King Django – King Django’s Roots and Culture (1998).

I stumbled across this during some Googling of Andy Statman. This is how music can be a mystery tour in this day and age. You find one artist who is interesting and Google them and what they are interested in and unimagined treasures may reveal themselves.

And I’d never imagined a Ska/Klezmer fusion. Never. Not in my wildest dreams.

King Django (not his real name) has made a career in and has a big reputation in Jamaican music. He argues that there are similarities between the Ashkenazi folk music and the precursor of reggae – an off-beat feel and a lyrical bent towards the Old Testament. And he makes it work surprisingly well. This album has way more than superficial novelty value going for it.

The foundation of every track is Jamaican, but the eastern European touches are layered on top in an affectionate, effective and surprisingly natural manner courtesy of Statman on mandolin or clarinet, noted Klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals and King Django himself on melodica and harmonica.

The most striking thing about the album, the most obvious juxtaposition, is the Yiddish lyrics to many of the songs. His sources are multiple: Some songs are his own; some are Jewish folk songs given a new arrangement; and he takes two songs from the British “Two Tone” craze of the early 80s – Madness’s “Night Boat To Cairo” and the Specials “Do Nothing” – and translates the lyrics. But possibly the best songs are the ones with English lyrics: “A Single Thread” is a touching lyric about an old lady missing her long gone husband (a plausible interpretation is that she survived world war II and he did not); “Seven” extols the Jewish Sabbath in witty dub style; and, best of all, “Slaughter” is a hard hitting protest song about the still present dangers of anti-Semitism.

And you know, I don’t learn. I went and bought the re-issue with bonus tracks (it was 9c more!). And, yes, you get extra tracks and they’re interesting AND at least this time they resequenced the album to try to make it flow better rather than just chuck the extra tracks on the end. But after a couple of listens it started to feel not so good an experience, so I googled the original track list and played it in that order without the extras and as a whole it works way better – missing out on the repeated ideas present in the extras and climaxing with the potent “Slaughter”.

But either version goes a lot further and offers more fun and sustained interest than you might imagine from the descriptions: “Ska/Klezmer fusion”, “Ska Mitzvah” and so on.

“Hashem watch over I”, a repeated line from the opening track, seems to sum it all up rather nicely.

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