, we are thriving internally.”
The group has played in the U.S. before, but their upcoming tour will take them to new states like California and here to Maryland’s Montgomery County, where they will play at AMP by Strathmore on Wednesday, Aug. 28. Rande said friends in the greater D.C. area will be coming to the show, but they will have little time to sightsee as they will be off to play the next night in East Hampton, New York.
Background, from left, are Emil Goldschmidt, clarinet; Lukas Rande, saxophone; Bo Rande, flügelhorn, Morten Ærø, drums; Andreas Møllerhøj, double bass. In the foreground is accordion player Nicolai Kornerup.
Photo credit: Dennis Lehmann
Rande said the band is excited, given the AMP by Strathmore’s reputation as a jazz venue, which will allow for the more improvisational nature of a Mames Babegenush show. “We do [a lot of] soloing and we have a lot of pretty direct influences from jazz in our way of playing and composing,” Rande said. “That’s a good thing to mention to the typical AMP audience.”
The musician noted that there is hardly a “typical” Mames Babegenush show, but what is consistent from night to night is the energy they bring to the stage and the unique nature of each performance. Much like jazz, no two sets are ever precisely the same.
“The music contains a lot of manic, celebratory vibes, and also some gloomy stuff,” Rande said. “The main thing is that we are a live band. Even though I think we’ve done some good albums, really a lot of it only exists in the room we’re playing — between us and an audience.
“For me, it’s always been this instant, raw impact that the music has on all audiences,” Rande said. “I guess we’re lucky in that we play instrumental music, so [we can] direct the music toward all cultures and all age groups.”
AMP by Strathmore presents “AMP: Mames Babegenush” at 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 28 at AMP by Strathmore, 11810 Grand Park Ave., North Bethesda. For tickets — $26 to $46 — visit www.ampbystrathmore.com or call 301-581-5100.